Rich spend millions on art as Hong Kong protests rage nearby

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YOSHITOMO NARA’s Knife Behind Back, signed, titled and dated 2000 on the reverse, acrylic on canvas, 234 by 208 cm.

AS VIOLENCE escalated in Hong Kong over the weekend with protesters starting fires and throwing petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, a roomful of Asia’s elite gathered to bid on art and wine.

The venue was the city’s convention center near where the protests took place, part of Sotheby’s five-day marathon, which continues through Tuesday. The sales include 20 live auctions and targets more than $336 million.

The highlight of Sunday’s contemporary art auction was a new world record for Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose painting of a cute but menacing cartoon girl — Knife Behind Back — sold for $24.9 million.

The jewels, wines, watches and fine art on offer this week — as well as the eye-watering prices — represented a jarring contrast to the events in the streets.

Video footage showed a bloodied taxi driver who was dragged out of his car and stomped by a group of protesters after the vehicle hit some of them. On Friday, a 14-year-old boy was shot and injured — the second such incidence of the week — during a scuffle between a plain-clothes police officer and demonstrators who had attacked his car.

The protests followed warnings from opposition leaders that Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to invoke a colonial-era emergency law banning protesters from wearing face masks would only make matters worse.

Back at the auction, the Nara painting drew six bidders and sold in 10 minutes at a price that was five times the artist’s auction record, according to Sotheby’s. The seven-foot by seven-foot canvas was completed in 2000, when Nara returned to Japan after 12 years in Germany.

On Saturday, Sotheby’s sold a canvas by Chinese émigré artist Sanyu for $25.2 million, with four bidders pushing the painting of a nude female above its $19 million target. In the same sale, Zao Wou-Ki’s 21.04.59 sold for $13.3 million. — Bloomberg