At Art Basel, Asian Collectors Are Back in Force, While Galleries Nudge Asian Artists Into the Spotlight

Asian collectors are a bit cautious, despite their enthusiastic return to the Swiss fair.

He Xiangyu, Inherited Wounds (2022 - 2023) an installation at the Unlimited section of Art Basel. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

This year’s Art Basel is the first for Japanese collector Kankuro Ueshima. But he already has a very clear goal: The 44-year-old entrepreneur and investor is determined to buy a work by artist Sarah Sze. The fast-rising collector has spent $15 million on art since February 2022, amassing a 600-strong collection in just over a year. And he’s ready to spend.

“I want to buy more art,” Ueshima told Artnet News. He started buying casually about seven years ago, but only began seriously building a collection last year. In that year, Ueshima saw 10 to 20 shows at galleries and museums per week. Last fall, he began traveling around the globe for art fairs and auctions. Soaking up knowledge fast, the collector is eager to show his collection and is planning to open his own museum in Tokyo. His visit to Basel is part of the process.

Ueshima is among a group of collectors from East Asia visiting Art Basel in its home town for the first time, now that international travel is finally feasible for them. (China lifted travel restrictions most recently, earlier this year.)

“I heard from my peers that Art Basel in Basel shows the best art and artists,” Ueshima said. “I am very excited. I have a lot of walls to fill.”

Plan B ABB 2023

A representative of Berlin-based gallery Plan B showing a painting by Romanian artist Cornel Brudascu to Asian clients visiting Art Basel on Tuesday’s VIP day. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Asian Invasion

There was a healthy presence of Asian faces during the VIP preview for the main fair on Tuesday. Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean could be heard along the aisles of the fairground at Messe Basel. VIPs hailed mostly from mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, joined by a few from Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Many collectors also stopped by Zurich Art Weekend on their way to Basel. Some private museums from mainland China such as Beijing’s Today Art Museum have brought groups of their patrons, though some could not make it because of visa issues.

Notable collectors from Asia in Basel this week include Chinese collector Yan Du, founder of the Asymmetry Art Foundation; Tank Shanghai founder Qiao Zhibing; Hong Kong-based Alan Lo and Shane Akeroyd; Timothy Tan from the Philippines; JaeMyung Noh and Mari Hong from South Korea; Taiwan’s Rudy Tseng, who is also a writer and a curator; and Jenny Yeh, founder of the Winsing Foundation, based in Taipei.

Industry professionals from the region are taking the opportunity to reconnect with the world after lockdowns. Museum and institution leaders, such as Doryun Chong, deputy director of Hong Kong’s M+, was seen busy catching up with art patrons and other professionals. Gallerists who are not exhibiting in Basel this year, like Soo Choi of the Seoul-based P21, were seen strolling the fair grounds.

Some western galleries are eager to reconnect with their Asian clients. Zurich-based Galerie Eva Presenhuber, which impressed some of the visiting collectors and industry players with Doug Aiken’s solo show during Zurich Art Weekend, is expecting more Asian clients at the fair this year.

Liu Wei Lehmann Maupin

Tiffany Xu, Lehmann Maupin’s China director, with Chinese artist Liu Wei’s Transparency

“We have scheduled meetings with quite a few Korean clients upfront,” Andreas Grimm, managing director of the gallery, told Artnet News. The gallery is showing larger works by Steven Shearer and Jean-Marie Appriou at the Unlimited sector, as well as Ugo Rondinone’s floating sculpture modeled on Roger Federer at the booth. The gallery is also actively reaching out to Asia by staging pop-up shows in Seoul.

“Our Asian clients tend to be in the younger age range, well under 50. They are well informed and very active and eager to make new discoveries,” Grimm said. “The price range is very broad, with collectors buying works from anywhere between €50,000 and €500,000. The main interest recently that we have observed lies in paintings or wall-mounted works. And our younger, painting-focused artists have been very popular.”

Gagosian’s Hong Kong-based senior director, Nick Simunovic, echoed that sentiment. “We have noticed a pronounced increase in attendance from Asia this year, including important institutional and private collectors as well as emerging collectors, all of whom have been actively buying work at all price points,” he said.

Cautious Optimism 

Excitement is certainly in the air. Japanese collector Kazunari Shirai, who is returning to Basel for the first time since 2020, told Artnet News that he’s keen to reconnect and explore the global art scene. “The vibe of Art Basel in Basel is definitely back,” he said.

Entrepreneur Yuki Hariguchi, a 31-year-old up-and-coming collector from Japan, is eager to see work by international contemporary artists. “It’s harder to see them in Japan,” he told Artnet News. “We don’t have the kind of access to international market we would love to. I’m here to browse and absorb.”

