Had Enough FOMO From Art Basel Hong Kong? Simon de Pury on How the City Came Back With a Bang
The veteran auctioneer returns to Hong Kong for the first time since 2019.
Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
As I write these lines I am still in Hong Kong as a sleep deprived zombie at the end of an exhilarating week of non stop events taking place in the wake of Art Basel Hong Kong.
The timing for this year’s edition of the famed art fair could not have been more opportune. The stringent restrictions due to the pandemic had only been dropped very recently in mainland China and in Hong Kong the mask mandate ended exactly one week before the start of the fair. Visitors from all over the world, including were for the first time able to return without risking tedious and lengthy quarantines in very difficult conditions.
My last visit to Hong Kong dated back to Art Basel 2019 when I had conducted the auction of the amfAR gala, which was the second largest event for the charity after their annual event during the Film Festival of Cannes.
Already getting off the plane from London at Hong Kong International Airport, the excitement was palpable. Waiting for my luggage I bumped into Helly Nahmad, the scion of the legendary dynasty of collectors, dealers and connoisseurs (who is being referred to as “London Helly” in order to differentiate him from his cousin, “New York Helly”). He hadn’t been to HK for even longer than me and was in a state of eager anticipation. The always super elegant art advisor Nina Moaddel—who didn’t have a hair out of place, even after a more than twelve hour flight—was equally excited to be back. This state of mind was shared by all the international art market professionals and collectors that I encountered here. The local collectors, gallery owners, artists were all sharing in this feeling which contributed to a sort of general euphoria.
As my colleague aptly commented, Hong Kong is a bit like New York on steroids. The minute you set foot on it you want to do a million things, and the last thing you want is to go to sleep. The new architecture makes it even more spectacular than before, and the highly urban environment is set up against a dramatic and beautiful backdrop of nature. Your energy and everyone else’s energy is turbocharged.
Hong Kong had suffered from the lockdown and experienced a substantial exodus of business people and bankers in the meantime. It clearly sprung back to life and felt very welcoming. It’s not that nothing had happened in the interim quite far from it.
M+ the gigantic new museum built by Herzog & de Meuron was completed and properly installed. It is even being further enlarged as we speak, making it a modern and contemporary art institution on a par in size with museums such as the MoMA, Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou. The massive investments of money, expertise, and creativity make it one of the main cultural projects of the 21st century along with what has been and is happening in the Middle East notably in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. These places will leave a legacy for generations to come and the economic spin off effects will be innumerable. These cultural hubs will act as magnets in the future in a comparable way to places like Athens, Cairo, Rome, Venice, Florence, Kyoto, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, or New York.
I went to an official dinner at M+ during which the architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were participating in a panel conversation with Uli Sigg, the Swiss businessman and former ambassador to China who donated a substantial part of his major collection of Chinese contemporary to the museum. After the panel talk I went up to Pierre de Meuron, whose mother was in the same school class as my mother, telling him how proud I was as a Swiss that three Swiss guys had played such a key role towards this new global cultural milestone. It was on the Monday evening, the same day that it had been earlier announced that UBS had acquired over the weekend its former rival Credit Suisse, which otherwise would have gone under. Pierre therefore replied to me “With what just happened with the Credit Suisse we can’t feel too proud as Swiss right now!”
Adrian Cheng is the architect, visionary and tireless dynamo behind all major projects which are transforming Hong Kong into one of the 21st century’s most important centers for contemporary culture. On one of the nights he hosted at K11 a dinner for the opening of “City as Studio,” the largest exhibition ever devoted to street art that was brilliantly curated by Jeffrey Deitch. With his K11’s that have sprung all over China, Adrian Cheng has merged all aspects of contemporary culture going from art, architecture, music, cinema, fashion, food, entertainment, craftsmanship, jewelry, luxury, and retail and hospitality. While all his initiatives are based on private enterprise the Hong Kong government has recognized his seminal role by appointing him earlier this year as Chairman of the new Arts and Culture Committee. It was wonderful to see him mingle that night with two cultural leaders, animators and philanthropists of global significance Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al Thani and Maja Hoffmann. They are some of his peers that are shaping the cultural life of our times.
The cultural ecosystem does of course include the big auction houses and main galleries. Sotheby’s under the prescient leadership of its former chairman Peter Wilson was the first to recognize the importance of Hong Kong by opening its first Asian auction location there exactly 50 years ago. To mark the occasion all Hong Kong bus shelters were adorned with the altered Sotheby’s logo. Christie’s is moving into vastly expanded premises. While both Sotheby’s and Christie’s remain based on the main part of the island, Phillips have made the bold move to become anchor tenants in Kowloon right opposite the main entrance of M+. Their new premises are magnificent and echo their shrewd positioning in London and New York. As in real estate, Location, Location, Location are becoming more important in the art market as well.
Art Basel itself was as usual taking place in the ginormous convention center. There is near unlimited space for the various galleries to exhibit and the fair welcomed back 86,000 visitors, very nearly on par with 2019. There was a constant flow of visitors looking with great interest and attention at the art that was on display. The vast majority was from the nearly endless reservoir of potential buyers from mainland China. There were also a lot of visitors from Japan, Korea, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. It was particularly interesting to see a wide array of Asian contemporary art being presented by both Asian and international galleries. Given the paramount importance Asian collectors and Chinese collectors in particular have played during the pandemic and continue to do now, my sole disappointment was that with some exceptions the western galleries did not bring to Hong Kong their strongest possible works.
A question that was being asked over the last three years was if Hong Kong was going to be overtaken as the main Asian art market venue both in relation to art fairs and to auctions. After the last week spent here my strong impression is that it will not.
Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo will of course all have very important roles to play. The increasing polarization in the world has made some art market professionals targets of criticism of “selling out.” I am a strong believer that it is through art and culture that we get to know, understand and appreciate people of other backgrounds, cultures, religions and geographical areas. Art is building bridges and like humor allows us to communicate on any level.
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.