The Back Room: Answering Hong Kong’s Riddle
This week: the intrigue around ABHK’s return, a new art-world power couple emerges, the rise of single-owner auction action, and much more.
Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.
This week in the Back Room: the intrigue around ABHK’s return, a new art-world power couple emerges, the rise of single-owner auction action, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,983 words).
Top of the Market
Hong Kong Homecoming
Could Art Basel Hong Kong ever feel as lively post-Covid as it did pre-Covid?
Art professionals have had much too long to puzzle over this question. On Wednesday, for the first time in three years, the fair opened free of the draconian quarantine measures that have either fully or largely sealed it off from the rest of the world since its canceled 2020 edition.
The answer to the riddle now seems clear: Hong Kong’s most prestigious fair is back in a big way, and its art-market infrastructure still looks like the crown jewel of Asia.
Neither conclusion was a given based on events in the intervening years. Aside from Hong Kong’s hermetic enclosure due to Covid concerns, the city suffered a brain drain after China imposed a wide-ranging national security law in 2020, reducing Hong Kong’s autonomy, clamping down on its free press, and increasing prosecutions of its pro-democracy protesters.
Meanwhile, nearby cities Seoul, Singapore, and even Tokyo upped their international art-market game by launching new fairs and signal events in a bid to fill the vacuum left by a locked-down, increasingly illiberal Hong Kong.
If that weren’t enough, the largest global banking crisis since 2008 began unfolding in the weeks preceding ABHK’s return, stoking jitters in the investing (and collecting) class from the U.S. to Switzerland and beyond.
Nevertheless, the contextual turmoil was swept under the red carpet this week, as the fair’s array of well-appointed dinner tables, well-attended parties, and well-stocked sales reports have made 2023 feel an awful lot like 2019.
Sources on the sales floor reported aisles crowded by local heavyweights such as Alan Lo, mainland Chinese whales such as Liu Yiqian, and—in a vital return to form—big-time buyers from the international art circuit, ranging from Maja Hoffmann to Sheikha al-Mayassa.
True, the number of participating galleries this year (177) was still down 27 percent from the 2019 fair (242). But as Artnet News contributor Frederik Balfour noted in his report, Covid restrictions in Hong Kong were still in place when the application deadline closed last June.
That wrinkle might very well mean that the momentum will only intensify at next year’s fair, especially in light of the results and energy from this week’s edition. Here are our main takeaways about the state of play based on early sales…
1. Top sales reported in the fair’s opening days far exceeded those in 2019.
The three loftiest deals confirmed by Thursday were as follows:
- $4.7 million: George Condo’s Purple Compression (2011) at Hauser and Wirth (to a collector based between Hong Kong and New York)
- $3.5 million: Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin (2022) at Ota Fine Arts (to a private collector in Asia)
- $2.2 million: Elizabeth Peyton’s Truffaut (2005) at David Zwirner (to a major Asian museum)
Each of the above was much richer than its top-three counterpart at the 2019 fair’s close:
- $2.8 million: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Elvis (1962) at White Cube
- $2 million: Mark Bradford’s Superman (2019) at Hauser and Wirth
- $1.8 million: Georg Baselitz’s Immer noch unterwegs (2014) at Thaddaeus Ropac
The discrepancy is much more than inflation can account for, suggesting that a real thirst for apex-level primary works has been waiting for an outlet of ABHK’s caliber. Also telling: this year’s top sales blew past their equivalents at the inaugural Frieze Seoul, which maxed out at $2.8 million.
2. The most hectic buying early on was for works under $100,000.
This price bracket dominated the flurry of first-day sales reports outside the very top shelf of galleries. For example:
- $49,068 (€45,000): for Xiyao Wang’s Carve the time in the palm of your hand no.2 (2022) at Massimo de Carlo
- $28,350 (€26,000): for Zhi Wei’s Dylan and the Mirror (2022) at Balice Hertling
- $20,000: Laurent Martin “Lo”’s Breathing (2022) at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery
These approachably priced deals were struck for works by artists whose ages ranged from their 20s to their 60s, speaking to many regional collectors’ focus on research and value (and perhaps their wariness of a still-shaky economy). However…
3. Collectors also lusted after ultra-contemporary artists regardless of price or heritage.
Sources reported that several Asian buyers continue to scramble for hot young names, no matter their cost or ethnic identity. (We define ultra-contemporary artists as those born in 1979 or later.) Consider these sales:
- $900,000: Jordan Wolfson’s animatronic Red Sculpture (2016–22) at David Zwirner (to Liu Yiqian)
- $184,300 (£150,000): Rachel Jones’s a shorn root (2022) at Thaddaeus Ropac (to an Asian institution)
- $135,000 (each): three paintings and one mylar work by Adam Pendleton at David Kordansky (with the sales split between the booth and the gallery’s ABHK OVR)
While sales for works by young artists of Asian heritage were certainly prevalent, the subjects of demand at ABHK felt more diverse than ever. One clear embodiment was the arrival of the fair’s first-ever galleries based in Africa: SMAC (Cape Town) and Retro Africa (Abuja, Nigeria).
The Bottom Line
Despite years of hand-wringing and second guessing, this week has proven that Hong Kong remains Asia’s pivot point in the global art trade. That’s no slight to Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo, just an acknowledgment of how large a lead Hong Kong had established in the decades pre-Covid.
The depth on the buy and sell sides of the city’s art market remains unrivaled in the region. Its taxes remain low, its commercial regulations light, and its status as a freeport advantageous.
