Art Market

What Sold at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2021

Benjamin Sutton
May 24, 2021 6:33PM

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2018 (MARCH ON UNTIL IT RAINS GLASS no. 1), 2018. ©️ Rirkrit Tiravanija. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

On February 6, 2020, Art Basel in Hong Kong (ABHK) was the first major art fair to be canceled as COVID-19 began to spread, and the following month, it became the first to hold a wholly virtual edition. In many ways, the fair was a test case for how an international expo could completely alter its plans in response to the urgent new realities of the pandemic. And last week, it became just the second—following Frieze New York earlier this month—to make an in-person comeback. While the fair was a scaled-back, hybrid version of its pre-COVID self, by most measures it was a success.

Unlike the 220 exhibitors of its 2019 edition, this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong had 104 participating galleries; it shared its venue, the sprawling Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre, with the concurrent Art Central fair. More than half of ABHK’s exhibitors opted to stage “satellite booths” manned by locals hired by Art Basel, rather than dispatch employees who would need to observe Hong Kong’s strict two-week quarantine regimen. Each satellite booth was equipped with a QR code that would allow in-person fairgoers to connect directly with dealers who couldn’t be there via WhatsApp. Travel restrictions made it all but impossible for anyone without a Hong Kong ID to attend the fair, so the organizers also hired teams of “show experience assistants” from whom remote VIPs could request live video walkthroughs of any booth.

Rashid Johnson, Untitled Broken Crowd, 2021. ©️ Rashid Johnson. Photo by Martin Parsekian. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.


“I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel, these are all practical solutions,” said Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s director for Asia. “It’s a way of countering what everyone’s been complaining about—online fatigue and PDF fatigue. Even though it’s hybrid and partly digital, partly in real life, the mission for me was: How do you get everyone as close as possible to where they need to be?”

The tools Art Basel put at the disposal of collectors both in person and online, as well as dealers on the ground and afar, seemed to pay off. Singapore-based gallery STPI found success with its presentation of works by Genevieve Chua, Do Ho Suh, Haegue Yang, and others, thanks in part to the many entry points available to collectors.

Kenny Scharf
Torna Doon, 2020
Almine Rech

George Condo, Haunted By Demons, 2020. ©️ George Condo. Photo by Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

“I could converse better with genuinely interested and invested prospects over WhatsApp and WeChat, which I would not have been able to do if I was manning the booth,” said Stella Chang, a senior manager at STPI. However, she added that no amount of digital access can replace the directness of in-person interaction: “It is definitely better to be at the fair in person, as that face-to-face interaction element is very important. Quite often, the conversation trailed off when the prospect got busy at the fair and had no time to reply.”

Enrico Polato, the founder and director of Capsule Shanghai, noted the effectiveness of the fair’s virtual toolkit for both collectors and dealers participating remotely. His gallery was participating in the fair’s “Discoveries” sector for newly created works by emerging artists, showcasing a suite of sculptures by Hong Kong artist Leelee Chan—who, due to travel restrictions that kept most gallery staff from attending in person, also helped man the booth.

Liu Ye, Study for Bamboo Bamboo Broadway, 2011. © Liu Ye. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

“With the comeback of on-site fairs, I am generally noticing less interaction and traffic on the viewing rooms compared to a year ago,” Polato said. “The booth walkthroughs and the virtual calls with our staff at the fair, run by ABHK’s VIP team, have been an extremely helpful tool. I am very impressed by the quality of the collectors reaching out to us through these tours.”

Many of the fair’s biggest sales were works by Western artists, echoing a pattern seen at recent auctions, where Asian collectors are consistently competing for—and often winning—major lots by blue-chip and emerging artists from Europe and the U.S.

Frog King 蛙王
Frog Fortune 6, 2021
10 Chancery Lane Gallery
Frog King 蛙王
Frog Fortune 11, 2021
10 Chancery Lane Gallery

“The tastes of collectors in Asia have diversified a whole lot,” Ooi said. “There will be those who will continue to collect in a very systematic manner, who are very Asia-focused or have a specific medium focus, and will continue to collect in that vein. But let’s not forget, everyone’s had a lot of time this past year to do a lot of research. So collectors who normally won’t look at a particular type of work are beginning to venture into new territories.”

