Hak Jun Lee on the Rise of Korean Art

Hak Jun Lee discusses his role as CEO of Seoul Auction.

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Seoul Auction Hong Kong.
Seoul Auction Hong Kong.
Lee JoongSeop
Lee JoongSeop, A Bull. Oil and enamel on paper. 35.3 x 52 cm. (13.9 x 20.5 in.).
Kim Whan-ki
Kim Whan-ki, The Flower and Jar (1957). 98 x 147 cm. (38.6 x 57.9 in.).
Park Soo-Keun
Park Soo-Keun, A Wash Place (c. 1950–1959). Oil on canvas. 37 x 72 cm. (14.6 x 28.3 in.).

For almost two decades, Hak Jun Lee has been a part of Seoul Auction, the first art auction house in South Korea. He was appointed CEO in 2008 and has witnessed a rapidly changing East Asian art market, including the rise of both global artists and artists belonging to the reactionary Korean modernist movement Dansaekhwa. Seoul Auction’s next sale will take place May 31.

Tell us about your background in art and what led you here.
After studying economics at university, my curiosity for the art market led me to work at a gallery, where I ended up staying for 10 years in the International Department. At the time, I was fortunate enough to curate Roy Lichtenstein and Georg Baselitz exhibitions with legendary dealers, such as Leo Castelli and Ernst Beyeler. This was a very rewarding experience for me as I was able to learn these famous dealers’ philosophy of valuing trust over anything else. Afterwards, I joined Seoul Auction, the first art auction house in South Korea, established in 1998, as a founding member. In 2008, the same year Seoul Auction was listed on the stock exchange, I became CEO.

How would you describe the atmosphere of an auction house sale? How has this environment changed over the years?
Since last year, bids for Dansaekhwa works have increased dramatically, receiving attention from art collectors all over the world. Our local artists became global artists in such a short period of time. It is my first time seeing such an intense change in the Korean art market. Unlike Western monochrome artists and Korean artists like Nam June Paik and Lee Ufan, Dansaekhwa artists put much more emphasis on the importance of indigenous and Eastern spirituality. Worldwide exhibitions, such as a special exhibition at the Venice Biennale [with Kukje Gallery and Tina Kim Gallery] and a recent exhibition at Galerie Perrotin, are contributing to the growing love for Dansaekhwa.

What is the highest-selling lot you’ve ever had?
The highest-selling and most memorable lots by Korean artists were Park Soo-Keun’s A Wash Place for 4,520,000,000 KRW in 2007, Lee JoongSeop’s A Bull for 3,560,000,000 KRW in 2010, and Kim Whan-ki’s The Flower and Jar for 3,050,000,000 KRW in 2007. These three artists are from the period when Korea was having a hard time economically, thus their works were sold at low prices to foreign collectors at the time. So seeing these works reach high prices was meaningful to me. The highest selling lot by a Western artist was in a 2008 Hong Kong Sale: Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit for 62,000,000 HKD.

How do you select most of your consignments? Are you reaching out to clients? Or are they coming to you?
It is very important for auction houses to have the desire and passion to obtain great consignments. Everyone must put their best effort toward securing a variety of qualifying consignments. Even though receiving consignments is the crucial first step toward preparing an auction, I believe making an informative catalogue and giving great previews are equally important. These all add up to providing the best environment for buyers.

Bids are increasingly from all corners of the world. What can you say about this trend?
There is an undeniable difference between the local market and global market. Historically, there are certain artists that have stronger marketability in their native countries. These works have value in their own ways. However, popularity in the global market brings artworks to a whole other level. Being global means an increase in demand and price. Looking at Dansaekhwa, which has increasingly drawn bids from all corners of the world, we can see the power of the global market. At present, Dansaekhwa is getting the spotlight, not only in auction houses, but also in international galleries, biennials, and museums. With this global attention, expectations for Dansaekhwa is continuously growing.

If you could have dinner with any three artists, living or dead, who would you choose?
Definitely Pablo Picasso. It is not an exaggeration to say that Picasso’s works are nearly perfect. The artist represents 20th-century art, and he will continue to do so for many years. Other than Picasso, I would like to have dinner with Yves Klein and Chung Sang-Hwa, both at the same time. Klein because I would like to talk about the absoluteness of the color IKB. Chung Sang-Hwa because I would like hear his theory of the color blue.

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