Masterpiece London Will Proceed With a Trimmed-Down Debut in Hong Kong Next Week Amid Continued Protests and Fears of Worse

It didn't seem like the right time to have a major presence—and it didn't feel right to pull out entirely, either.

Lucie Kitchener, Managing Director at Masterpiece London. Photo: Gianluca De Girolamo.

Political tensions have been heightened in Hong Kong as China’s National Day on October 1 draws closer, marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, but organizers of the fall season’s major art fairs and auctions opening in the city next week remain confident in the city’s foreseeable future. Events are still going ahead as planned—including the debut of the Masterpiece London Art Fair’s official expansion to Asia—amid the ongoing pro-democracy protests that has been gripping the city for nearly four months, and which some fear could come to a dangerous crescendo around National Day should China opt to make a show of strength in the city.

But while Masterpiece is sticking with its plan to offer art, furniture, and antiques as part of the Fine Art Asia fair (October 4-7), the London fair has decided to downsize the scale of its Hong Kong presence from a “pavilion” to an “object-led” showcase amid the political uncertainties.

“Originally we were going to bring 24 galleries with us, taking up individual gallery stands within the pavilion,” Lucie Kitchener, managing director of Masterpiece, told artnet News in Hong Kong.

The collaboration between the London and Hong Kong fairs began in June, when Fine Art Asia staged a pavilion at Masterpiece. The plan was for Fine Art Asia to then play host to a Masterpiece pavilion in October, but this August fair organizers opted to go a more minimal route given the continued protests—with black-clad demonstrators becoming a regular sight around the city—and the violent clashes with police.

A protester in plastic joins others as people gather outside the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong's Wanchai district on September 26, 2019. (Photo: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images)

A protester in plastic joins others as people gather outside the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong’s Wanchai district on September 26, 2019. (Photo: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images)

The situation may come to a head on October 1, when, to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, official government-run festivities will take place in Wan Chai, the same district where all of the art events are set to take place. Civil Human Rights Front, the group that has organized peaceful protests attended by millions of people over the past three months, has called for a massive rally on National Day. The Hong Kong government has already scaled back National Day celebration events, and has cancelled the city’s annual October 1 fireworks in a bid to reduce tensions.

In addition to Fine Art Asia, which is holding its 13th edition this year, the week will feature the major fall auctions at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and the city’s China Guardian showroom, although none of the sales are scheduled to fall on October 1. (Sotheby’s sales will take place from October 3 to 8, while China Guardian’s will run from October 5 to 8). All will be held in the same convention center in Wan Chai where the official festivities will have just ended.

The run-up to the fair has been “quite a daunting experience,” Kitchener said, adding that she expects it to be stressful for her colleagues and exhibitors as well. “Some of them have never been to Hong Kong before. They’d think: ‘Is this even the right moment to come to Hong Kong for the first time?’ Getting my team on the plane, sending millions of dollars of artworks over here… it felt more challenging in August.”

“But,” she continued. “we absolutely want to do this, and the galleries are incredibly supportive. This showcase is about responding to their commitment—that this is still the right thing to do here.”

Rhythm (2019) by Takahiro Yede will be on display at Masterpiece's Hong Kong pop-up through Yufuku Gallery. Courtesy of Yufuku Gallery.

Rhythm (2019) by Takahiro Yede will be on display at Masterpiece’s Hong Kong pop-up through Yufuku Gallery. Courtesy of Yufuku Gallery.

The result is a cross-disciplinary showcase of 35 artworks from 15 galleries that have been exhibiting at Masterpiece in London. Some galleries already have a long-term connection with Fine Art Asia, such as Michael Goedhuis, which will have a stand at Fine Art Asia’s sister fair Ink Asia this year, and silverware specialist Koopman Rare Art. Other galleries featured in this showcase include Alessandro Di Castro and Valerie Turchi, which will be presenting Greek and Roman antiquities and European decorative arts from the 18th century, respectively; Apter Fredericks and Ronald Phillips will bring antique English furniture; Yufuku Gallery from Japan will show works by emerging Japanese artists who have inherited the tradition of Japanese Nihonga painting.

Kitchener said the showcase will give the audience a taste of what the London fair feels like, and pave the way for an expansion next year that is likely to realize the original pavilion plan.

Bust of a Roman Aristocrat: Head, 1st century AD; Bust, 2nd century AD. Courtesy of Valerio Turchi.

“It’s the right way to make sure that we are here, that we are supporting the market and we are supporting the galleries,” said Kirchener. “Our presence is very important.”

Masterpiece, which was founded in 2008, had first announced its plan to expand to Asia through a pop-up at Fine Art Asia in March, after MCH Group Ltd. acquired a 67.5 percent stake in the company that runs the fair in 2017. The addition of Masterpiece gives a boost MCH’s portfolio of high-end collector events including the Art Basel group (comprising fairs in Basel, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong), Design & Regional Art Fairs, the Grand Basel automobile show, and the Baselworld watch expo.

Kitchener said it was only natural for Masterpiece to expand to Asia, and not only because of the growing interest from buyers and collectors across the region, particularly in Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Simply being part of the MCH family, which is increasingly interested in Asia, makes the expansion seem natural.

“We are sitting side by side” with Art Basel Hong Kong, she said. “MCH is very committed in this region, and Art Basel has made a strong contribution to the market here. Through Art Basel, MCH has built a very good experience in this region and it is very helpful for us.”

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