Seoul-based JaeMyung Noh said he acquired a small sculpture by the Danish artist Anton Munar from Peres Projects for a four-digit sum at Art Basel on Tuesday. He already has a work by the artist in his growing collection.

Sin Wai Kin

Installation view of Soft Opening’s Art Basel debut at the Statements sector, a solo presentation of Turner Prize-nominated Sin Wai Kin, a London-based artist of Asian descent. The gallery said works have been placed in multiple museum collections after Sin was awarded the 24th Baloise Art Prize at the fair on June 13. The gallery also made additional sales of works priced from $7,000 to $29,000. Courtesy of the artist and the gallery.

Enthusiasm aside, the picture is not entirely rosy. Several private museums from mainland China were expected to bring collectors to the fair, but some could not make it due to visa issues, Artnet News learned. There is also a consensus among Asian collectors that they need to be cautious with their spending.

“The vibe was good,” said Monique Leong, a collector in her 20s from Macao who in Basel this week for the second time. “So happy to see so many Chinese collectors here.” However, she conceded that many works on show at Art Basel were already sold, and some shows felt repetitive. Amid the current economic environment, “we need to be do more research before pulling the trigger rather than only being carried away on aesthetics.”

Asian collectors aren’t just the young generation that grabs headlines, according to Rebecca Wei, cofounder and chairman of LGDR & Wei, the Asian arm of international art gallery LGDR. While Gen Z buyers in their 20s and 30s are savvy communicators and are spending serious money, the established collectors are still key in driving the market in the region, she said.

In terms of their taste in art, Wei, the former chairman of Christie’s Asia, said it’s inevitable that auctions play a pivotal role in Asia’s art market. “Collectors are looking for primary works by artists who have been successful at auctions. People follow auction results closely,” Wei told Artnet News.

Bouie Choi Hong Kong Basel

Hong Kong artist Bouie Choi’s Reversi Hong Kong (2018), a chess set made with coins from the British colonial times and the post-handover in 1997 on show at PF25 in Basel. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Appeal That Transcends Geography

Meanwhile, artists of Asian descent increasingly interest European collectors as well. Gagosian, for example, sold works by Japanese artists Tetsuya Ishida and Takashi Murakami at the fair’s opening day. Lehman Maupin has a prominent line-up of Asian artists including Liu Wei, Doh Ho Suh, and Lee Bul. Singapore’s STPI, which brings five Asian artists to the fair, sold several works on the first day, including one by the Argentinian-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, which a client in Switzerland picked up via its booth.

Several Asian galleries are also making their Basel debut at Liste this year. Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery also debuted at Art Basel’s Galleries sector. Artists including Wu Chi-tsung from Taiwan, the Berlin-based Chinese artist He Xiangyu, and the aforementioned Tiravanija, as well as Yuki Kimura and Hiroki Tsukuda from Japan, are also featured in the Unlimited sector.

“Today [Tuesday], we have had quite a lot of interest in Genevieve Chua,” STPI’s executive director Emi Eu, told Artnet News. “You need to find the entry point that [western] collectors can relate to, and the visual language of Chua’s abstract art is a universal language.”

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2020 (we are not your pet) (2023), at STPI's booth at Art Basel 2023. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2020 (we are not your pet) (2023), at STPI’s booth at Art Basel 2023. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Atsuko Ninagawa, founder of Tokyo-based gallery Take Ninagawa, said that throughout her gallery’s decade-long participation at Art Basel in Basel, western clients’ knowledge about Japanese art history has strengthened dramatically. Over the years, the gallery has been selling to American, European, as well as non-Japanese Asian collectors at the fair. This year, the gallery brings works by Shinro Ohtake, Gozo Yoshimasu, and Tsuruko Yamazaki, a founding member of the post-war avant-garde group Gutai Art Association, priced $10,000 to $250,000.

“Now they have the context, and they can judge whether a work is good or not. We are able to share more information with western clients, private collectors as well as institutions,” she told Artnet News.

Outside the fair, Asian artists are also making their presence known during the week in Basel. Basel-based non-profit outfit PF25, founded by Hong Kong curator Angelika Li, is showing new works by Hong Kong artists Bouie Choi, an artist residency with the non-profit, as well as Ikebana artist Hedy Leung, who recently relocated from Hong Kong to London. The group’s exhibition opening on Tuesday, which is listed on Art Basel’s events list, saw streams of more than 200 locally-based art lovers and visiting collectors.

“The international crowd’s enthusiasm of our artists’ works and their stories from afar are very encouraging for us. We are very touched,” Li said.

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