Just five months ago at Christie’s New York, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was sold for $450.3 million, after a 19-minute bidding war between two then-mysterious phone bidders added considerable mystique to the sale’s still-expanding (if somewhat questionable) mythology. But if we look further in the world, specifically if we look to the east, it turns out that there are many other crazy enough to desire even more prolonged bidding battle: Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which has now recently hosted two bidding wars in three years that were more than double the length of the Salvator Mundi marathon.
The more recent one took place last Tuesday, in a special single-lot sale titled “A Rediscovered Imperial Heirloom.” The featured work was Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan, was described as “the greatest masterpiece” of 18th-century court painter Qian Weicheng. The artist rendered 10 vistas of Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang province, where he traveled with the Qianlong Emperor on a mission to inspect the territory. The scroll also doubles as a collaboration between the two men, as each of this ink-and-color illustrations is paired with a poem by the emperor himself.
Once housed inside the Forbidden City, Ten Auspicious Landscapes had never appeared at auction before. Its royal pedigree, combined with Qian’s virtuosity and the emperor himself contribution, drove collectors into a heated battle that drew more than 100 bids and lasted a staggering 40 minutes. When the hammer finally fell, the work’s final price came in at $18.7 million (including the buyer’s premium), more than double its roughly $8.9 million high estimate.
Yet even this prolonged competition was not the longest ever registered by Sotheby’s: In April 2016, the house offered Zhang Daqian’s hanging scroll Peach Blossom Spring (1982) at a high estimate of $8.3 million, as an other rare piece never seen at auction in nearly 20 years. It also boasted a rich exhibition history in both Asia and the US, with appearances at Taipei’s National Museum of History, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Like Ten Auspicious Landscapes, Zhang’s lusted-after landscape eventually inspired more than 100 individual bids. The buyer, the Long Museum in Shanghai, only vanquished its commercial rivals after the competition stretched to 50 minutes. The result? A premium-inclusive price of $34.7 million, according to Sotheby’s. That’s more than four times the high estimate, and a new world auction record for Zhang that still stands today, according to the artnet Price Database.
So Hong Kong confirms itself as a burning market with very big collectors willing to spend crazy many zero figures. Just looking to this spring’s slate of auctions at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, it generated a grand total of $466.5 million in sales total, across all categories, with a solid 89 percent sell-through rate.
However, it seems that also there all that glitters is not always gold: although these two fierce Hong Kong bidding wars and remarkable data speaking to Asian buyers’ ample wealth and growing passion for art, non-payment remains a major problem in mainland China. According to a study released last year by artnet and China Association of Auctioneers, only 51 percent of buyers actually paid for the work they purchased in 2016.)