A Turf War Between South Korea’s Galleries and Auction Houses Heats Up as a Trade Organization Warns of a ‘Collapsing’ of Market Order

Galleries allege that the auction houses have decimated their businesses.

South Korea's skyline. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images.

A South Korean gallery trade group is ramping up its fight against the country’s major auction houses, which it says are hurting its members’ businesses.

The Korean Galleries Association first released a salvo more than two weeks ago alleging that K Auction and Seoul Auction had been violating a “gentleman’s agreement” that was reached by both sides in 2007, under which the auction houses agreed to refrain from holding certain sales that would be seen as competitive and harmful to galleries.

But the association says the houses have nonetheless been holding “excessive auctions” and consigning work directly from artists, which is against the rules.

Now, the association is planning to hold its own auction on January 26 to make a statement and take back some control. The sale will include works by Park Su-guen, Lee Ufan, Lee Insung, Son Sangki, Yoon Hyong-Keun, Park Seo-bo, and Kim Tschang-yeul, and other artists.

A preview for the event on January 24-26 at the Westin Josun Seoul Grand Ballroom, dubbed a “storytelling” show, emphasizes the role of the gallery in discovering artists and forming discourse.

“From one point of view, some contended that holding an ‘auction’ to counter the ‘auction houses’ is a contradictory act and has an uncomfortable view that it is a ‘turf war,’ ‘rice bowl fight’ in the end,” the association said in a statement. However, the significant opinion also created that an idea of the association is acceptable considering the reality of the art market in Korea.”

The association said that previous pleas to the auction houses to back off have been ignored. The group “continuously requested cooperation and has made great efforts to send official documents and request interviews. However, auction houses emphasized only the ‘logic of market’ and did not listen to it.”

© 2022 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics.

© 2022 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics.

The Artnet Price Database shows a considerable spike in auctions at K and Seoul in 2021, up to around $250 million from just $70 million in 2020, a more than three-fold increase.

Neither K Auction nor Seoul Auction responded to requests for comment.

Tension between auction houses and galleries is nothing new in the art world. They frequently compete for sought-after work and spar over pricing and speculation. But the Korean gallery association says its grievances go beyond the profession’s norms.

“The order between the primary and secondary art markets is collapsing due to the reckless operation of the auction house,” according to an association statement. 

Image via Korean Galleries Association

Image via Korean Galleries Association

In a survey conducted by the group in the second half of 2020, 70 percent of members reported that they had “experienced or heard of damage from auctions.” Their main complaints were that the houses hindered the growth of young artists through direct sales, encouraged speculation, and devalued artists, according to the statement.

The trade association’s auction will not publish the sale’s consignments, nor allow the public to view it unless invited by a member gallery.

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