• Issue
  • Nov 01, 2021

Auction Report: Rare Goods

LARVA LABS, CryptoPunk 8191, 9997, and 8770, all 2017, 24 × 24 pixels. Courtesy Christie’s Images Limited 2021. 

Sales in New York and Hong Kong saw big spending on masterworks, especially those appearing at auction for the first time. Meanwhile, prices for trendy crypto-art continue to soar.


Christie’s annual live sale of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in New York (September 22) moved 74 lots for a USD 7.83 million haul, with multiple new-to-auction pieces far outstripping their estimates. Among them, Jehangir Sabavala’s USD 1.59 million The Embarkation (1965), a meter-high oil canvas of four robed figures waiting on shore, more than tripled the USD 500,000 high estimate. The square-format Untitled (Tree in a Walled Garden) (c. 1967) by Bhupen Khakhar— whose distinctive, bright-hued paintings have gained market traction in recent years—sold for USD 990,000 against estimates of USD 350,000– 500,000. The Nobel-winning cultural luminary Rabindranath Tagore was represented by his moody, mixed-media Untitled (Couple) (c. early 1930s), which more than tripled the USD 180,000 high estimate to fetch USD 637,500. Revered modernist Tyeb Mehta’s russet oil-on-board Figure (1961) was purchased for USD 400,000, above a USD 300,000 high estimate. The ever-popular MF Husain had eight works on the block; his monumental Untitled (Gujarat) (c. 2000s), a vivid acrylic rendering of dancers, a royal couple, and other figures, made USD 375,000 against a USD 200,000 high estimate, although the more tonally somber Earth (Autobiography Series) (c. 1990s), portraying his deceased grandfather and mother, fell short of its USD 120,000 high estimate to sell for USD 106,250. Revered but less conspicuous at auction, Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Anwar Jalal Shemza both outdid expectations: the former’s fresh-to-market watercolor Krishna Instructing Arjuna (c. 1930s) and the latter’s intricate oil-on-board City Wall (1960) respectively achieved USD 250,000 and USD 231,250, several times their USD 50,000 high estimate.


Billed as the “first NFT art auction in Asia,” Christie’s Hong Kong’s No Time Like Present online sale (September 17–28) offered 14 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) along with timepieces, collectibles, and two George Condo works. Larva Labs made a splash at the sale with their NFT CryptoPunks: unique, algorithmically generated characters with varying attributes, some rarer than others. The sale was led by CryptoPunk 9997 (2017), an image of a pixelated zombie that quintupled its USD 873,200 high estimate to score USD 4.35 million. CryptoPunk 8191 and 8770 (both 2017), of eccentric bearded figures, were snapped up for USD 1.14 million apiece, against their high estimate of USD 308,170. However, the auction record for a single CryptoPunk is still held by the USD 11.8 million “Covid Alien” CryptoPunk 7523 (2017) acquired at Sotheby’s New York in June. Christie’s online sale also found a buyer for Yuga Labs’s USD 1.23 million NFT of a suit-wearing ape with cheetah-patterned fur, Bored Ape Yacht Club #8746 (2021), estimates unknown. The most expensive non-NFT work, Condo’s large-scale oil canvas Nun and Priest (2007), surpassed its USD 2.31 million high estimate to attain USD 2.65 million.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong hosted Machine Hallucinations — Space: Metaverse (September 30–October 4), an online sale of media artist Refik Anadol’s newly minted NFT collection, which was exhibited on-site at Digital Art Fair Asia (October 1–22) in Hong Kong. All eight custom AI-generated works sold for a record haul of USD 5.05 million, making this the most expensive NFT collection by a single artist transacted in Asia to date.

VINCENT VAN GOGH, Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls, 1886, oil on canvas, 51.2 × 38.8 cm. Courtesy Sotheby’s Hong Kong. 


Sotheby’s marquee series (October 7–13) saw robust sales of modern and contemporary art, with buyers splurging on works by famed Western artists. The 44-lot Modern Art Evening Sale brought in USD 75.6 million, and was led by Pablo Picasso’s USD 24.6 million portrait Femme Accroupie (1954), which made its auction debut at the event carrying estimates of USD 19.2–29.6 million. Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls (1886), the first work by Vincent van Gogh to be auctioned in Asia, was purchased for USD 9.12 million, below a high estimate of USD 12.8 million. Georges Mathieu’s six-meter-wide canvas Tuz Gölü (1978) went for USD 2.35 million, just above a USD 2.31 million high estimate.