The fair’s VIP preview opened Wednesday with a stunning eight-figure sale of a Western masterpiece by Lévy Gorvy. The gallery, which opened an outpost near the Convention Centre during ABHK’s 2019 edition, sold Joan Mitchell’s 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock (ca. 1962), which had an asking price around $19.5 million—about $3 million more than the revered Abstract Expressionist’s public auction record. Other major sales in the fair’s opening days included Hauser & Wirth selling a George Condo painting for $1.75 million; Gladstone finding a buyer for an untitled 1983 work by Keith Haring priced between $1.5 million and $2 million; and Almine Rech selling a work by Haring’s friend Kenny Scharf for a price in the range of $100,000 to $200,000.

Li Qing 李青 (b. 1981)
Lotus Coast, 2020-2021
Almine Rech
Ha Chong-hyun
Conjunction 21-13, 2020
Almine Rech

“There was a healthy mix of interest in both our booth and online viewing room, but the strongest activity definitely happened in person,” said Almine Rech. Her namesake gallery, with locations in Paris, London, Brussels, New York, Shanghai, and, for the summer, Aspen, also sold a work by the Chinese artist Li Qing in the range of $45,000 to $100,000, and two paintings by South Korean artist Ha Chong-Hyun for prices in the range of $130,000 to $200,000 each. “The activity of Chinese collectors continues to steadily grow, and this growth has not stopped in the last two years,” Rech said. “U.S., Chinese, and Korean collectors are extremely dynamic and have a very important role in the market today.”

Galleries reported strong activity at every price point during the run of the fair, often driven by local Hong Kong collectors, as well as institutions and individuals in mainland China and elsewhere in the region. Noteworthy regional sales, either by local galleries and/or to buyers in Asia, included the following:

  • Hauser & Wirth sold a large tile composition by Rashid Johnson, Untitled Broken Crowd (2021), which was acquired by the Long Museum in Shanghai—billionaire collector Liu Yiqian’s private museum—for $595,000.
Lam Tung-pang
Meaningless no.12, 2020
Blindspot Gallery
Andrew Luk 陸浩明
Deep Earth Event Horizon No. 2, 2021
de Sarthe Gallery
Laurent "Lo" Martin
tiny swing, 2021
10 Chancery Lane Gallery
  • London and Istanbul gallery Pi Artworks sold Mediterranean (2019), a mixed-media mosaic work by the Turkish artist Gulay Semercioglu, to a Hong Kong collection for a price in the range of $60,000 to $80,000. It also sold a recent painting by Ozer Toraman to a Taipei-based collector for a price in the $10,000 to $15,000 range.
  • Hong Kong gallery de Sarthe sold a work by the collective Double Fly Art Center for $18,000; a piece by Andrew Luk for $16,000; and a work by painter Mak Ying Tung 2 for $15,000.
  • Lehmann Maupin sold Lari Pittman’s paintings Found Buried #4 (2020) and Vanitas #2 (Aeternum) (2021) to a collector in Malaysia and a museum in China, respectively, for $300,000 and $225,000. The gallery also sold a 2019 composition on canvas and aluminum by Shirazeh Houshiary for £150,000 (over $212,000) and Lee Bul’s sculpture Study for Light Tower (2019) for $115,000, both to private collections in Hong Kong.
Lari Pittman
Found Buried #4, 2020
Lehmann Maupin
  • Hong Kong’s Gallery Exit sold a painting by Stephen Wong Chun Hei, Grand Tour in Google Earth: Machu Picchu (2021), to a local collector for $28,000.
  • Tang Contemporary Art, which has spaces in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, sold a work by Chinese painter Qin Qi for CN¥1.26 million (over $195,000).
  • Los Angeles gallery Anat Ebgi sold several paintings by Greg Ito to collectors in Hong Kong and Taiwan for prices ranging from $15,000 to $50,000.

After a year of primarily virtual fairs, it seems that collectors have gotten more comfortable buying art online. Purchases through Art Basel’s online viewing rooms kept pace last week even as in-person activities resumed for collectors in Hong Kong.

“Eighty percent of our collectors decided their purchases through JPEGs even before the pandemic, in 2019, and it just became 95 percent in 2020,” said Shinji Nanzuka, whose Tokyo-based gallery Nanzuka had sold out its online viewing room by the end of the fair’s first day, finding eager buyers for works by Javier Calleja, Katherine Bernhardt, Jonathan Chapline, Wahab Saheed, and others. He added that, whereas Asian collectors were once primarily buying for investment, he now meets with many museum-level private collectors in Asia who increasingly follow their own tastes when making decisions.

