in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

On the Ground in Hong Kong

Fair sales, a KAWS for concern and Asian market analysis

David Zwirner prominently displayed Carol Bove's sculptures at its Art Basel Hong Kong booth. © Art Basel

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Analysis

Despite concerns that this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong might be weaker than last, given the slowdown in China and trade war with the US, there was strength in the broadening of the collector base across other parts of Asia. Success nonetheless felt arrhythmic in the pace and pattern of sales, suggesting that the market here is still finding its cadence.

While 2018 had felt like a sea-change in terms of the market’s maturity and the positioning of the fair, anticipation was tempered this time around. Much of the weight of expectation for the art market’s future growth is pinned on mainland China, since this is where wealth is concentrated: already, five of the ten largest companies in the world are situated in China, whose economy is predicted to surpass the US by next year and double its GDP by 2030 ($64.2trn vs $31trn), according to a recent report by Standard Chartered.

It is true that China’s economy has encountered new downward pressure

Yet dealers were anxious about the capriciousness of the market, which is currently contracting. Two weeks before the fair opened, the high-ranking government official Premier Li Keqiang gave the clearest public acknowledgement of the situation when he said: “It is true that China’s economy has encountered new downward pressure”, adding that “strong measures” needed to be taken in order to “cope” with it.

There were fewer mainland buyers in evidence this year, and those who attended were less active. Nonetheless, there was still movement, particularly towards the final days of the fair. “By the weekend we had more of our mainland clients come by the booth, several of whom acquired works from the stand,” says Jeffrey Rowledge, director of New York gallery Greene Naftali, which had made sales including drawings from Paul Chan’s “Sade for Sade Sake” (ranging from $15,000 to $35,000), a 2009 silver painting by Jacqueline Humphries ($375,000), and a 2019 work by Peter Halley ($175,000). “All of the clients from the mainland were people who we have done business with before, and have developed deeper relationships with since joining the fair in 2012.”

Lisson Gallery sold Carmen Herrera’s Estructura Amarilla (1966/2016) to a private Asian-American collector for $450,000. Carmen Herrera, Estructura Amarilla (1966/2016). Courtesy Lisson Gallery. © Carmen Herrera

There are still obstacles hindering business with China. “We have some very good clients in mainland China who just can’t get their money out”, says Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of London and Venice gallery Victoria Miro. A few days into the fair, the gallery had made sales to collectors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines, he says, adding: “The market here is becoming broader and broader. Now, mainland China barely factors into it for us.”

This geographic expansion was a theme of the fair. “Every year it opens up more. It is certainly feeling more mature,” says José Kuri, co-founder of Kurimanzutto, which has a gallery in Mexico City and project space in New York and which had sold works to institutions and private foundations across Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore by the second day of the fair.

Peter Halley was an artist who sold well at the fair. Two of his works sold from Modern Art gallery for around $150,000 each. Peter Halley, Wonderland, (2019). Courtesy the artist & Modern Art, London. © Peter Halley

Indeed, Hong Kong is an amenable business hub for the wider region, and there are several Asian countries are on the rise: the Standard Chartered report predicts that four Asian countries will be in the top ten largest economies by 2030 (five, if you count Turkey). Indonesia, for example, is predicted to triple its GDP to $10.1trn, with Jakarta becoming the world’s largest mega-city.

The fair organizers have seized on the potential of this audience and their efforts are proving fruitful. Since Art Basel acquired a majority stake of the event (then named Art HK) in 2011 through parent company the MCH Group, the team has steadily worked to expand the audience beyond the ex-pats and Hong Kong Chinese who were the main client base when the fair opened under its original ownership in 2008. Now, it attracts collectors from Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and, of course, Hong Kong and mainland China—all to varying degrees—as the number of museums and private collections throughout the hemisphere rapidly increases (for a guide to the most interesting institutions in Asia click here). Equally, Basel has managed to attract more American and European collectors to Asia now, too.

For these reasons, Art Basel Hong Kong represents more than one week at yet another art fair for most dealers: it is part of a serious investment of energy and resources over the long haul. “We’ve been doing the fair since it started, and it wasn’t exactly successful for several years,” says Alex Logsdail, executive director of Lisson Gallery which last month opened a branch in Shanghai, in addition to its London and New York spaces. “We took the view that this is a long-term prospect and that there are going to be market changes in how Asia engages with the art world. You’re seeing that now,” he says. “We opened in Shanghai because we have had a large number of museum shows in mainland China and across Asia—and there are more happening now. There is such potential and it feels like it is maturing.” Sales at Lisson included Carmen Herrera’s Estructura Amarilla (1966/2016) which sold to a private Asian-American collector for $450,000 and Stanley Whitney’s The Last Cowboy Song (2019), which sold for $165,000 to the Thai private foundation CAC Art.

Lehmann Maupin—which has galleries in New York, Hong Kong and Seoul—sold out its booth to clients from Malaysia, China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and America on day one, says gallery co-founder David Maupin—especially work by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh, whose exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C, was the most popular contemporary art exhibition in the world last year.

You’re seeing market changes in how Asia engages with the art world

Meanwhile, David Zwirner—which has five galleries across New York, London and Hong Kong—benefitted from “having a team on the ground to connect the gallery’s artists with the audience at the right moment”, says Leo Xu, director of the Hong Kong gallery, which was showing work by Neo Rauch (most of which sold to local collectors). Most of Zwirner’s fair sales took place on the first day, Xu says, including a painting by Alice Neel ($1.7m), a painting by Marlene Dumas ($850,000) and four sculptures by Carol Bove, notably two new large-scale painted stainless steel sculptures ($500,000) which were placed front and center of the booth by way of introducing the Asian audience to the artist’s work ahead of a solo exhibition in the Hong Kong gallery this autumn. “Sales were very strong. Collectors seemed deliberate—and committed quickly to works in which they had expressed advance interest,” Xu says. 

