Art Basel 2016

Art Basel Hong Kong sees off fears of art market slump, to relief of galleries

Deals in first two days of Asia’s biggest contemporary art fair dispelled exhibitors’ worst fears about buyers’ appetite, with gallerist David Zwirner’s comment, ‘Things don’t look too bad’, perhaps summing up the mood

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2016, 11:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2016, 3:16pm

The mood at Art Basel Hong Kong wasn’t exactly euphoric on Wednesday evening, but it was one of quiet relief. Galleries had generally sold enough to dispel the worst fears about the primary art market two days into Asia’s biggest contemporary art fair.

By the time the vernissage was over at 9pm, galleries had a good idea of how well they’d done this year, as most serious collectors would have visited before the gates opened to the public on Thursday.

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Most booths said there were obviously fewer people visiting the fair compared with 2015 and offers came more in a trickle than a flood. But they were definitely selling.

The de Sarthe Gallery (Beijing, Hong Kong) brought a very diverse range of artwork to the show this year, from Gerhard Richter to Jiro Yoshihara. Pascal de Sarthe, the gallery’s co-founder, said buyers had bought works by younger artists as well as paintings by blue-chip names such as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun.

“The first piece we sold was Ma Sibo’s A Day Within A Day. Today we sold two works by Lin Jingjing. These are less expensive works, around US$10,000-US$20,000. But we’ve also sold a Zao Wou-ki to a Taiwanese collector.”

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He said people kept talking about a Chinese downturn but he had still received a couple of offers from Chinese collectors, one of whom was new to buying art. Other buyers were from Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Alexandre Roesler, partner and senior director of Brazil’s Nara Roesler Gallery, was still waiting for a buyer for Isaac Julien’s stunning video work Stones Against Diamonds. But he did receive offers for a few works by Vik Muniz, Tomie Ohtake and Cristina Canale.

His booth was one of the busiest in the fair, as a big, shimmering Julio Le Parc screen proved irresistible to the many smartphone snappers – though that work, Cloison à lames réfléchissantes, had not sold either.

“Opening day on Tuesday was great. There were lots of people, but it is quieter today. Still, we’ve sold a few pieces. This year definitely meets my expectations,” Roesler said.

The gallery had been steadily building up its Asian clientele, though the US remained its main international focus, he added. It opened its first overseas branch in New York recently.

Zheng Lin, founder of Tang Contemporary Art, said sales were satisfactory. He said two pairs of Cai Lei’s sculptural illusions sold for 360,000 yuan (HK$430,000) each. Zhao Zhao’s shattered mirrored glass, a work referring to the recent deadly chemical explosions in Tianjin, China, was sold to a Chinese collector living in Hong Kong.

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South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, which dedicated its booth to William Kentridge, had sold about half the works it brought to Hong Kong by Wednesday. The solo exhibition includes some images familiar to Chinese visitors. There were new works related to Kentridge’s film, Notes Towards a Model Opera, based on research about Maoist ideals and propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.

Pace sold 19 works within the first three hours of the fair, ranging in price from US$20,000 to US$2.75 million and including two Robert Rauschenbergs. They were bought primarily by collectors from China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

David Zwirner, the New York gallerist who flew over Belgian artist Michael Borremans this year, sold all five of his paintings on day one to Asian collectors.

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.

“I am not in the business of feeling relaxed, but things don’t look too bad,” he said.

Zeno X Gallery also brought over some of Borremans’ unsettling but beautiful painted pictures of faceless figures. The Antwerp gallery still had a few unsold.

Another seven-figure sale was registered at Dominique Lévy Gallery, which sold Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled, 2010 for its asking price of US$1.9 million.

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The most important buyers may have come and gone, but galleries expect the public opening days to yield more deals.

Art Basel remained the best place to help artists gain exposure in Asia, said Roesler, so footfall during the public opening days did matter to him.

“Some people say that the coming Easter public holiday would affect visitors number as locals go away for the holidays. I’m not sure if that’s true, as the art fair may make Hong Kong an Easter holiday destination for people living in other Asian countries. We will see,” he said.