While Sino-French modernists continue to win premium prices, some of their works fell short of expectations. Sanyu’s oil-on-masonite Nu endormi (c. 1950s), bearing the artist’s popular motif of the reclining female nude, raised USD 10.3 million, below estimates of USD 12.8–19.3 million. Previously at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Sanyu’s Nu (c. 1950–1960s) was acquired for USD 21.8 million in 2020, while another solo nude of the same title (1965) hammered at USD 25.3 million in 2019. At Sotheby’s latest sale, Chu Teh-Chun’s ruby-colored abstraction Sans titre (1968– 70) missed its USD 6.43 million high estimate to fetch USD 4.69 million. Zao Wou-ki’s abstract waterscape 22.01.68 (1968) eked past its USD 3.6 million high estimate by around USD 643, while the similarly hued 30.09.65 (1965) and green, vertical composition 14.12.62 (1962), carrying respective high estimates of USD 12.85 million and USD 11.3 million, went unsold.

Achieving USD 75.4 million over 31 sold lots, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale was headlined by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mixed-media piece Untitled (Red Warrior) (1982). The lot hammered at USD 20.9 million, below its USD 25.7 million high estimate. Yoshitomo Nara’s large-format, acrylic portrait of a child holding two sprouts, Under the Hazy Sky (2012), was purchased for USD 8.83 million, below a high estimate of USD 9.64 million. The Death of Charles Darwin (2013) by painter Adrian Ghenie hammered at USD 7.06 million, shy of its USD 7.71 million high estimate.

American modern luminaries fared well. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book-style Reflections: Mystical Painting (1989) surpassed a USD 5.78 million high estimate to fetch USD 6.17 million. Joan Mitchell’s colorful Untitled (1967) abstract expressionist painting was snapped up for USD 8.39 million, above a USD 7.71 million high estimate. Measuring two meters high, the work was last acquired for USD 477,900 at Christie’s New York in 2004. Also offered at Sotheby’s contemporary sale was Robert Motherwell’s monumental Red, Cut By Black (1966–67), bought for USD 1.89 million against a USD 2.06 million high estimate. Notwithstanding the latest seven-figure price tag, Motherwell’s canvas has depreciated since its USD 2.69 million transaction at Sotheby’s New York in 2014.

Works by acclaimed women painters saw fierce bidding. Cecily Brown’s oil-on-linen gestural abstraction Unfurl the Flag (2013) outstripped its USD 2.06 high estimate to achieve USD 3.29 million. Rising auction star Loie Hollowell’s biomorphic Portrait of a Woman with Green Hair (2015) nearly tripled a USD 360,000 high estimate to fetch USD 1.03 million, which will benefit the Massachusetts-based Long Meadow Art Residency. Christine Ay Tjoe’s USD 1.08 million oil canvas First Type of Stairs (2010) sold in excess of its USD 707,000 high estimate.

Sotheby’s 215- lot Fine Chinese Paintings sale raked in USD 56.8 million. Category stalwart Zhang Daqian led the sale with his USD 27.6 million splashed-ink Mist at Dawn (1968), from the MK Lau collection; estimates undisclosed. Two of Zhang’s smaller 1952 ink-and-color paintings soared above estimates: “Palace Crimson” Peony and “Buddhahead Blue” Peony went for USD 1.73 million apiece, against respective high estimates of USD 643,000 and USD 514,000. Master painter Xu Beihong’s hanging scroll Ancient Cedar Trees (1934) sold for USD 2.36 million, exceeding the USD 1.93 million high estimate. Galloping Horse (1939), depicting Xu’s best- known motif, outstripped a USD 771,000 high estimate to fetch USD 925,000. Wu Guanzhong’s Ancient Cypresses of the Han Dynasty (1988), rendered in virtuosic black strokes and splatters of color, sold for USD 1.58 million, below the USD 1.93 million high estimate. Pu Ru’s set of Calligraphy Couplets on Twelve Months (1942) in ink on gold- flecked paper hammered at USD 1.25 million, surpassing a USD 643,000 high estimate. Lin Fengmian’s USD 1.24 million The Monkey King (date unknown), also from the MK Lau collection, doubled its USD 617,000 high estimate.

The recent sales prove that discerning buyers have their eyes on outstanding lots, from rare masterpieces to fashionable NFTs and works by rising stars.

*All prices include buyer’s premium.