Art Market

What Sold at Shanghai’s Art Fairs despite COVID-19 Disruptions

Sonia Xie
Nov 17, 2022 1:05AM

Wang Jianwei, installation view of All Things Live at ART021, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Tang Contemporary Art.

Shanghai Art Week this year will undoubtedly be remembered as a highlight in the history of the Chinese mainland art market. On November 10th, after a full year without any art fairs and with very limited exhibitions, Shanghai welcomed back ART021 and West Bund Art & Design.

The art industry on the Chinese mainland has undergone a flurry of twists and turns this year. First, after the Chinese New Year holiday, the long-awaited show of Henri Matisse at UCCA Beijing was postponed indefinitely due to reasons related to the Russia–Ukraine war. According to a report by RFI in late February, Christian Poiret, president of the Departmental Council of Nord, said that considering the cultural value of Matisse’s works, the geopolitical climate, and the “political ties between China and Russia,” he could not take any risk.

Then, at the end of March, the escalating COVID-19 pandemic in Shanghai led to a citywide lockdown. Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen—the three most important megacities in mainland China—had to shut down due to anti-COVID policies. In addition to restaurants and tourism, the art exhibition and fair industry was deeply affected.

Rachel Eulena Williams, installation view in Xavier Hufkens’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2022. Courtesy of West Bund Art & Design.


After the cancellation and postponement of major art fairs including JINGART, Beijing Contemporary, DnA Shenzhen, and PHOTOFAIRS, the local art scene was in desperate need of a proper art fair by this November. While galleries’ expectations for art sales were not as strong as before the pandemic, the need for physical art fairs was critical for Shanghai to at least prove that its art industry is still alive and the art market is still advancing.

Now, due to strict COVID-19 policies, travel expenses are higher, and trips must be longer for people to visit Shanghai Art Week. Although Shanghai’s two art fairs did not sell tickets and instead admitted guests by invitation only, the enthusiasm of attendees wasn’t dampened at all. On the opening day, the entrances were packed with eager crowds. Art industry professionals were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, as just about six months ago, many of them were still struggling due to massive lockdowns.

Installation view of Galerie Thomas Schulte’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2022. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Schulte.

The number of exhibitors at ART021 and West Bund this year is similar to that of previous editions. Aside from blue-chip galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Perrotin, and Almine Rech, which have always been actively involved in Shanghai’s art scene, there were more overseas galleries at the fairs, hoping to test out the local market. At ART021, these exhibitors included London galleries Unit London and Carl Kostyál, as well as New York’s The Hole, Marseille’s Double V Gallery, and Lisbon’s Madragoa. Meanwhile, at West Bund, visitors from abroad included Galerie Marguerite from Paris, Galerie Thomas Schulte from Berlin, and Timothy Taylor from London.

Despite this, the regret of many non-local collectors who weren’t able to make it to the art fairs due to COVID-19 was palpable. So in a sense, the two art fairs were primarily testing the purchasing power of Shanghai-based collectors.

Philip Guston
Untitled, 1969
Timothy Taylor

Many galleries told Artsy that the biggest difference between this year’s fairs and those of past years is that previously, exhibitors regarded art fairs as an important channel to access new collectors and acquire new clients, whereas this year, those opportunities were fewer. A French gallery’s China director at West Bund told us that all the sales she had secured so far at this year’s fair were with existing clients.

Among the gallery directors or representatives Artsy spoke with, dozens clearly indicated that patrons were slower to make decisions and commit to sales. In terms of the inventory on offer, these galleries were primarily selling contemporary works at the higher price brackets of the market. The price of $100,000 seemed to be a dividing line: Below it, works could be sold, though not as fast as in previous years; above it, many collectors were showing an interest, but the probability of a successful deal was not as high as in previous years.

Installation view of Lisson Gallery’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2022. Photo by Alessandro Wang. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Despite this context, we still observed a selection of promising sales from various international galleries at West Bund:

• Hauser & Wirth sold several paintings by late German artist Günther Förg, including Untitled (1988) for €350,000 ($361,515) to a private collector in Beijing; Untitled (1999) for €240,000 ($247,896) to a private collector active in both Hong Kong and mainland China; Untitled (1995) for €200,000 ($206,540) to a key Chinese corporate collection; and Untitled (1998) for €75,000 ($77,452) to an Asian private collection.

