Are we facing art fair overload?

Hong Kong has hosted six major shows already this year, and more are planned next year. Exhibitors reveal why they choose to flock here

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 3:49am

Hong Kong reached a new peak of art madness last week. Besides the week-long autumn auctions by the major houses, a new fair showcasing emerging artists' works opened side by side of a fine art fair, putting tens of thousands of artworks in the market.

The Asia Contemporary Art Show - the new local art fair featuring works by emerging artists from the region - ends its four day run at the Grand Hyatt today, as does Fine Art Asia, the homegrown fine art and antiques fair seeking to be the flagship event of its kind in the region. Fine Art Asia is open to public at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

In addition to February's Korean-run Asia Top Gallery Hotel Art Fair; May's modern and contemporary fair ART HK; the new fair Spoon focusing on emerging artists, and the Asia International Arts & Antiques Fair, Hong Kong has already played host to six art fairs this year.

But with the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris looking to set up a mini version here next year and Art Basel's launch here after its acquisition of ART HK, the question is - just how many art fairs can Hong Kong swallow?

"It's great that Hong Kong is taking the centre stage, but it has become a bit frantic," says art critic Oscar Ho Hing-kay. "As the art markets in Europe and the US have gone downhill because of the pessimistic economic outlook, dealers are banking their hopes on Asia.

"The success of ART HK has created a network of infrastructure, from logistics to world media attention, supporting the art fair business.

"There's no tariff, free flow of capital and freedom of expression here. In Asia, there's no better place than Hong Kong to stage an art fair."

Frantic or not, the thriving art market in Asia has proved a great attraction to the West.

According to an Art Market Trends survey last year published by, China was the world's largest market for art trading, claiming 41.4 per cent - US$4.79 billion - of global art auction revenue last year. In comparison, the share claimed by the US, the second largest art market, was just 23.5 per cent, or US$2.72 billion, last year.

The top end of the market performed particularly well in Asia - 1.4 per cent of total auction revenue was generated by works of art worth US$1 million or more in Asia, as compared to just 0.3 per cent in the rest of the world. Of the 1,675 pieces sold in this high-end category, 774 came from China, the highest in any one country. Hong Kong alone sold twice more in this price range than Europe did last year. And the Western art world's hopes for Asia have translated into action.

Last year, Art Basel's parent company MCH Swiss Exhibition (Basel) acquired 60 per cent of Asian Art Fairs, the organiser of ART HK, which has established itself as a leading modern and contemporary art fair in Asia in just five years.

Many internationally known galleries such as London's White Cube and the Gagosian Gallery in the United States also opened shops in Hong Kong after showing at ART HK.

Mark Saunderson, director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show, believes there is still a gap in the market.

Based on the notion that not everyone can afford the pricey works and blue chip names as seen at most other fairs, his fair positions itself as showcasing "affordable" art works priced between HK$30,000 and HK$80,000. The venue is a series of hotel rooms, and the organisers have made a three-year commitment to the event.

"The gallery experience can be intimidating. If I'm looking for works priced around HK$50,000 to HK$60,000, where do I go?" says the Hong Kong-based gallerist. He explains that to buyers, a hotel room environment is much friendlier than the galleries' polished white walls.

As for the 50 galleries - around half are local ones - showing at the fair, the cost is much more manageable compared to fairs staged at the Convention Centre, as their main cost will be just the room charges, which can be covered by selling two works priced at around HK$50,000, Saunderson says.

On the other hand, Fine Art Asia, in its eighth edition, is intended for a more affluent crowd. It features more than 6,000 fine art pieces from more than 90 galleries from Hong Kong and around the world.

Highlights include Impressionist master Claude Monet's painting Pommiers en Fleurs (1878) from London's Galdwell & Company valued at a cool HK$66.3 million.

The gallery has also brought in realist contemporary works. An 1844 gold Victorian presentation box depicting the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, which created the British colony of Hong Kong, has been brought to Hong Kong by London antique silverware dealer Koopman Rare Art, which will also feature antique silverware made in Hong Kong and Canton (now Guangdong).

Andy Hei, Fine Art Asia's founder and director, says competition is keen not just among art fairs but also with auctions because everyone has been sourcing top quality works to bring to the market, especially in the antiques and fine art fields.

"Hong Kong is not an easy place, but dealers and fair organisers still come here. Where else is there to go?" Hei says.

"There is only a small pool of antiques available in the market. Dealers and auction houses compete with each other over art works for sale."

But Western dealers are still venturing to Asia despite the growing competition and economic headwinds at home.

London-based Albemarle Gallery is staging a solo show of Italian hyper-realist artist Luciano Ventrone for its Hong Kong debut at Fine Art Asia.

Alessandro Lorenzetti of the gallery says it has clients from Asia including Hong Kong, but hopes the exhibition can help expand the collector base, adding that the exhibition is not just about selling, but also to build up connections.

Lorenzetti says the tax-free status of sales in Hong Kong is very attractive to buyers. "It's like a great discount [on European prices]."

The former art market analyst says the abundance of art fairs isn't just a Hong Kong phenomenon but a global trend. Not every gallery can make it to major fairs such as London's Frieze Art Fair, he says, so many go for fringe fairs staged around the big ones.

"But there are probably too many fairs because they try to get similar clients," Lorenzetti says. "The focus [on art fairs] has grown so much in the last four years. It's good for promotion, but galleries have be selective and be clear about their goals and what clients they want to hit."

Cory Bristow, third generation of Gladwell & Company founded in 1752, says the gallery returned to Fine Art Asia this year because of last year's success.

Asian buyers were very fond of works such as those by surrealist master Salvatore Dali and Spanish modernist Joan Miro last year, she says.

Apart from the traditional big names, the gallery also brought Western contemporary realist works in a bid to attract more Asian collectors. Other than selling, Bristow says, the gallery also buys.

European dealers are keen to cultivate the new market in this part of the world.

Like the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, Netherlands, which drew great interest from potential customers in mainland China in March, the Biennale des Antiquaires held just two weeks ago at the Grand Palais in Paris also saw a number of high calibre buyers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China visiting the fair's 121 exhibitors. They included Hong Kong socialites Pansy Ho Chiu-king, Harriet Tung Wan Chi-wah, Leigh Tung and Tse Ling-ling.

Christian Deydier, president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, the biennale's organisers, says Chinese buyers have diverse interests.

"Usually ladies are more involved in jewellery first ... Some Shanghai people were interested in Islamic art and [antique] French furniture, and a few were interested in paintings," he says.

Deydier also revealed that as the Syndicat board would be re-elected within a month, the decision on whether to hold a mini-version of the biennale in Hong Kong will have to be reviewed after the new board settles in.

Coming to Hong Kong, as opposed to mainland China, would be a sensible choice in opening up a new market for European dealers, Deydier says. This is because of the uncertainties of the mainland's institutional and legal systems, he adds.

"It's tricky to go to China. China is a growing market, but we have to wait. We don't know anything about the tax and import. We have to create the market first," he says.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, has a reliable system that makes trading easier.

"Right now, Hong Kong is the base. In Hong Kong, you have [mainland] Chinese as well as people from other parts of Asia. It's the centre point," says Deydier.

Lee Siegelson, president of century old New York jewellery dealer Siegelson, has high confidence in Asia. His company, which exhibited at the biennale, returned this year to Fine Art Asia for the second year in a row.

"[China] is an expanding market. It will take a while to develop, to work the taste the market is looking for," says Siegelson, who specialises in antique and estate jewelleries.