Art Market

Lévy Gorvy Brings a New Twist to Hong Kong’s Class of Mega-Galleries

Nate Freeman
Mar 27, 2019 3:44PM

Exterior view of Lévy Gorvy's new space in Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

On Sunday, the global powerhouse gallery Lévy Gorvy inaugurated its first space in Hong Kong with all the local flourishes: a traditional lion dance; a full, crispy-skinned suckling pig served eyes-in and carved up in the gallery; and a ribbon-cutting surrounded by bushels of flowers sent by well-wishers in the art community. But the most important element of the opening celebration was the feng shui master.

“We had a feng shui master all the way through,” said Dominique Lévy, a co-founder of the mega gallery, which now has showrooms in New York, London, and Hong Kong, along with offices in Zurich, Shanghai, and Taipei. “He chose the time of cutting the pig, the time of the lion dancing, and he did it at the right hour because it has to be the moment when the sun is not completely straight.”

Installation view of “Return to Nature,” at Lévy Gorvy, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.


The next day, the gallery’s 2,500-square-foot storefront in the city’s Central District was flooding with Lévy Gorvy clients who had arrived for the opening of a group show featuring works by Chinese, Japanese, and Western artists, timed to coincide with this week’s Art Basel in Hong Kong fair. Lévy was sitting in the elegant, wood-lined private office, which has a few small but expensive works brought for specific clients, including Marc Chagall’s Les Villageois (1979), a small Alberto Giacometti bronze head, and a stunning 1932 Picasso, Le Sauvetage.

“The feng shui master chose this spot for the office,” Lévy said, “because it has the energy of the East.”

The energy of the East seems to be strong not only in the new Lévy Gorvy locale, but also in the outposts of the many art-market powerhouses that have alighted on Hong Kong Island in the last two years. Lévy Gorvy’s arrival comes on the heels of a big 2018 for the city’s gallery scene: Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and Pace Gallery all opened spaces within blocks of existing Gagosian, White Cube, and Perrotin locations. For a growing number of dealers, Hong Kong is no longer a city they can parachute into once a year during the fair.

A must-have for mega-dealers

From left to right: Dominique Lévy, Danqing Li, and Brett Gorvyat the opening of Lévy Gorvy, Hong Kong, 2019. Photo by Ben Wan. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

“We were very much encouraged by David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth to open,” Brett Gorvy said. “There’s a real belief that together, you have a greater ability to actually make something where people come and there’s much more constant market and more fundamental market than something which is just basically transitory—something that just happens at the time of the art fair or happens at the time of the big auctions which often happened in Hong Kong.”

Gorvy was also sitting in the office on Monday, fielding congratulatory phone calls from fellow gallerists. (“Hi Paula, how are you? It’s open at five, but I mean, everyone’s coming in, the door’s open—Per came in earlier.”) He explained that although the current incarnation of the gallery is just two years old—it was founded in 2017, after Gorvy left his post as the chairman of the post-war and contemporary department at Christie’s to join his former auction house colleague in the gallery world—he and Lévy have long histories in the city predating their partnership.

Hongtao Tu, Birds Tweet Through the Forest, 2017–18. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

Gorvy spent decades coming to the city on Christie’s business, and two weeks before announcing his departure, he capped his auction house career with “The Loaded Brush,” a private selling exhibition that brought masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Hong Kong. In justifying what some saw as a futile attempt to unload unthinkably expensive works totaling $250 million to $280 million in value, Gorvy told Bloomberg that he knew 25 to 30 collectors in Asia who can spend $40 million to $50 million on a single artwork. (The house did not release sales information from the show.) Lévy, for her part, started coming to Art Basel in Hong Kong the year it launched, in 2013, and connected with the clientele immediately. At the fair’s first edition, she showed a booth full of Andy Warhol dollar-bill paintings priced as high as $6.5 million.

When Gorvy jumped from the rostrum to the white cube, he immediately started working with Lévy on a strategy for Asia, and recruited Danqing Li, a colleague from Christie’s who connected the house with buyers in mainland China.

“When I joined Dominique, the first thing I did was I picked up a phone and I called Danqing and I said, ‘Number one, I want you to join me,’” Gorvy said. “I also saw her as being fundamental, as if we were going to do something here, it was not going to be imparted or imported from New York or London. It had to be something which was real.”

Critical mass

Exterior view of Lévy Gorvy's new space in Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

At first, the strategy was centered on Li running Asia reconnaissance from the office in Shanghai, with no plans to open a full space. “We wanted to ultimately have a presence in mainland China,” Gorvy said. Opening an office first “gave us time to think about what was right for us.”

In that time, Hong Kong emerged as the place in Asia where existing and aspiring mega-galleries from the West were planting their flags, spurred in part by its advantageous status as a tariff-free port. White Cube has had a gallery on Connaught Road since 2012; Pace has been in the Entertainment Building since 2014; and in the Pedder Building down the block, there is Gagosian’s local outpost, a group of spaces run by London dealers Ben Brown and Simon Lee and the Italian dealer Massimo de Carlo, and a snug Lehmann Maupin showroom.

