"The Present Is China": Surging Sales at Hong Kong's Ascendant ART HK Fair, Though Mainland Chinese Collectors Remain Elusive

"The Present Is China": Surging Sales at Hong Kong's Ascendant ART HK Fair, Though Mainland Chinese Collectors Remain Elusive

In a sign of how much they value their new investment, MCH Swiss Exhibition, which recently bought a majority share in ART HK, has decided that — for 2012 at least — the date for the fair will stay in May, and not move to February as previously announced.



The February plan fell flat with many in the region, who wondered how the organizers could have missed the clash with Chinese New Year, which can fall anytime between late January and late February. A spokesperson for ART HK told ARTINFO China: "It was a mutual decision by ART HK and Art Basel to move the Fair to February, and we were confident that there was sufficient distance from Chinese New Year. However, a number of galleries, collectors, and suppliers expressed concern. We have listened to their advice and acted upon it swiftly by moving the dates. The long-term plan remains to move the Fair to early Spring, and we are looking at suitable dates."



The attractions to MCH of a February date were obvious, sitting neatly as it does between December's Art Basel Miami Beach and June's Art Basel. But in bowing to local sentiments MCH reflects the experience of many who aim to do business in the region — that you ignore cultural realities at your peril.



The date change was announced amid widespread enthusiasm at the 2011 success of the fair, which now seems firmly established as the natural entry point for galleries seeking to access the local market and for collectors interested in visiting a genuinely international fair. Visitors totaled 63,511, up more than a third from last year, and coming close to the numbers that flocked to Art Basel last June.

As reported earlier business was strong at ART HK's vernissage, and sales continued steadily throughout the five-day span of the event instead of being largely an opening-night phenomenon as is common at other international fairs. Noted American-Chinese collector Richard Chang joked that he had been worried that his opening-night duties as a member of ART HK's advisory noard would prevent him "getting his shopping done," but he found plenty left to appreciate later in the fair, notably picking up an edition of Chinese star Cao Fei's latest video work "Shadow Play" (2011) (which ARTINFO China also chose as one of our favorites at this year's ART HK).

For many of the galleries, however, the mainland Chinese collector remained an elusive beast, with most business coming from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia, in addition to Europe and the United States. Notable exceptions to this experience were Western galleries Cheim and Read, Galerie Gmurzynska, and Hauser & Wirth, each of which made major sales to mainland Chinese collectors. Interestingly, these buyers were operating well outside their compatriots' normal comfort zone. Cheim and Read sold a Louise Bourgeois painting "The Geometry of Pleasure" (2009) for $750,000 and a number of Bourgeois works on paper at $70,000 each, while Zurich's Galerie Gmurzynska sold Fernando Botero's "Flying Eagles" (2008) for $650,000. Meanwhile Hauser & Wirth placed a work by India's Bharti Kher with a Beijing collector for $265,000. (Can it be a coincidence that legendary collector baron Guy Ullens recently cited Kher as an artist he was collecting now that his interest in Chinese contemporary art was waning.)

Other headline sales: Liu Wei's ox hide sculpture of Tibet's Potala Palace — "Don't Touch" (2011) — which Beijing's Long March Space sold to a European collector for an undisclosed six-figure sum (in U.S. dollars), and White Cube's sale to an Asian collector of Jake & Dinos Chapman's "Dass Kapital ist Kaput? Ja? Nein! Dummkopf!" (2008) for £525,000 (something like $857,000).

Away from these stand-out results, a number of lower-profile galleries also found new contacts at the fair and did good business. The alleys of the Asia One section devoted to regional galleries and artists were thronged with visitors and participants who seemed more than satisfied with the experience. Istanbul's Rampa Gallery was pleasantly surprised at the response to the wry critique by Nilbar Güre? of Turkey’s patriarchal society in her video and photographic works, and went on to report good sales. Beijing and New York's Chambers Fine Art sold multiple panels of the paper cut landscape which Wu Jian'an created especially for their booth (at  $25,000 per panel) while Beijing's Platform China almost sold out of paintings by up-and- comer Zhou Yilun. Showing works ranging in price from $2,000 to $180,000, Platform found homes for these in collections in the UK, Taiwan, Shanghai, Beijing, Switzerland, and the U.S.

Showing in the main part of the fair, New York's Lombard Freid Projects presented an impressive collection of Asian artists — Cao Fei, U.S.-Taiwanese artist Lee Ming Wei, Lee Kit from Hong Kong, and Eko Nugroho from Indonesia — and enjoyed strong sales, placing almost all the works by Nugroho, as well as three editions of Cao Fei's "Shadow Play" (two to museums and one, as noted above, to Richard Chang), as well as a number of Cao's photographic works. Gallery partner Lea Freid was impressed by the "strong and serious independent spirit" she found in Hong Kong: "Collectors seemed to be highly immersed and passionate about their local scenes," she said. "They spent time with us at the booth in discussions — and making suggestions of artists for the gallery to check out." As for the work, Fried was "inspired by [its] quality and originality, and the energy and almost futurist passions of the young curators and the many freelancers working in Asia at the moment." She is in no doubt that the gallery will return again next year.

Galerie Lelong of Paris, Zürich, and New York were on their second outing at the fair. Their vice president Mary Sabbatino felt the market in Hong Kong was still learning when it came to international art. "The collector base for Western/international contemporary art is highly specific. People aren't looking to make impulse purchases of a new artist they like, as happens in Miami or in Basel or other art fairs. My anecdotal observation is that there was great interest in contemporary Chinese painting and interest in some 'brand' artists. Interest in other artists was spotty." This being said she pointed to Cheim and Reid and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin as galleries that did manage to break through. Sabbatino sees Hong Kong as "a great platform and the art fair for visibility in the Asian market." She too will be back in 2012: "I have 1,000 Chinese-language business cards now, so I need to use them!"

Summing things up at the end of the fair, Arne Glimcher, Pace Gallery's bullish chairman, has no doubt that ART HK is where it's at. "People say the future is China," he said. Then he confidently trumped himself: "The present is China."