Art businesses across sectors are also still betting big on Hong Kong’s year-round strength. The Big Three auction houses have all either opened (Phillips) or announced (Christie’s and Sotheby’s) lavish expansions in the city. Membership in the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association has jumped nearly 27 percent since 2021. Homegrown institutions like M+ are finally welcoming the international audiences they’d long envisioned.
None of the above guarantees that Hong Kong will always be the central hub of the international art market in Asia. But Art Basel Hong Kong 2023 will go down as a strong reminder that the city’s competitors in the region can’t catch up overnight—or even after three troubled years.
The latest Wet Paint has the scoop on the art world’s newest power couple: Kennemin, aka Artnet News’s own Kenny Schachter x Tracey Emin. Plus, a tour through the unexpected, complicated impact of the Adderall shortage on our niche industry.
Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…
- Liste will return to Basel June 12–18, with 88 galleries hailing from 35 countries. Repeat exhibitors include Dastan Gallery (Tehran), Super Dakota (Brussels), and François Ghebaly (Los Angeles / New York). (Press release)
- New York gallery Christopher Bishop Fine Art acquired Master Drawings New York, the 17-year-old fair centered on Old Master works on paper. Bishop himself will become the fair’s president, and Cydney Williams, the associate director of his gallery, will become the fair’s director. (The Art Newspaper)
- This May in New York, Christie’s will offer some 220 postwar and contemporary works from the collection of deceased Boston real-estate magnate Gerald Fineberg in a two-part standalone auction hoping to bring up to $270 million. (Artnet News)
- Phillips will offer more than 150 works from the Rosa and Aaron Esman collection across four of its regularly scheduled spring auctions in New York, with highlights including pieces from the 1960s by Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg. (Press release)
- André Bodson, former chief transformation officer of Bonhams,will take on the house’s newly created role of managing director, Europe. (Press release)
- This week saw a slew of new gallery signings, including Magenta Plains adding new media specialist Rachel Rossin; Almine Rech taking on Madagascar-born enigma Joël Andrianomearisoa; Thaddeaus Ropac signing Korean-Canadian installation whiz Zadie Xa; and Pace winning global representation of the Claes Oldenburg estate, the Coosje van Bruggen estate, and the combined Oldenburg and van Bruggen estate. (Press releases)
- Two more spaces are coming to Tribeca: a satellite by Lomex Gallery across from its main spot on Walker Street, and the second New York venue by Nino Mier.(Wet Paint, ARTnews)
- Hauser and Wirth is relocating its Hong Kong gallery from the H Queen’s building to a 10,000 square setup in the city’s Central district, with Selldorf Architects handling the renovation. (Press release)
- Marina Loshak, director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, resigned amid speculation that the move was politically motivated. She will be replaced by Elizaveta Likhacheva, the allegedly pro-Kremlin director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture. (Artnet News)
- The New Museum announced the co-organizers of its 2026 triennial: Vivian Crockett, one of the NewMu’s own curators, and Isabella Rjeille, curator at the Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP). (Artnet News)
- The Whitechapel Gallery eliminated six key jobs, including chief curator and two other curatorial positions, allegedly in response to state funding cuts and escalating British energy costs. Director Gilane Tawadros will now lead the curatorial team. (The Art Newspaper)
Tech and Legal News
- In a precedent-setting case for crypto art, a U.S. magistrate dismissed a lawsuit brought against Sotheby’s and artist Kevin McCoy that challenged their 2021 sale of what is widely considered to be the first NFT for nearly $1.5 million. (Artnet News)
- A new lawsuit by Hong Kong-based beverage heiress Karen Lo accuses gallerist Pearl Lam of accepting £500,000 ($613,000) to purchase Banksy’s 2005 painting Show Me The Monet on Lo’s behalf, then never delivering the artwork. (Reuters)
- More than 1,100 objects in the Met’s collection have been linked to alleged criminals in the antiquities trade, according to a new report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and nonprofit Finance Uncovered. (The Art Newspaper)
“The crazy thing about the art business is that what I did is common practice… But the business is so secretive, and so opaque, that even though lies and fraud are rampant, no one gets in trouble. Except, it turns out, a schmuck like me.”
—New York dealer Ezra Chowaiki, newly off probation following an 18-month prison stint for wire fraud, on the “gorgeous cesspool” that is the art industry. (Airmail)
One of the most noteworthy trends in the fine art auction sector over the past half-decade has been the growing importance of single-owner evening sales. The category generated record revenue last year, and its outperformance was highlighted in a recent deep dive into annual fine art auction data by Artnet News, the Artnet Price Database, and Morgan Stanley.
- At Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, single-owner evening sales of fine art in 2022 rose to nearly $2.7 billion, a five-year high. This was due in no small part to the Paul Allen collection becoming the most lucrative single-owner evening auction in history, when it brought more than $1.5 billion at Christie’s New York last November.
- For comparison, only $1.3 billion worth of fine art changed hands in single-owner evening sales at the same houses in 2018, the year that Christie’s evening auction of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection achieved a then-record $646 million.
- Single-owner evening auctions have also made up an increasingly large share of total sales at all of the Big Three houses’ evening auctions post-pandemic. In 2022, single-owner sales generated 36.8 percent of the combined $7.3 billion worth of fine art moved in single-owner and traditional evening sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, also a five-year high.
With Christie’s announcing a potentially $270 million single-owner evening sale as part of its May auction cycle in New York (as noted in Paint Drippings), there’s little evidence to suggest this trend is going away anytime soon.
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