Auctioneer hammers home the importance of arts education

Arts auctioneer Bong Lee sees his mission as educating Asia's young collectors, writes Crystal Tai

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:47pm

Fine art is expensive - and Bong Lee knows this better than most people. He learnt this lesson as a 13-year-old growing up in a family involved in the fine arts industry of his native South Korea when he accidentally knocked over a Picasso ceramic his father owned.

Luckily, the priceless piece was just a little chipped, "My brother took the blame for me," Lee recalls with a chuckle.

The behaviour with any wealth in the world - if ... you want to save it properly - is to invest in art
Bong Lee

Lee's family pioneered the development of the contemporary arts industry in South Korea, having founded one of the country's most influential galleries, Gana Art, in 1983, as well as its largest auction house, the publicly traded Seoul Auction, and JangHeung Artpark, a private art museum near Seoul.

Lee is now based in Hong Kong where he and longtime friend and business partner Sandy Ip Wing-ping operate their own business, the newly launched online auction house Opus Auction

Lee also provides consulting support for the Hong Kong branches of his family's operations.

"Lee Ho-jae, my father, has worked with more than 300 artists throughout the years," says Lee. "He specialised in Korean antiques and ceramics, but also dealt heavily with Western artists such as Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Réné Magritte, and so on."

The demand for Western art in South Korea was stable but subtle back then, says Lee. And it was through this demand that his family realised local art needed fostering and support as well.

"My father began sponsoring artists in Korea. Back then it was very informal - like, 'I have some money in my pocket, take it'. Now it's officially a programme," he says. "We have been sponsoring Korean artists as much as we can. Some artists have been with us for more than 20 years. We picked up some young artists fresh from their master's programmes and they have been with us since."

Gana Art has propelled the careers of countless young South Korean artists to international stardom, including photographer Bae Bien-u, painter Ko Young-hoon, and sculptor Yi Hwan-kwon.

And it was through the keen eyes of his father that Lee learnt to spot rising stars in the art community. After attending graduate school at New York University and completing his military service in South Korea, Lee's main role was to help diversify the arts and cultural environment at home.

"I was based in New York City, where one of my main jobs was to introduce Western artists to Korea. For Western artists, we don't try to make them more famous, we just try to introduce them to a Korean audience." He has worked with artists such as Britain's Marc Quinn and American sculptor Joel Shapiro.

"Back then, until 2006 even, the information Korean collectors had was very limited. They would only speak with people they were comfortable with, and they wouldn't even go on their own to research non-Korean artists unless a gallery recommended them."

But with the rising popularity overseas of South Korean electronics, films and television dramas, and with increased tourism, his homeland also began to open up culturally. "Nowadays, the market in Korea is getting even stronger in terms of people familiarising themselves with contemporary art," says Lee. "Contemporary art is now a huge chunk [of the market]. Classical art and ceramics are only very minimal."

In comparison, the situation in China is the opposite: "Collectors are only comfortable buying Chinese artwork, and it's not even contemporary. A huge portion of the market is actually in classical art and ceramics." This market should mature and contemporary art will be in higher demand, Lee says.

It is this intimate knowledge of the value of fine art that spurred Lee to launch Opus Auction, which frames its sales of fine arts, jewellery and high-end collectibles around the philosophy of affordable luxury - a concept that is garnering much popularity throughout Asia.

"With this generation [in Asia], the young professionals are Western-educated, they are business savvy and would rather spend their money on something both educational and with high resale value," he says.

"The behaviour with any wealth in the world - if you have the funds and you want to save it properly - is to invest in art. With a Ferrari its value depreciates too fast; with property, the tax can be a burden if you resell it."

Lee says that many of these young buyers know where to look. "Art prices have escalated so high over the past five years. The general public - especially young professionals - are now aware that prices are not cheap, but they are still interested. So they start to look for affordable art," he says. "They want to buy something in the mid-to-low price range, not in the millions to start with."

Prints or limited-edition works are one of the better options, says Lee. "Within a certain price range, you can buy a print, which is as good as any other original artwork - but the difference being that there are multiples of them. The value may be less, but they're certainly tradeable. For example, a Jeff Koons print can go for HK$400,000, with 2,300 prints in existence."

Through Opus Auction, Lee plans not only to enhance the accessibility and affordability of artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Takashi Murakami, but also bring new South Korean, Hong Kong and mainland artists into the foreground.

The company soft-launched in November last year and achieved sales of HK$17.5 million in its first round of auctions.

"I branched out on my own with Opus because I wanted to add value to the industry, not as a salesperson for my family's businesses. And Hong Kong is the hub for arts in Asia," he says of his venture.

"Right now we're looking to collaborate with foundations to promote young artists not only from Korea, but from Asia, as well as with other auction houses in Singapore, Japan and Korea."

Asked what South Korean artists collectors should look out for, Lee recommends Kim Jun-sik, Yi Hwan-kwon and Suh Do-ho. "If I bring a Kim Jun-sik [to Hong Kong] it'd be sold in a minute."