Art fairs ride high to tackle auctions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 1995, 12:00am

ART fairs like this year's Art Asia represent efforts by dealers to woo back customers snatched away by auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's.

Such fairs, which began only 10 years ago, are booming.

'Art fairs are becoming the preferred method of buying art,' said David Lester, who with wife Lee Ann, is the principle organiser of Art Asia. 'It's an efficient method for a collector to see a number of galleries in a competitive and comparative setting.' International Herald Tribune art critic Souren Melikian said: 'The 1990s might turn out to be the decade of the art fair.' Dealers are effusive because such fairs provide exposure to the media as well as new clients. 'It's good to go into the marketplace rather than sit in the gallery waiting for customers,' Gilbert Lloyd of London's Marlborough Gallery said.

Dealers are also happy because fairs provide the same advantages as auctions - free publicity and many new customers in a single location - without the hazards.

'A painting that doesn't sell in an auction, it's price can be permanently damaged,' Mr Lester said. 'An artist's reputation can be forever marred.' There is no disgrace however in a painting that is displayed for several months at various art fairs before it is finally purchased.

That does not preclude works which are bought right away. Paintings by contemporary Chinese painter Chen Yifei were all purchased by Thursday night, before the Fair's official opening.

Mr Lloyd said the average price for the six paintings sold was $500,000.

Art fairs also benefit consumers, who can compare many pieces from various galleries without feeling any pressure to buy.

Mr Lester said that at a fair, customers will not be cornered by salespeople as sometimes happens in galleries, and they won't be forced to 'make instantaneous decisions like at auctions'.

Although Hong Kong is a city where shopping choices abound, the number of art galleries is surprisingly limited.

Hong Kong has only about 20 major galleries as compared to New York City which boasts nearly 400, Mr Lester said.

The Art Asia fair introduced antiques and art objects this year and scaled back on contemporary Western art. 'Contemporary art has dropped in value almost 60 per cent in the last five years,' Mr Lester said. He attributes the drop to the poor state of the Japanese economy.

The Lesters organise about 20 art fairs worldwide each year. Before they began organising such fairs, they were gallery owners in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.