Hong Kong art collectors defy economic wobble
DEAN NAPOLITANO, Contributing writer
HONG KONG Asia's art market is proving buoyant despite worries about slowing growth in China and the rest of the world.
Art Basel Hong Kong, Asia's largest art fair, wrapped up on March 26 after a run that saw record attendance of more than 70,000 and strong sales by exhibiting galleries.
"In my personal experience, China seems to be purchasing more art, not less," said Pearl Lam, owner of Pearl Lam Galleries, one of Hong Kong's most prominent. "I was extremely encouraged by this year's edition [of Art Basel]. We had strong sales, met some really interesting new collectors and ... we experienced consistent sales and interest in the works across the whole duration of the fair, which pleasantly surprised me."
Tina Keng Gallery, which operates in Taipei and Beijing, sold two works by artist Wang Huaiqing for a total $3.3 million. The pair, "Chinese Emperor -- 5, 2015" and "Chinese Emperor -- 6, 2015," are both oil and mixed media on canvas. David Zwirner, which has galleries in New York and London, said it sold all five paintings that Belgian artist Michael Borremans made specially for this year's fair, with prices ranging from $250,000 to $1.6 million.
Those sales though were overshadowed on April 5 when a painting by Chinese artist Zhang Daqian sold for 270.7 million Hong Kong dollars ($34.8 million) at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong. The sale of "Peach Blossom Spring," a 1982 splashed ink and color on paper hanging scroll, beat the previous record price for a Zhang painting of HK$191 million.
Speaking of Art Basel, Pascal de Sarthe, founder of the de Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong, said, "We did very well last year, and it was repeated this year." He added that he has seen more new collectors and investors from China and other parts of Asia. "We have seen a lot of money coming to the art market," he said. "Chinese investors and collectors understand that art is a tangible asset."
The results of the fourth Art Basel Hong Kong contrast with more disappointing sales elsewhere. The European Fine Art Foundation said in a report in March that global sales of art fell 7% last year to $63.8 billion, noting a marked decline in China.
"In 2015, against the backdrop of economic contraction and uncertainty alongside poor sales in many sections of the auction market, the Chinese market experienced a significant decline, with total sales dropping 23% to $11.8 billion," the foundation said.
Adeline Ooi, Art Basel's Asia director, said: "The truth is, we are living in tricky times." She added that over the past year, some Chinese collectors have become more careful in their buying and are taking more time to make purchases. "This will be the time when [one sees a difference] between the speculators and the true art buyers. I think those that are really in love with the art will continue to buy."
Ooi said that the knowledge of a growing number of collectors in the region has deepened quickly and the relationship between galleries and collectors has become "much more substantial."
"I think it's the best fair we've had so far," Ooi said. "I got really positive feedback from galleries. They've had good conversations and great comments about our Asian collectors."
HEALTHY INTEREST Chinese artist Qiu Deshu, who was represented at the fair by Pearl Lam Galleries, said that little has changed for him in the current economic climate. "I am confident that we will be able to work towards more ... exhibitions, allowing collectors to better understand the best of contemporary art from China."
Australian artist Ben Quilty said that artists from Down Under often keep their prices low, which in turn enables them to get by in difficult economic times. "As we branch out to the world, those prices move upwards more rapidly."
The Hong Kong event is one of Art Basel's three annual shows, along with those in Basel, Switzerland, and Miami Beach, Florida. "The [fair's] mission is to highlight amazing content from this part of the world," Ooi said, but she also points to the event's "unique platform" of being a global art fair. "If you look at the way the ratio of galleries is made up, it's 50% Asia and 50% the rest of the world," she said.
Smaller galleries often face daunting challenges amid a growing and increasingly crowded global market. "For [newer galleries], this fair is so important because it's about pushing the boundaries for themselves," Ooi said. "The whole Art Basel platform is really about highlighting galleries. To be accepted in the fair is for them another confidence boost," she said. "We all acknowledge that it's really tough times right now. That's just the way it is."
That makes Art Basel's role in Asia especially vital as it continues to establish a deeper involvement in the local art scenes.
"There's still extensive research being done with so many nonprofits and institutions, which are still learning about the art histories in this part of the world, because it's so vast," Ooi said. "So for us, even in the Asian community, we're still learning so much about ourselves. There's so much material there."
De Sarthe noted that the new collectors he meets are "very fast learners" and educate themselves by visiting museums around the world, following the major art auctions and reading books. "They are very well informed, and it makes them mature collectors after a year or two."
That sentiment was echoed by others. "I think people are getting more sophisticated, and I think most of them did their research before coming" to this year's fair, said Adrian Cheng, founder of the nonprofit K11 Art Foundation and a prominent Hong Kong collector. The Hong Kong fair gets "better and better every time," said de Sarthe.