Art Market

What Sold at Art Basel in Hong Kong

Nate Freeman
Apr 1, 2019 12:25AM

Installation view of Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon, 2019, at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2019, presented jointly by Lehmann Maupin, PKM gallery, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Couresty © Art Basel.

On the roof-deck of the Murray hotel in Hong Kong on Wednesday night, after the VIP opening of the city’s Art Basel fair, power dealer David Zwirner shimmied through the crowd at his gallery’s dance party and approached Marc Spiegler, the Swiss fair behemoth’s global director, to debrief. Zwirner had brought an ambitious booth highlighted by four new twisty sculptures by Carol Bove, who has never had a solo show in Asia, priced at $400,000 and $500,000. A historical portrait painting by Alice Neel was available for $1.7 million, an ambitious price tag for any fair. A Luc Tuymans painting was priced at $1.5 million, high enough to beat all but two of the artist’s auction results.

When Spiegler asked how he’d performed in the fair’s opening hours, Zwirner, eyes wide, bellowed, “We had a white-glove sale.”

He was perhaps not the first person to apply that auction-world phrase to a booth at a fair, but it was warranted. Zwirner had sold every last thing in the booth, a far cry from the year before, when his booth’s centerpiece, a large stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons, failed to find a buyer.

Zwirner echoed the prevailing narrative spun by dealers, fair directors, and visiting museum curators here in Hong Kong: Despite a correction in the Chinese art-buying frenzy that caused auctions in Hong Kong to drop 22 percent year-to-year in 2018, the city’s premier art-market moment was a success across the board, due in part to Korean and Taiwanese collectors stepping up and buying big and often, according to several dealers. While there were no trophy lots in the league of the $35 million Willem de Kooning work that sold at the Lévy Gorvy booth at this fair a year ago, larger galleries were consistently selling works for over $1 million, and some galleries with outposts in town reported sold-out exhibitions.

Carol Bove
Melty Legs, 2018
David Zwirner

Carol Bove, The Golden Game, 2018. © Carol Bove. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.


The performance contributed to the idea that, increasingly, the fair’s importance has become second only to the 49-year-old Art Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland, despite launching as a regional expo just 11 years ago, and then rebranding as an Art Basel fair in 2013. The key, says Art Basel’s Asia director Adeline Ooi, is the fact that the buying habits of collectors in China, a country that minted 44 new billionaires in 2018—in the midst of a region with many, many more—are still evolving, and Hong Kong is still building up the cultural infrastructure that could continue to enhance its art-market dominance.

“Our show is so young, we’re still a baby compared to everything else that’s around in the world,” Ooi said in an interview in the collector’s lounge, nestled atop the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. “The collectors are so young here and new here, there are no set rules. There is no longer a set formula or set progression of how one goes about collecting. This is the fun bit about being in Asia—the possibilities and the potential.”

The shifting tastes could be seen in the vast chasm between the types of works that were selling at the highest levels. The top-selling artists at the Zwirner booth included Neel, a female figurative painter who died in 1984, and Tuymans, a 61-year-old Belgian figurative painter, but also the newest addition to the Zwirner roster, Liu Ye. The Chinese artist’s works have topped $5 million at auction in China, but his paintings haven’t been offered at the New York auction houses of Christie’s, Phillips, or Sotheby’s in nearly a decade. At Art Basel in Hong Kong, the small Book Painting No. 6 (2014–15) sold in the opening hours for $350,000.

A similar diversity at the highest level of sales was happening at Hauser & Wirth, which, like Zwirner, is a global mega-gallery that opened its first gallery in Asia last year when it took up two floors in Hong Kong’s H Queen’s building. Many of the big-ticket items in Hauser & Wirth’s booth were, intriguingly, new works by African-American artists—as Ooi said, “African-American artists in Asia is not something that we commonly would expect, but it is going well.” Mark Bradford’s Superman (2019) sold for $2 million, and the first work offered from the estate of the late Jack Whitten, The Eleventh Loop (Dedicated To The Memory Of Adrienne Rich) (2012), sold for $1.7 million. Lorna Simpson’s Blue True Illustration (2019) sold for $425,000.

“The change in the perception in the market of African-American artists is very dominant, right?” Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot said in the booth. “That’s what we talk about—diversity not just in art, but in everything. We need to go further and really establish these artists in the world as important artists and work on their markets. The Lorna Simpson piece went to an Asian museum, which will follow with a show. You can’t get any better. That’s exactly what we want.”

Liu Ye 刘野
Book Painting No. 6, 2014-2015
David Zwirner

Hauser & Wirth gave the prime real estate in its booth to a 2017 abstract painting by Zeng Fanzhi, the Chinese artist in his mid-fifties who became a bonanza for auction houses when his painting The Last Supper (2001) sold for $23.3 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013, setting a record for a work of Asian contemporary art. After failing to find a buyer on the first day, the gallery announced late Thursday that it had successfully sold the work for a “multi-million” price, which the gallery would not elaborate upon. (An abstract painting by the artist comparable in size and look was being offered by Hauser & Wirth last year for $3 million.)