The tipping point was last year’s opening of H Queens, where David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Pace have one or two floors each, and are just a quick elevator ride away from longtime local dealer Pearl Lam, an outpost of Seoul Auctions, and several other galleries based in Asia, all stacked on top of one another in an art skyscraper custom-built for galleries. This year, Sprüth Magers has a pop-up show on the ground floor opening the week of the fair. The arrival of such powerhouses may have cemented Hong Kong’s status as a gallery hub, but Gorvy and Lévy both said that when they were here a year ago, they felt no pressure to open in Hong Kong until it was the absolute right space—and H Queens was not the right space for them.

Installation view of “Return to Nature,” at Lévy Gorvy, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

“David [Zwirner] and Iwan [Wirth] had been talking very much about H Queens, and we went, and we realized it just wasn’t for us,” Gorvy said. “We didn’t want to have a space where clients would have to go up in the elevator, where they basically have this smorgasbord of a lot of different galleries to go through. Where is the privacy?”

What they were looking for was something that Gorvy likened to a Kunstverein, particularly since it wouldn’t need to support a traditional program with a roster of dozens of artists. While Lévy Gorvy does represent and co-represent certain artists, it is still a secondary market operation at heart, with a full advisory service that bids for clients at auction and an art fund that launched recently in New York. Backroom sales sustain the gallery as much as the public-facing exhibitions and fairs. Last year, de Kooning’s Untitled XII (1975) sold for $35 million at Lévy Gorvy’s Art Basel in Hong Kong booth, but Gorvy said he’s sold much more expensive works in private transactions. They didn’t need the same kind of space as the typical mega-gallery, he added, describing the new outpost as a hybrid between a living room, a salon, and a library.

Lévy concurred, adding that they were very careful not to replicate other Lévy Gorvy spaces.

“We didn’t want to come here and do a big white box and be an American gallery in Hong Kong,” she said. “We honestly felt this was very obnoxious in a way, or pretentious. Let’s come here understanding who are the people we want to work with, let’s come on small footsteps and on footsteps that people can relate to, and not come all, ‘Bang bang bang! This is New York, New York!’”

The right fit

Claude Monet, Le Rio de la Salute, 1908. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

Yinxian Wu, Chinese Hibiscus 010, 1977. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

There was also the matter of finding the perfect location in a city full of collectors who are known to be put off not just by far-out neighborhoods, but by far-out blocks within a neighborhood.

“Through these conversations, we realized you had to be in Central, and you had to be literally in one particular place,” Gorvy said. “This is not to put White Cube down, because clearly they do very well, but we were told that the White Cube space was literally one block too far, or Perrotin was one block that way, and it was just too far out.”

And just as Gorvy and Lévy were on the hunt for a space, Graff Diamonds, the fancy rock enterprise started by the billionaire jeweler and art collector Laurence Graff, decided to move down the street. What remained was a unicorn: a ground-floor unit with 13-foot-high ceilings in the middle of Central.

“We visited many, many spaces, but I have a close friendship with Laurence Graff, and when he told me he was leaving to move [to] just the other quarter, I jumped on this location,” Lévy said. “So suddenly this happened, we signed the lease seven months ago, we did the construction in less than four months. It was incredibly quick, and incredibly ambitious.”

Joan Mitchell, La Frande Vallée VII, 1983. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.

The space is also right next to the Mandarin Oriental, one of the city’s beloved hotels and the one that happens to house the Captain’s Bar, a favored watering hole for expat gallerists to schmooze and talk deals over martinis and tankards of chilled beer.

“To be right next to the Mandarin—apart from the fact that’s the hotel I always stay in, which is very convenient for breakfast—it just allows for people to come and walk in and discover us,” Gorvy said.

While the gallery will have exhibitions all year round regardless of whether clients are in town for auctions or fairs, Tuesday’s opening was timed to Art Basel in Hong Kong’s seventh edition. The gallery is applying a two-pronged strategy for the week: At the fair, its booth includes works by artists represented by the gallery, such as Dan Colen and Pat Steir. At the space, the opening offering is “Return to Nature,” a group exhibition that pairs works by Chinese and Japanese artists—many of whose studios in mainland China Gorvy and Li visited last fall—with European and American mainstays, including Wassily Kandisky, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, and one show-topping diptych by Joan Mitchell. Gorvy said he could have brought a work worth $15 million to $20 million to the fair, but why not install such a masterpiece at his spiffy new gallery instead and sell it there? (When referencing the “hypothetical” $15 million to $20 million work, Gorvy gestured to the 1932 Picasso behind him.)

And while Lévy Gorvy is opening a space in its own idiosyncratic way, feng shui master and all, the move is part of a larger cultural shift tied to the opening of institutions such as Tai Kwun and the long-awaited M+, which will soon make Hong Kong a place where contemporary art is embedded in the consciousness year-round.

“It’s actually the galleries now that I think have such an important part to play as a community,” Gorvy said. “That, to me, is the most exciting part of being in this. I do believe we’re at the beginning of something.”

Nate Freeman