Lisson Gallery sold Colombian artist Olga de Amaral’s sculpture Poblado D (2014) for $480,000; Anish Kapoor’s Shudder, a large-scale red oil painting, for ¥7.9 million ($1.11 million); Christopher Le Brun’s oil painting Stook (2021) for ¥850,000 ($120,243); and Tatsuo Miyajima’s 2018 installation Time Waterfall-panel #1 for $50,000. Additionally, two 2022 pieces by Julian Opie were acquired by a private art museum in Nanjing and a private foundation in Shanghai, respectively, each at a price of ¥480,000 ($67,902).

Spencer Lewis
Untitled, 2022
Yan Pei-Ming
Summer Flowers, 2022

MASSIMODECARLO sold a work by Yan Pei-Ming for €380,000 (about $392,992), in addition to works by Ludovic Nkoth and Spencer Lewis, which sold in the range of $40,000–$80,000 per piece.

Thaddaeus Ropac sold Lay Some Pipe (2014), a sound installation by American artist Tom Sachs, for €100,000 (about $103,280).

• At Lehmann Maupin, collectors in Beijing and Shanghai went home with two pieces by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, with prices ranging from $70,000–$160,000.

Almine Rech sold five works by American artist Genesis Tramaine for prices ranging from $100,000–$200,000.

Lihsin Tsai, senior director at Hauser & Wirth in Hong Kong, noted that the gallery primarily met with existing clients at the fair, “mostly local collectors based in Shanghai, but there are also quite a number of collectors coming from places like Beijing, Nanjing, and Guangzhou.” She added, “Of course, some collectors and journalists in Beijing told us that they wouldn’t come because they were worried about the return trip.”

Hauser & Wirth managed to make up for the missing collectors, however, and its solo exhibition of Günther Förg yielded strong sales, due in part to advance promotion and online interactions with collectors. Tsai noted that the gallery’s collectors already had an understanding and fondness of Förg, so even those who were unable to visit the fair could make purchase decisions through images, information about the works, and video chat.

Günther Förg, installation view in Hauser & Wirth’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2022. Photo by JJY Photo. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

“We also got to know some new patrons,” Tsai added. “Most of the works we sold on the opening day were purchased by patrons the gallery is familiar with, but there were also purchases by new patrons who expressed their appreciation of our philosophy and interest in further communication. And when some new collectors came to our booth, the works they liked were sold, but they were very interested in learning more about Förg’s other works. We’re coordinating and liaising with colleagues in other parts of the world.”

In fact, many galleries chose this safe approach to their fair booths, showing works by artists with an established market reputation, whom collectors are familiar with. The sales of such works do not necessarily require physical art fairs, so prior to the openings of both fairs, many galleries were successful in selling most or even all of their works.

Alvin Ong, Self-Portrait #5, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Rachel Eulena Williams
Garden Horizon, 2022
Xavier Hufkens

For example, Beehive Center sold out its booth one week before West Bund’s opening; all 12 works in Whitestone Gallery’s Etsu Egami solo exhibition at West Bund were pre-sold; and Qi Lan gallery’s solo exhibition at ART021 hosted by A Thousand Plateaus Art Space was also entirely sold in advance. All works in the Rachel Eulena Williams solo exhibition presented by Xavier Hufkens were sold following the opening day at West Bund.

For many galleries, pre-selling was a matter of prioritizing whom to sell works to, whether that meant vetting new clients or prioritizing existing clients who may be on a waitlist for the artist’s works. For example, the works by Alvin Ong were very popular at Yavuz Gallery’s West Bund booth, and the gallery was still screening collectors after the fair had closed.

Installation view of Ota Fine Arts’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2022. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts.

