A giant bunny sitting cross-legged on an animated log. A huge floating castle made from black leather and studs. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle, compressed into a perfect sphere.
With its combination of kitsch and pizzazz, one could be forgiven for thinking Art Basel Hong Kong was just another in a long line of contemporary art fairs, including sister shows in Basel and Miami Beach. But as the first truly international contemporary art fair in Asia, here was a show with a difference.
Art Basel’s Asian debut on 23–26 May brought together 245 galleries from 35 countries and territories, in Hong Kong’s Convention and Exhibition Centre. More than half of the galleries were from the Asia-Pacific and the vast majority of the 60,000 fair attendees were also from the region — many of them from the fast-growing emerging markets, according to a spokesperson for the fair.
The effect was tangible. Strong sales were buoyed by the infectious energy that typifies Asia and is rarely felt these days in Europe. “Sales were consistently solid across all sectors and galleries reported meeting many new collectors from the region. For many it was their first visit to an art show in Hong Kong,” said a spokesperson for the fair.
The art felt different too.
“A lot of the work was shinier, more accessible than at, say, the Swiss fair,” said Hannah Blakemore, an art adviser working on behalf of Deutsche Bank, the sponsor for the show. She pointed out that “quite a lot of browsing and mulling over will go on before a sale”, compared to sister-show Basel, which follows a different etiquette. “In Switzerland many collectors already know what they want to buy and the serious collectors come in as soon as the fair opens its doors, and acquire the best works instantly.”
And then there was the nightlife. Hong Kong’s buzzing ambiance continued long after Art Basel’s doors were shut for the night. A steady stream of parties and glamorous dinners spilled out onto Hong Kong’s streets well into the early mornings. Outlandishly styled guests quaffed Champagne and canapés — and, for the lucky ones, lobster — at trendy parties hosted by Boujis, 208, Duddell’s, The China Club, Fringe and Fly. Most prominent galleries, including Opera, Ben Brown, White Cube, Pearl Lam and the Gagosian Gallery, held their own launches and glitzy satellite shows. International celebrities such as Kate Moss, Sir David Tang, Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova were reportedly partying hard with the best of them.
But while there was no shortage of keen, newly minted buyers, few were settling for the asking price.
“In the West collectors are looking to buy the best. In the East they are looking to get the best price,” said Pierre Ravelle-Chapuis, who helps run the New York-based Van de Weghe Fine Art, a gallery that sells contemporary art. Van de Weghe Fine Art attends around eight fairs a year and this is the third time Ravelle-Chapuis has exhibited at the Hong Kong fair (this year and for two years in its former life as Art HK).
“Business suddenly booms on the last day when you get a big rush of people asking for a good deal.” He added: “The vernissage [the opening show night] was less packed than at other shows. People mostly come on the weekend because they work all week, whatever their position. There is less show-off than at Western fairs, people don’t need to see and be seen at the opening.”
Nevertheless two days in and Van de Weghe Fine Art had already sold two paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one for around US$4m and another for around US$2.5m, both to Asian buyers. Ravelle-Chapuis did not want to comment on the size of any discounts, but inferred they were not insubstantial. A Thai collector had also bought a Damien Hirst butterfly print, entitled ‘Blue Angel’, for around US$500,000.
“Yes they bargain hard, but they buy more here than in Europe at the moment. So it’s all good,” added Ravelle-Chapuis.
Other Western galleries have pinned their hopes on Asia as the future market of art aficionados. Paul Gray, director and co-owner of the New York-based Richard Gray Gallery, said: “We had strong sales and it’s obvious that the market for collecting Western art is here.” Meanwhile, Bruno Brunnet, director of Berlin-based Contemporary Fine Arts, said he had made good sales to new collectors from Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and mainland China, and hopes to return next year.
Over at the more accessible ‘Discoveries’ sector, sales were particularly upbeat. Pedro Mendes, founding director of Sao Paolo-based Mendes Wood, had entirely sold out within the first few days. Meanwhile, Claudia Albertini, director of Hong Kong-based Platform China, which sells works priced from between US$10,000–50,000 said: “We’ve been making sales to many new clients, which is usually quite rare.”
She added that there was one clear advantage: language capability. “I speak Mandarin and my colleagues speak other Asian languages. In certain situations it is crucial to speak the language. Not only to make yourself understood but to establish trust with your client.”
Albertini said that when it comes to Hong Kong’s burgeoning contemporary art scene, speculation is common. She pointed to the prices associated with Jia Aili, a Chinese artist whose prices have increased stratospherically over the last few years due to so-called quick-flipping of work. Zhou Yilun is another whose value has soared, adds Albertini. “Some buyers are very interested in the investment potential, although I don’t like to talk about art in that way,” she said. Albertini added that some will consider buying because they think it will look good on their wall; and some because they love it.
Acclaimed British artist Angela Bulloch was exhibiting ‘Universal Mineral’, a collection of colourful ‘pixel boxes’, at the Simon Lee gallery. Although she is no stranger to Asia, it was her first show in Hong Kong and she agreed that in recent years there has been a visible shift in power and wealth from West to East. “Galleries and artists alike speak about the need to find new markets. I leapt at the chance to do a show in Hong Kong. It’s a very vibrant, exciting situation. We’re at the beginning of a developing art market here, things are changing quickly.”
One thing is for sure. It is going to be big and it is going to be different.
The second edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong will take place on 15–18 May 2014, with a preview on 14 May 2014.
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