A lex Branczik has been pivotal in the remarkable rise of Asia’s contemporary art market over the past 15 years. With Sotheby’s in 2006, he was the first to bring Chinese contemporary art to a marquee London Evening Sale; in Hong Kong in 2013, he executed the winning bid on a milestone record for work by a Chinese contemporary artist; and in 2021, he was appointed Sotheby’s Chairman, Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia.
Joining Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department in 2004, Branczik became Head of Contemporary Art, London in 2012 and Europe in 2016. He has been behind numerous landmark results at auction, not least the 2020 sale of Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus from the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo which sold for US$84.6 million in New York.
A longstanding passion for Chinese contemporary art, and the development of its market both locally and globally, means Hong Kong has been a home away from home for Branczik for well over a decade. Now, he’s making the permanent move to the city as the strategic leader for Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Art in Asia. Ahead of Hong Kong’s autumn sale season, Branczik discusses some of his earliest memories of the city’s art scene, his vision for the future, and why there’s never been a better time to buy Chinese contemporary art.
You have been travelling to Hong Kong for Sotheby’s sales since the mid-2000s, what memories do you have of that time?
As a young specialist, I first came to Hong Kong along with a group of collectors from London who had started expressing an interest in Chinese contemporary art. At that time, there was a very nascent interest in the West in early contemporary art from China – but there was a feeling that something exciting was happening.
In 2006, we offered Chinese contemporary art in an evening sale for the first time in London, and then, from around 2007, there was an inexorable rise in interest and prices for the likes of Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Ye, and many others.
It was undoubtedly a global market, but in Hong Kong there was always a fertile cross-pollination of collectors from the rest of Asia – everybody would fly in for the auction week from the mainland, from Southeast Asia, from Taiwan and Japan.
Could you talk a little about the milestone sale of Zeng Fanzhi’s 2001 painting The Last Supper, which sold for US$23.3 million (HK$180.4 million), then a record price for any work by a Chinese contemporary artist?
It was our 40th anniversary sale in Asia and the anticipation ahead of the sale of The Last Supper was palpable. I’d arranged to take the bid over the phone for the collector, who wanted to remain anonymous but also wanted to attend the auction and soak up the atmosphere. When the lot came up, the client stepped out of the room to discreetly take the call on their mobile – but the line didn’t work! With the collector now at the back of a room heaving with people and cameras, I had to casually glance over to take covert signals and then relay the bids to the auctioneer. There was a determined bidding war, lasting around 10 minutes; it was exciting, my heart was racing, it’s one of those moments you don't want to get wrong.
The Last Supper was consigned by Myriam and Guy Ullens, who are among the foremost early collectors of Chinese contemporary art. This autumn, Sotheby’s is offering a collection assembled by another pioneering collector of Chinese art (New Wave Beyond Yuanmingyuan: An Important European Private Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art), could you talk a little about this?
This collection was put together by somebody who was very close to the pioneering artists of the 1980s and 1990s, and in many instances acquired the works directly from them. It encapsulates a definitive moment not just in art history, but also in the history of China as a whole.
I believe that great art is produced at times of seismic shifts, whether that be social, political or economic. For many of the artists working in China in the 1980s, just to become an avant-garde artist was an act of defiance in itself. It certainly wasn’t an easy choice to become an artist.
Here in Hong Kong, M+ is currently staging a major survey of this first generation of Chinese contemporary artists. In our sale, you will find the same artists, with important works that are central to the key movements, several of which have been included in the most important early survey exhibitions, like China/Avant Garde at the National Art Museum of China in 1989. It’s an amazing opportunity to acquire historically important pieces at an accessible price point – there's never been a better time to buy this generation of Chinese artists.
Have there been any changes in the character of the sales over the past decade?
One of the most exciting aspects of the modern and contemporary art market here is the increasing dialogue between East and West. In our last sale season in Hong Kong, for example, we saw Louise Bourgeois’ Spider IV become the most valuable sculpture ever sold in Asia; Picasso’s Dora Maar sell to a Japanese collector; and exceptional results for Yoshimoto Nara and Yayoi Kusama. At the same time, the younger generation – artists such as Cheng Xinyi, En Iwamura and Louise Bonnet – attracted a great deal of interest, particularly from Gen Z and millennial collectors.
We will continue to build on this dialogue and increase the diversity of the works we bring to Hong Kong; presenting true masterpieces each season alongside the most exciting emerging names.
What are the highlights we should be looking out for this season?
The cover lot of our Contemporary Evening Auction is a powerful 1990 abstract painting by Gerhard Richter. It’s important to me that the Western Art that we bring to Hong Kong is best in class. Richter’s Abstractes Bild was last sold over a decade ago as the cover lot of our London Evening Sale and it has remained in an Asian private collection ever since. I ran that sale, and at the time, it set the third highest price for an abstract painting by Richter; so it feels apposite to see this spectacular painting be the highlight here in Hong Kong.
Aside from the Richter, we are excited to bring the most significant Peter Doig painting ever to appear at auction in Asia, as well as a remarkable work by Bridget Riley, one of Britain’s leading abstract artists. The painting belongs to a series she produced inspired by her travels to Egypt in the winter of 1979 to 1980.
Following a turbulent few years during the pandemic, what is your outlook for Hong Kong as an art market hub?
I'm incredibly optimistic about the market in Asia and Hong Kong’s place as a global platform. Despite the challenges of the pandemic we continue to see growth and I expect a bounce now that quarantine has been lifted. There are, of course, the traditional tax and regulatory advantages, and its connections with the mainland, but first and foremost it’s a vibrant city and people love coming here. The city already had a thriving arts ecosystem, and this had been further bolstered by the recent opening of M+ and the Hong Kong Palace Museum in West Kowloon.
It's not just Hong Kong; there’s tremendous energy across region. Last month, Frieze came to Seoul for first time, while next year there will be major new fairs for Tokyo and Singapore, the latter of which we’ve just staged our first sale in the city-state in 15 years to great success. It’s an exciting moment for the whole region.
Could you talk a little about your plans in your role as Chairman, Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia?
In the wake of the pandemic, I feel that we’ve all become too reliant on digital technology at times – it saved us when we needed it but it should not become the default. I want to get back to looking at art, talking about art in front of the objects with our clients. Nothing can replace the experience of standing in front of a masterpiece by Richter or Sanyu and I encourage everyone to come and view the autumn preview in person.
Despite 18 years with Sotheby’s, in many ways I feel like the new boy in class and I have a lot to learn from my colleagues in Asia who have led the market here for so many years. In return I hope to share what I have learned over the years in Europe, both in terms of expertise and leadership. One of my principal aims is to foster greater connectivity between Hong Kong and the rest of our business globally, to grow our own local specialists and to better serve our clients. It’s important to me that we achieve success and that we have fun along the way – we've always done our best by enjoying what we do.
Finally, as a new Hong Konger, do you have any tips for first time visitors to the city for the sales this month?
With its easy access to nature, the city has so much to offer outside of Central and Wan Chai. It's only a short taxi ride away and you can be on the beach or hiking a trail, a perfect tonic for the jet lag. Many visitors would be surprised by what the other side of Hong Kong has to offer. To anyone flying in for the sales, pack some running shoes and hit the trails.