China develops a taste for contemporary art

Art Basel Hong Kong
Art Basel Hong Kong is doing a roaring trade

The Hong Kong Art Fair, as it was known before coming under the Art Basel banner in 2011, attracted fewer than 20,000 visitors when it opened nine years ago. This year’s three-day event, which ended last Saturday, was expected to attract closer to 70,000. “The event’s growth maps the burgeoning engagement of the Asia Pacific region with international contemporary art,” says Rachel Spence in the Financial Times. “That this year only 50% of the 242 exhibitors hail from that part of the world testifies to the fair’s lucrative potential”: London dealers were selling pieces for millions of dollars to Chinese buyers, who are reportedly extremely eager to do business.

But the flipside of Art Basel Hong Kong’s international appeal is that it is more exposed to wobbles in the global art market. Last year, that market fell by 11% to $56.6bn, according to a report published last week by Art Basel and Swiss bank UBS. To put that in context, the global art market had been worth as much as $68.2bn just three years ago. The silver lining for Asia in the figures is that the slowdown appears to have hit the US the hardest, with the art market there shrinking to 40% of the world total, down from 43% the previous year, but still ahead of Britain with 21% and China, just behind, with 20%. On an auctions-only basis, that slowdown has allowed China (including Hong Kong) to overtake the US, with a 34% world share, compared with 32%.

Even so, at Art Basel Hong Kong there were noticeably fewer mainland Chinese buyers who also have had to contend with currency controls imposed by Beijing at the end of last year. “We’ve done okay, but sales seem a bit weaker overall and the fair is quieter,” New York-based dealer David Zwirner tells Enid Tsui in the South China Morning Post.  That the lack of mainland Chinese was so noticeable points to their growing importance in the art market.

Christopher Reynolds, a Beijing-based gallery owner, is impressed by how seriously Chinese collectors are taking their art, says Anna Louie Sussman in the online art magazine Artsy. “It’s hard to imagine more sophisticated, more capable consumers than we see in China,” says Reynolds. It’s not just as consumers either: the region’s artists have been gaining a greater prominence too. This is exemplified by Galerie du Monde’s “excellent” overview of The Fifth Moon Group of modern Chinese ink painters, led by Liu Kuo-sung, says The South China Morning Post’s John Batten, and Taiwan artist Shi Jin-hua’s “impressive” two ten-metre-long canvasses, titled The 100-Kilometre Walk, at Mind Set Art’s booth.

How to start an Asian contemporary art collection

If you’re keen to start your own collection of Asian contemporary art, there’s no need to focus on any particular region, says specialist Sarina Taylor in Christie’s magazine. Chinese collectors used to focus on works by Chinese artists, but that no longer holds true. “Artists from Asia are increasing their international presence and enjoying more attention from collectors internationally.” Zao Wou-Ki is an example of an artist long considered a master in Asia, who has only recently found similar recognition in America, for example.

Editions, or prints, are an “excellent” way for new collectors to get their hands on pieces at “a more accessible price point”, says Taylor. Artists Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and Zeng Fanzhi all offer “high-quality editions”. And don’t be afraid to branch out beyond paintings. “The ink and colour on paper works of Liu Wei, who normally uses oil on canvas, for example, offer an alternative interpretation of his paintings.” These artworks won’t always appear to be in “pristine condition” due to the nature of the materials used.

Asian contemporary art is still “a relatively new market”, but artists to watch include Annysa Ng, Seo Yu Ra and Li Shurui. Southeast Asian art, in particular, is an “emerging market”, but one that is “growing rapidly”, and becoming more accessible to bargain hunters. Indonesia’s Farhan Siki, Malaysia’s Chuah Thean Teng, and Filipino painter Randy Solon are promising.

• Christie’s Asian 20th Century sale runs until 5 April (Christies.com). Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales run from 1 to 5 April, and feature contemporary Asian art (Sothebys.com).

Auctions

Andy Warhol's Chairman Mao

Going…

Andy Warhol’s painting of Chairman Mao is expected to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on Sunday. The silk-screen portrait formed part of a series begun in 1972 during a thaw in relations between China and the US, when President Richard Nixon paid a historic visit to Beijing. The artworks have proved controversial in China, where debate has centred on whether the paintings are mocking or respectful. A Chinese exhibition in 2013 of the American artist’s work left the series out. Nevertheless, the painting is expected to go for up to $15m, says the BBC.

Six Dragons

Gone…

A Song dynasty scroll painting of six dragons in a storm by the 13th-century Chinese painter Chen Rong sold for $49m at Christie’s in New York. The price was far in excess of the $1.8m the painting was expected to fetch, and represents one of the highest prices paid for an Asian work of art, says The Wall Street Journal. Six Dragons was one of several artworks sold by Osaka’s Fujita Museum, which raised a total of $262.8m in one evening.