Hong Kong becomes global hub for auction houses

Prestigious auction houses are flocking to the city and bringing millions of dollars in their pursuit for a gateway between Asia and Europe

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 3:31am

Hong Kong's prowess in the global art market is growing, as more Asian auction houses utilise the city as an international launch pad.

This autumn will see Beijing's China Guardian and Poly International - the world's third and fourth largest auction houses, respectively, according to market information leader Artprice - open their first auctions here.

Taiwan's Ravenel Art Group has already established a Hong Kong office, making the city the centre of its Asia business.

Ravenel's chairman Arthur Wang Cheng-hua said while setting up an office in Hong Kong was costly, it was crucial for the company's global expansion.

"Hong Kong is a very important platform for art trading in the world," Wang said. "After taking the step to internationalise our business, we decided [moving to Hong Kong] was an essential part of the plan."

The 13-year-old auction house launched its first Hong Kong sale of modern and contemporary art in the bumpy year of 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. This spring, Ravenel sold a painting by Chinese abstract artist Chu The-chun for HK$21.9 million.

"Hong Kong already has great influence in the world's [art market]. It enjoys the growth of the mainland Chinese market as well as attention from Europe and America," Wang said. "In three years' time, Hong Kong's art auction market will have grown tremendously."

About 20 to 30 per cent of Ravenel's clients now come from the mainland.

With a 42 per cent share of the world art market, China has now surpassed the United States' 23 per cent stake, according to The European Fine Art Foundation.

Meanwhile, Artprice's Art Market Trends 2011 named Hong Kong as the world's fourth biggest art auction market, after it generated US$796 million last year.

The majority of Hong Kong's sales were conducted through Sotheby's, the world's top auction house, which raked in US$405 million last year. Christies earned US$341 million in the city in the same period.

The Artprice report named Beijing as the world's most profitable city last year, generating art auction revenue of US$3.17 billion. New York came second with US$2.593 billion and London was third place with US$2.214 billion.

Despite the world's four major players selling in Hong Kong at the same time this autumn, together with the competition from niche houses such as Seoul Auction, Asian Art Auction Alliance, Est-Ouest Auctions and Tiancheng, Wang said he was confident Ravenel had an appropriate strategy.

He said the number of lots in the auction house's November sale would be smaller, focusing on more high end works.

The consignments are yet to be finalised, but it is known there will be a Zao Wou-ki 1952 oil painting La Mer Perdue, with an estimate on request, and a 1990 painting called Pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, expected to fetch up to HK$8 million.

In Hong Kong, Ravenel shares a building in Central with fellow international galleries White Cube and Galerie Perrotin.

Wang said the group would also be hosting exhibitions to conduct private sales of art works. The move comes after Sotheby's Hong Kong opened a gallery space in Admiralty to strengthen its retail business.

Wang said auction houses tapping into the primary or retail art market was a trend, but denied a clash of interests, as works by Asian artists were the focus of auctions, while Western impressionist and modern works were the priority of private sales.

He also acknowledged the economic climate had changed the art world, with buyers increasingly purchasing art based on their interests rather than for speculative purposes.