Pace Gallery had a similar mix of American artists and Asian artists, as it presented works by Yoshitomo Nara and Zhang Xiaogang—both of whom were included in the inaugural show at Pace’s first gallery in Asia, which opened in Beijing in 2008—alongside Adam Pendleton. Nara’s How Yer Doing? Stayin’ True to You? (2006) sold for $650,000; two Xiaogang works sold for $300,000 each; and Pendleton’s Untitled (masks) (2018) sold for $140,000. An even more Instagram-worthy Nara work was to be found at the booth of Blum & Poe: White Riot (2010), an enormous ceramic sculpture with a $950,000 price tag that was almost as imposing as its substantial girth. Nara’s distinctive canine could easily fill up an entire room, and because it’s ceramic, it cannot be installed outside, Blum & Poe director Emily Alderman explained in the booth. And yet by the end of the fair’s second VIP preview—the ticket-buying public was not let in until Friday—the work had sold for its asking price, though the gallery wouldn’t comment on the identity of the buyer.

Jack Whitten, The Eleventh Loop (Dedicated to The Memory Of Adrienne Rich), 2012. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Other high-priced sales at the fair included:

  • Nam June Paik’s Columbus (Eco-Lumbus) + Columbus Boat (1991)—a show-stopping assemblage of 11 televisions stacked atop a wooden boat, with its female figurehead flanked by two laser disc players—which sold for $600,000 at Annely Juda Fine Art.
  • Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Elvis (1962), which sold at the White Cube booth on the fair’s first day for $2.8 million.
  • Zao Wou-Ki’s 17.02.71-12.05.76 (1971), which sold to an Asian collector at the Cardi Gallery booth for $1.8 million.
  • Willem de Kooning’s Seated Woman (1969/1980), which had an asking price of $975,000 and sold at the Skarstedt booth.
  • Georg Baselitz’s Immer noch unterwegs (2014), which sold at the booth of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac for €1.6 million ($1.8 million) in the fair’s opening hours. Next door, Gagosian had an even larger, more breathtaking Baselitz that also sold, though the gallery would not reveal the price.

Much hand-wringing occurred over whether or not some of the works actually traded hands during the fair, or were sold in private transactions arranged beforehand, making their appearance at the expo beside the point. There was some gossip about how David Kordansky had informed some people (including this reporter) of the fair sales of two works by Jonas Wood for $175,000 and $120,000, and a Fred Eversley work for $250,000—but sent the email out before the fair even opened, thereby acknowledging pre-sales practices that are assumed to be widespread anyway.

Gagosian offered a work by Albert Oehlen in an elaborate online viewing room, and planned to have it available through the week—the thinking went that if the work was offered at the steep price of $6 million, well above Oehlen’s $4.7 million auction record, it would take some time to find a willing buyer. But instead, it sold days before Art Basel in Hong Kong opened and hours after it went live online, for the listed price. Similarly, a gallery rep at Galerie Max Hetzler told me that all five Oehlens in the booth had been placed in Asian collections prior to the fair. The gallery didn’t comment on who the collectors were, but Budi Tek, the billionaire who opened the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, posted a picture of him and his wife in the booth on Instagram.

Lorna Simpson, Blue True Illustration, 2019. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Mark Bradford, Superman, 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

For all the sales in the seven-figure range, there was every indication that the air is thinning as prices get above $10 million. There was nothing on offer even close to the $35 million an Asian collector paid for the de Kooning last year; there were no buyers for Andy Warhol’s Five Deaths on Turquoise (1963) or David Hockney’s Henry Reading (1985), both priced at $15 million at the Acquavella booth. Van de Weghe had Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Onion Gum (1983) in its booth, causing at least one fairgoer severe art-world déjà vu—Christophe Van de Weghe brought the painting to his booths at FIAC in October, Art Basel in Miami Beach in December, and TEFAF Maastricht earlier in March. It was listed at $18 million, and just like at those previous fairs, it had not sold. (It fetched $6.6 million, well below its low estimate, when it sold at Sotheby’s in 2016.)

In the six-figure range, meanwhile, works moved swiftly. Some notable sales in that range included:

  • Lee Bul’s Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2019), a dramatic silver zeppelin presented jointly by Lehmann Maupin, PKM Gallery, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in the fair’s Encounters sector, which sold to a private museum in China on Friday. It had been priced above $200,000.
  • Henry Taylor’s Queen & King (2013), a 10-foot-tall double-portrait painting in Blum & Poe’s booth, which sold for $850,000.
  • Antony Gormley’s WAIT (2015), a suspended stainless-steel lattice sculpture, which sold for £350,000 ($460,000).
  • Rosemarie Trockel’s ceramic sculpture Lucky Lady (2017), which was on view in the Sprüth Magers booth and sold to a Hong Kong–based collector for €250,000 ($281,000).
  • Lee Ufan’s painting Dialogue (2017), which sold for $300,000 in the Lisson Gallery booth.
  • Lisson also sold an oil-on-linen painting by Stanley Whitney, The Last Cowboy Song (2019), for $165,000 to the Chiang Mai Art Conversation, the space in Thailand owned by collectors Christoph and Lani Zimmer.
  • And Skarstedt sold TO BE TITLED (2019), a painting by KAWS, whose 121-foot-long inflatable “Companion” figure had been floating in Victoria Harbour earlier in the week. The work had an asking price of $450,000.