London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, which devoted both its booth and its online viewing room to a solo presentation by the irreverent British artist David Shrigley, also found success with its hybrid approach, selling 25 works on paper from the physical booth and two paintings online. “The model has been excellent and worked very well in practice—with our London team effectively connecting with clients remotely via the WhatsApp chat function,” said Mira Dimitrova, a sales director at the gallery.

Park Seo-bo
Ecriture (描法) No. 970428, 1997
Kukje Gallery

Beyond the sales made by local galleries or to buyers in the region, ABHK saw strong activity across market sectors. Additional standout sales from the fair included the following:

  • Massimo De Carlo sold Night (2021), a provocative new work by Maurizio Cattelan—the man who stole the show at Art Basel’s last in-person fair in December 2019—for a price in the region of €950,000 (nearly $1.2 million).
  • In addition to the seven-figure Haring, Gladstone sold an Alex Katz painting for $650,000 and 10 paintings by Rirkrit Tiravanija for prices ranging from $25,000 to $200,000.
  • South Korean gallery Kukje sold a 2020 painting by Lee Ufan for a price in the range of $400,000 to $450,000; a 1997 painting by Park Seo-bo for a price in the range of $250,000 to $280,000; and four works by Ha Chong-Hyun for prices in the range of $143,000 to $155,000 apiece.
Gabriel de la Mora
1,003 I; from the series "Neornithes", 2020
Gabriel de la Mora
1,014 I; from the series "Neornithes", 2020
  • In addition to the record-breaking Mitchell, Lévy Gorvy sold Pat Steir’s bold, cascading composition Considering Rothko #13 (2020–21), which had been priced between $400,000 and $500,000, and Michael Lau’s floral still-life painting Table for Three (2020), with an asking price of $100,000 to $200,000.
  • White Cube sold a cast-iron sculpture by Antony Gormley for about £400,000 (over $565,000); a 2007 Park Seo-bo painting from his “Ecriture” series for approximately $300,000; a Beatriz Milhazes collage from 2014 for around $200,000; a recent Christine Ay Tjoe painting for about $115,000; and a bronze sculpture of a squirrel by Isamu Noguchi for about $50,000.
  • Chicago- and New York–based gallery Gray sold two works by the Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa for $125,000 each.
Elizabeth Glaessner
River Spider , 2021
  • Mexico City’s Proyectos Monclova sold four works by Gabriel de la Mora for $25,000 each.
  • New York’s P.P.O.W had great success with its booth devoted to paintings by Elizabeth Glaessner, selling 11 works for prices between $8,000 and $30,000 each, and another seven paintings for prices in the range of $6,000 to $8,000.

“Some of the younger artists have been able to sell very well, for example Carlos/Ishikawa with Bendt Eyckermans; or P.P.O.W with Elizabeth Glaessner, who’s completely new to this part of the world; or Pilar Corrias with Sofia Mitsola,” Ooi noted. “They’re all being presented here for the first time, and yet they’ve been able to sell pretty well. That’s partly a sign that people are being more adventurous.”

Sofia Mitsola
Aquamarina, 2021
Pilar Corrias Gallery
Sofia Mitsola
Underwater Fart, 2021
Pilar Corrias Gallery

The fair was, in many ways, a confirmation that the Asian market in general and Hong Kong’s in particular have been resilient forces over the past year, while other regions have struggled to bounce back. Further evidencing this advancing strength, at the beginning of the week, the region’s art market gained new depth, breadth, and dynamism when Frieze confirmed its long-rumored plans to launch a fair in South Korea. Frieze Seoul is slated to have its inaugural edition in September 2022, in tandem with longtime local fair KIAF Art Seoul.

For Ooi, Frieze’s entry into the Asian art market is more complimentary than competition. “If the Western world can have London, New York, Paris, and more as art capitals, then surely Asia can also accommodate a few cities at the same time as destinations,” she said. “The Korean art market is burgeoning, it’s growing, and I see this as: If other parts of Asia are able to grow, and we’re all able to cultivate new audiences and continue to do the work that we do, then eventually this will mean a really, really big win for Asia generally.”

Benjamin Sutton