A 2006 painting by Yoshitomo Nara sold from Pace for $650,000. Yoshitomo Nara, How Yer Doing? Stayin’ True to You? (2006).
Photo by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Gallery

Pace Gallery—which has galleries in New York, London, Seoul, Beijing, Hong Kong, Palo Alto and Geneva—sold works including a Kiki Smith sculpture for $25,000, a 2006 painting by Yoshitomo Nara for $650,000, a 2018 painting by Lee Ufan for $300,000 and works by Yin Xiuzhen, a Chinese artist whose work will be included in the 58th Venice Biennale this year, for $46,000 and $22,000. Meanwhile, the gallery’s Hong Kong show of works by American artist Mary Corse at the H Queen’s complex had sold out.

The transformation in tastes has been “remarkable”, says gallerist Fergus McCaffrey, who has bases in New York, St. Barth and Tokyo, and who has been taking part in the fair for eight years. “It does take time to establish roots in Asian markets—and there are many different markets—but there is energy in Asia that is unparalleled by most other art fairs in the world,” he says. The gallery made sales every day of the fair, bar Sunday, with particular interest in three Gutai artists Kazuo ShiragaToshio Yoshida and Sadamasa Motonaga—with eight paintings by the latter selling for prices between $60,000 and $650,000.

The pace of sales felt a little mercurial. Some dealers were eager to report super early sales: before disembarking the plane, two New York gallerists mentioned their impressive presales. They weren’t alone: before opening day the London gallery Modern Art had sold enough works to cover its costs, including two Peter Halley works at around $150,000 each (one to Hong Kong and one to the Middle East) and four works by Josh Kline, priced at $50,000. Yet business during the fair was slower, says gallery owner Stuart Shave.

Patience was in order for dealers on the third floor of the fair, especially those selling more historic works. “Many of us noticed that business seemed to pick up on the second day of the fair—perhaps because many collectors had spent the first day on the first floor,” says Ermanno Rivetti of Tornabuoni, which has six galleries across France, Italy and England. With 242 exhibitors spread across two floors, the traffic seemed to flow more quickly towards the contemporary dealers, particularly the bigger brand names.

We could sell $20m of art here, or nothing at all

For Modern dealers, “the pace was quite measured, but sales actually picked up later on because some collectors were taking their time to consider their buys,” Rivetti says. Tornabuoni’s sales included work by Piero Dorazio (E600,000), Agostino Bonalumi (E150,000), two works by Alberto Biasi ($140,000) and a Pablo Atchugarry ($160,000). 

Meanwhile, two other major secondary-market dealers joked about the “Hong Kong miracle”—waiting for the surprise sale that can happen at this Asian fair. “None of us ever know what to expect,” one said off-record while another added: “We could sell $20m of art here, or nothing at all.”

Erwin Wurm’s interactive Untitled (Austrian mountain cap) (2019) proved popular with selfie-seekers at Lehmann Maupin’s booth . © Art Basel

Overall, the spending was at lower price points than that: “Collectors will spend up to around $1m on the spot; sales higher than that generally take longer to conclude, which is quite normal,” says Michael Findlay, director of New York’s Aquavella Gallery. Noting an increase in collectors and dealers from Japan, Korea and Indonesia, Findlay also remarked on a broadening of taste: “We expected Hockney and Basquiat would be crowd-pleasers but found that Balthus and Bacon were equally appreciated, as well as Wayne Thiebaud.” 

The diversity of buyer behavior and demand was evident in the auctions. Sotheby’s realized the second highest total in the company’s history at its Hong Kong Spring Sales, which surpassed estimates to reach HK$3.8bn/$482m (est. HK$2.3bn-$3.4bn/$300m-$428m). Its contemporary auction was the highest ever total staged in Asia; a combined HK$802m/$102m (est. HK$385m-$579m/$49m-$73.5m) including the record-breaking 2005 painting by graffiti artist KAWS entitled THE KAWS ALBUM, which sold for HK$115.9m ($14.8m)—nearly 15 times the high estimate.

Collectors will spend up to around $1m on the spot

The artist loomed large throughout the week—literally: there was a 115-foot inflatable sculpture, Companion (2019), floating in the middle of Victoria Harbor. The Italian curator Germano Celant had organized an exhibition of KAWS’ work in Hong Kong that was mocked by fellow Italian curator Francesco Bonami in an Instagram post circulated around the art world in which Bonami compares Celant to a Real Madrid football player who had moved to Venezia—aka turned populist. (“KAWS: Along the Way” is on view at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation until 14 April)

Yet another Instagram post that went viral was by the pop star Justin Bieber, who put a picture of the record-setting KAWS work on his feed; while Bonami’s post was viewed by 1,087 people, Bieber’s was liked by 1.1m users. These two worlds collide in Hong Kong: international youth culture and the older generation of Westerners which is simultaneously guarding and exporting its culture. While it is easy to pit young vs old or East vs West, the market activity in Hong Kong last month points to the complex reality that the “Asian market” is more a series of mini-markets whose behavior derives from the geography, age, wealth and tastes of the collectors and curators throughout the region. Growth seems inevitable, but how the scene will develop remains to be seen—and is fascinating to watch.

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