George Condo was shown a lot of love here in Hong Kong, as a new painting, Orange and Green Female Portrait (2019), sold at Sprüth Magers for $750,000. At the Skarstedt booth, another new Condo, The Day I Went Insane (2019), sold for $1.2 million. At Almine Rech, Condo’s Boy in Striped Shirt (2011) sold for a figure between $1.2 million and $1.4 million.

Zeng Fanzhi
Untitled, 2017
Hauser & Wirth

"The American market loves Condo, and I think the Asian market follows it closely,” said Paul de Froment, the director of Almine Rech’s New York outpost. “Condo can often be sexy, he works form and color in depth and I believe the Asian market likes figurative works. It also has a Picasso connection which Asian collectors appreciate. So it’s the perfect storm, in a way.

The result should reassure the gallery’s owner, Almine Ruiz-Picasso, of her decision to open her first space in Asia, a gallery in Shanghai that will begin hosting exhibitions this year.

“We’ve been actively developing the market for many years, and we felt we needed to get closer—not just sending PDFs or doing fairs and seeing [collectors] for a few times a year, that’s not enough,” said Damien Zhang, a director at Almine Rech who will be doing Shanghai recon for the gallery. “Shanghai is more like an art ecosystem, while Hong Kong, until now, we still feel it’s just the market.”

Almine Rech is just the most recent multinational gallery to expand beyond Europe and America to plant a flag in China. Lisson Gallery opened a space last week in Shanghai, and on Monday, Lévy Gorvy opened a space in Hong Kong, its third after New York and London. Those openings follow on the heels of Pace and Hauser & Wirth, which are among the galleries that took up spaces last year in H Queen’s, a high-rise building in the city’s Central District custom-built to host galleries. A year in, such decisions seem like smart bets. Pace sold all of the works in its Mary Corse show at H Queen’s in the first day, mostly to Asian collectors, at prices between $300,000 and $650,000. Hauser & Wirth’s Louise Bourgeois exhibition sold out, with prices as high as $4 million (well above most of the work in its fair booth).

“So we do a Bourgeois show, which I thought would be reputationally important—because it’s so on that museum level—but commercially difficult,” Payot, the Hauser & Wirth partner, said. “And we sold everything, a big part of it to this region.”

Successful gallery shows point to a future Hong Kong that could have a true art ecosystem in place, where year-round programming at the spaces will have a dialogue with exhibitions at new institutions—like the recently opened Tai Kwun and the years-in-the-making M+—to create a real cultural economy. Philip Tinari, the director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art—which was founded in 2007 by the Belgian collector Guy Ullens—has become not only one of the region’s most prominent museum directors, but also an astute outside observer of the Chinese market’s evolution. He said that in the past three years, there’s been a “really serious uptick” in the status of Art Basel in Hong Kong.

Yoshitomo Nara, How Yer Doing? Stayin' True to You?, 2006. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Zhang Xiaogang, Man on a Stool No. 4: Oath Taker, 2018. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

“I’ve been to every single edition of this fair since 2008, when it was Art HK, and just to watch that growth year on year has been so interesting—because at first, it was like any new art fair, kind of humble and modest,” Tinari said. “In those early years, Magnus [Renfrew] would, every year, get a few more of the big guys to come. And then they were all here, but the boss wouldn’t come, or maybe the material wouldn’t be quite at the level of what was happening in Miami or Basel.”

“Now,” Tinari said, “it’s like an actual world-class fair.”

And sales aside, there are few fairs in the world as vibrant and attractive as Art Basel in Hong Kong. The first preview day was a high-energy affair packed with collectors (and a few artists) excited to be in such a vibrant and bustling city. Carol Bove was on hand to witness her works being sold by David Zwirner’s foot soldiers, putting off a long-held antipathy toward engaging in the market this directly, sparked in part by her experience in the booth when Team Gallery showed her at Art Basel in 2002.

“That was one of my first experiences exhibiting, and getting so much feedback and being so green and shy—and it was extremely traumatizing,” Bove said, standing near her sculptures. “Traumatizing sounds like, oh, it was negative. But it wasn’t a negative experience, it was a really formative experience.”

Henry Taylor, Queen & King, 2013. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

George Condo, Boy in Striped Shirt, 2011. © George Condo. Photo by Matt Kroening. Courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech.

At that moment, Zwirner came up to us, rolling over a man in a wheelchair wearing a Mickey Mouse watch—it was Kasper König, the legendary former director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, founder of Skulptur Projekte Münster, and another rare presence at art fairs.

“It is Kasper König, the world’s greatest curator!” Zwirner said.

Bove bent down to shake his hand.

“I’m a great admirer of your work,” König told Bove.

As Zwirner wheeled König away, Bove looked bemused—perhaps even happy—to be at an art fair.

“It’s a brutal context—it’s really hard to see the commerce so close to the art and how completely naked it is—but you see really amazing art, too, and a lot of really good people see the work,” she said. “So I totally respect the context.”

Nate Freeman
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019