The timing of the fourth Art Basel Hong Kong was hardly auspicious. Data suggested less art was being sold around the world, and the March 22-26 fair overlapped with the Easter long weekend, a popular time to go on holiday. Even the weather forecast was foul.
By the time the last of the 70,000 visitors had left the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on a fine and dry Saturday, the mood at Asia’s largest contemporary art fair was one of quiet relief, if not exactly euphoria. Most of the 239 galleries that had paid HK$100,000 to HK$726,000 for a booth made a profit despite predictions collectors would stay away since so many Asia-Pacific economies – from China to commodities-dependent Indonesia and Australia – are seeing slower growth.
Earlier this month, The European Fine Art Fair art market report showed sales in China (including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) fell 23 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014; and auction houses Sotheby’s and Christies reported sales during “Asia week” in New York had fallen sharply compared with the sales in March 2015.
But there was no such fall at Art Basel in Hong Kong. If anything, gallerists looked slightly overwhelmed by the size of the crowds. Organisers had to stop selling tickets by mid-afternoon on the last two days of the fair for fear exhibits would be damaged. Far from causing a drop in visitors, the fair’s timing over the Easter weekend resulted in more visitors both to Art Basel and Art Central, the satellite fair now in its second year. Both events reported record attendance.
“I’ve never seen crowds like this in all my years of going to art fairs around the world,” said Alexandre Roesler, partner at Brazil’s Nara Roesler Gallery, who first exhibited in Hong Kong in 2013.
However, heavy footfall does not necessarily mean more business. Art Basel’s three modern and contemporary art fairs (the others are in Basel and Miami) are often referred to as supermarkets for art because they are the biggest in the business and a must-go for major galleries and collectors; this is what makes them such bellwethers of the art market. But they only represent the top end of the market; international exhibitor Pace Gallery sold a work from its Art Basel booth for US$2.75 million, for example. Walk-in visitors queuing for tickets from Thursday to Saturday were unlikely to be major buyers, as serious collectors would have received VIP cards for the previews on Tuesday and Wednesday, a time when most deals were struck.
Art Basel does not give out sales figures, but by most accounts sales were steady. However, the visitors who mattered did not hang around as long as they did in 2015. Opening day on Tuesday was great, said Roesler, but the second day – which normally would be the day when many collectors return to close deals – was quieter than in 2015.
It was not that the fair was less interesting this year, as most visitors found the works on show to be both more diverse and of a higher quality than in previous years. “It might be the economy. People are buying less spontaneously,” said Hilda Chan of Gallery Exit in Aberdeen, Hong Kong.
Gallerists, while keeping an eye out for approaching collectors, were themselves trying to divine some meaning in the sales figures. Some speculated that macroeconomic concerns made buyers more cautious. Some thought that regional collectors had become more knowledgeable of the art market and therefore less impetuous. Others said even if sales were more a trickle than a flood, they showed that art remained a safe-haven asset in turbulent times.
Both Gallery Exit and Nara Roesler said they were satisfied with sales. To the delight of Roesler, people continued buying well into the final day of the show. On Saturday, he sold a work by Marco Maggi, who represented Uruguay in last year’s Venice Biennale.
Nancy Mo, a local collector who also runs an art school, said buying art wasn’t always about the economy. “Ultimately, it depends on whether you find something you like. I didn’t buy anything this year because when I made an offer for works by a young artist, I discovered they had already been snapped up by someone else,” she said.
One local gallery had a very different Art Basel this year compared with 2015, and put that down to content. Blindspot Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang had graduated from the smaller, “Insight” section reserved for Asian galleries. Last year, it only presented works by Trevor Young, who happened to be shortlisted for the Art Basel BMW Art Journey award at the time. Everything was sold. “This year, we’ve sold less than half of our group exhibition but we are still quite happy with the result given that our booth is much bigger than last year,” said Lesley Kwok, gallery manager.
Hadrien de Montferrand, a Beijing-based dealer, said despite all the fears about China’s economy, his gallery had done better because the Chinese authorities had decided to enforce strictly inheritance tax, which is applied to assets handed over to offspring within a few years of a parent’s death. “They have started doing this in Shenzhen this year, as an experiment, and people expect this to spread around the country. That’s why many wealthy parents are handing over money to children early, and why I’ve suddenly been getting a lot of new, young clients,” he said.
Big, international dealers with sophisticated marketing machinery and enviable client lists tend to be less susceptible to economic headwinds and such buyers, from all over Asia-Pacific, including Australia, remain hungry.
New York-based David Zwirner, who flew over Belgian artist Michael Borremans this year, sold all five of his paintings on day one. The biggest, called The Shaker, went to China’s Long Museum for US$1.6 million. He also sold Luc Tuymans’ Forever for the same amount. “We had the best opening day ever in Hong Kong,” said Julia Joern, gallery partner.
Pace Gallery said it sold 19 works in the opening three hours of the fair, including two large works by Robert Rauschenberg from the 1980s.
Brand recognition counts. Nearby, Antwerp-based Zeno X Gallery, in Hong Kong for the first time, found it harder to shift its collection of Borremans’ unsettling but beautifully painted figures.
This is less of an issue at Art Central and the Asian Contemporary Art Show. Art Central, held in a giant, temporary white marquee on the Central district harbourfront, is more of an Art Basel overflow while the contemporary art fair is hotel-based and targets the more affordable end of the market.
Attendance at Art Central, which also finished on Saturday, went up from 30,000 to 32,000 in its second year and galleries felt it was filled to capacity. Here, the public as well as the VIPs did a lot of buying, said John Martin, a gallerist from London who brought over artist Andrew Gifford’s irresistibly old-fashioned oil landscapes of Hong Kong. He sold 25 of them, priced from around HK$75,000 to HK$320,000. Final numbers from the contemporary art fair, which closed on Sunday evening, have yet to be released.
First-time Art Basel exhibitor Solene Guillier, from gb agency in Paris, was ambivalent about the crowds pushing their way into her screening room, which showed artist Omer Fast’s intriguing, 40-minute film Spring. It was one of a number of presentations at Art Basel this year which helped to raise the overall quality of a largely commercial collection of contemporary art.
“It’s great that so many people want to see it. But exhibitors like us pay a lot of money to be here in order to attract the attention of museums and major collectors. How can they see our exhibition properly when there are so many people? This crowd belongs to museums, not art fairs,” Guillier said. She said she was aware there was a shortage of art museums in Hong Kong at the moment.
Will she come back next year? “It’s too early to decide,” she said.