While many galleries made safe bets by showing the works of popular artists, others focused on young artists with strong momentum. “For this year’s West Bund edition we have presented a rich showcase of new works by most of the represented artists of the gallery,” said Claudia Albertini, senior director at MASSIMODECARLO Asia. “With a focus on a younger generation of artists, the sales have proven strong, especially for the new additions to the program such as Spencer Lewis and Ludovic Nkoth.” Nkoth is also currently featured in a solo exhibition at Pond Society in Shanghai.

Ota Fine Arts exhibited works by many sought-after artists at West Bund. In addition to iconic works by Yayoi Kusama, the gallery also presented paintings by artists such as Maria Farrar, Christine Ay Tjoe, and Tang Dixin.

Tamaris Borrelly
Fluid , 2022
Galerie Dumonteil

More sales from the two art fairs include:

• At artist Chen Yujun’s solo exhibition staged by Shixiang Space at West Bund, three new large-scale canvases sold for over ¥600,000 each ($84,877), while three mid-size pieces sold for over ¥300,000 each ($42,438).

• At KennaXu Gallery’s booth at West Bund, a work by Meng Luding was acquired by an art museum for ¥660,000 ($93,365); a work by Jerry Zeniuk sold for ¥150,000 ($21,160); a painting by Ingrid Floss sold for ¥150,000 ($21,160); two works by artists Hao Jingfang and Wang Lingjie sold in the range of ¥80,000–¥120,000 ($11,317–$16,975); and a painting by Daniel Schubert sold for nearly ¥90,000 ($12,731).

•At Galerie Dumonteil’s booth at West Bund, two large-scale watercolor paintings by young French artist Tamaris Borrelly each sold for more than ¥100,000 ($14,146), and all photos from Hugo Deverchère’s “Isla de las Siete Ciudades” series sold to collectors, each with a price tag of ¥85,000 ($12,024). Functional sculptures by Jean-Marie Fiori, now on view at Galerie Dumonteil Shanghai, also attracted widespread interest.

Installation view of Axel Vervoordt Gallery’s booth at West Bund Arts & Design, 2022. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

• At Axel Vervoordt’s booth at West Bund, deals were struck for works by Bosco Sodi, Renato Nicolodi, Jaffa Lam, Michel Mouffe, and Norio Imai, with prices ranging from €14,000–€60,000 ($14,450–$61,932).

• A painting by Greek artist Vangelis Pliarides from Christine Park Gallery sold for ¥110,000 ($15,560) at West Bund.

• Key works sold by Tang Contemporary Art at ART021 include those by Argentine artist Julio Le Parc, all above the ¥500,000 threshold ($70,731), and a piece by Chinese artist Wu Wei for around ¥200,000 ($28,292).

Installation view of Tang Contemporary Art’s booth at ART021, 2022. Courtesy of Tang Contemporary Art.

• White Space presented works by several in-demand artists at West Bund, with various pieces by Christine Sun Kim selling in the range of $15,000–$25,000.

• Double V Gallery at ART021 sold at least 12 works, including a €22,000 painting ($22,708) by B.D Graft and a €13,000 piece ($13,418) by Florent Groc.

Over the Influence at ART021 successfully sold three paintings by Japanese artist Azuki Furuya: two large canvases priced at $12,000 each, and a small one at $4,000.

As was widely reported, ART021, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, was forced to close prematurely. On the second afternoon, a visitor tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the fair. All exhibitors were asked to leave and the entire site was disinfected.

In the early morning of November 12th, ART021 released a brief notice on its WeChat official account, announcing the termination of its 2022 fair. Before that, speculations and expectations were circulating among the art crowd, with everyone earnestly hoping that the hard-earned art fair would be able to reopen. When the termination of ART021 became official, disappointment was widespread.

On the morning of November 13th, West Bund was also forced to close, canceling its closing day due to COVID; many exhibitors had already arrived at the fair and were looking forward to some closing sales.

As an ancient Chinese proverb states, “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” Given these circumstances, this proverb feels fitting, highlighting the interdependent relationship between the art industry’s galleries, art fairs, and collectors.

Sonia Xie

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that all works in the Rachel Eulena Williams solo exhibition presented by Xavier Hufkens were sold before ART021 opened. Xavier Hufkens was showing at West Bund Art & Design and Rachel Eulena Williams’s works sold out following the opening day. The text has been updated.