Art Market
West Bund’s Boutique Format Delivers Multi-Million-Dollar Sales from Chinese Mega-Collectors
Installation view of Hauser & Wirth's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Installation view of Hauser & Wirth's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

The hundreds of art fairs that now dot the globe fall into a few prevailing archetypes. The vast majority focus on providing a platform for the regional galleries that their regional collectors buy from the rest of the year. Then there are the scrappy models, which cater to a taste for emerging artists and low price points for collectors and dealers alike. Five out of those hundreds, all with the word Frieze or Basel in their names, are truly international with respect to both buyers and sellers. Then there’s West Bund Art & Design.

The Shanghai fair, now in its fourth edition and open through Sunday, welcomes just 39 galleries to its main section, two aisles of exceptionally large booths in an airy and naturally lit former aircraft parts factory in the city’s main arts district. This boutique setting is populated by nearly all of the world’s mega-galleries—Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, White Cube, Pace, Lisson, and Perrotin—lured by sales that in Thursday’s preview day alone stretched well into the millions. Yet nary an international collector could be found.

This speaks to the scale and rapid rise of the mainland Chinese market. One new billionaire is being minted in Asia every three days, largely due to an increase in the number (and wealth) of China’s entrepreneurs, according to UBS’s 2017 Billionaires Report, published last month. Increasingly, those billionaires and their millionaire friends are buying modern and contemporary art with gusto, pushing up China’s share of the $56.6 billion global art market from 8% to 20% over the last 10 years, according to Art Basel and UBS’s Art Market | 2017.

Among the early sales were two sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, which sold in the fair’s opening hours from Hauser & Wirth, each for sums in the “multi-million-dollar” range. The Swiss gallery’s red and olive painted booth features just three artists: Bourgeois, Hans Arp, and Fausto Melotti. Its strength in sculpture was an exception to many booths at the fair, which focused on painting this year. Two Arp bronzes sold for $1.2 million and $500,000, respectively, as did multiple works by Melotti for which prices were not disclosed. All of the works went to mainland Chinese collectors.

Installation view of Hauser & Wirth's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Installation view of Hauser & Wirth's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Director Fiona Römer said that the results point to the gallery’s long-term commitment to developing clients in China. “You have to take the region seriously,” she said, echoing dealers at March’s edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, who said trying to offload unsold works of middling quality—an early strategy many tried here—will never create a loyal client base.

Römer said the seriousness with which Hauser & Wirth is taking the region can be seen in the expansion plans the gallery laid out in September. Next spring, a two-story gallery will open in Hong Kong’s H Queens building, along with offices in Shanghai and Beijing.

The effort is being co-helmed by senior director Vanessa Guo and Lihsin Tsai, who joins Hauser & Wirth after having been a key interlocutor between the gallery and major Shanghai collector Qiao Zhibing, whose Qiao Space is among the many private museums located just steps from the fair.

Tsai said that the gallery was spurred to build a brick and mortar presence in the region by the sheer number of new people beginning to buy art in China each year. “There are always new collectors entering this field,” she said, adding that sales on opening day included individuals who had never purchased works from them before. At this point, she said, most are discovering art through other friends who have begun to collect.

“They feel art is an important way to build up their life,” she said. “Just like food, drink, art is a very integral element in their life.”

Thomas Stauffer of the Swiss art advisory Gerber Stauffer Fine Arts, who was perusing works by Bourgeois with a young collector, said new client demand in Asia has been so strong that he recently brought on a director, Gina Quan, to help manage and further develop the region for his firm. He said most of his new clients in China are 30 to 45 years old—very young by most standards—and are mostly buying with inherited wealth.

“A lot of these people like to buy Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci—that’s the first stage, he said. “We try to open up their horizons.”

In contrast to the West, where young collectors might start off buying emerging artists for $5,000, Stauffer said that his young Chinese clients more or less exclusively transact above the $50,000 threshold and mostly for around $100,000 per work, at a volume of one to five artworks per year. Those works are almost exclusively by Western artists or very established artists from Asia who have had exposure in the West.

“These Chinese clients want to collect Western art because they see the tradition of collecting art as very much a Western thing,” he said.

This dynamic has come under scrutiny recently and reflects a broader consolidation in the art market towards mega-dealers showing brand-name artists. Just last week, Leo Xu announced that he will close his critically acclaimed Shanghai gallery, which helped launch the careers of young Chinese artists like aaajiao, Pixy Yijun Liao, Shiyuan Liu, and Chen Wei, and move to Hong Kong to direct David Zwirner’s first gallery in Asia. Xu had a booth at West Bund, but said he was also taking the opportunity to introduce clients to the Zwirner team, and could be seen shuttling back and forth between the stands.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever, 2013, at Ota Fine Arts’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Photo by @vastdorteo, via Instagram.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever, 2013, at Ota Fine Arts’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Photo by @vastdorteo, via Instagram.

Fittingly for art’s global brand phenomenon, a large installation by Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever (2013), welcomes guests to West Bund and to Ota Fine Arts’s booth. The gallery’s Sakura Shimizu said the Kusama, priced on the range of $1.5 million to $2 million, was “pretty much decided” by the end of Thursday’s preview and noted that they expect steady sales across the fair’s run.

“Last year we sold well on the second and third day,” she said. “It doesn’t die off.”

This week, Ota became the latest gallery to open in the West Bund district in which the fair is held. Since 2011, the area has been transformed with significant government support from an out-of-the-way industrial corner of Shanghai into the city’s most important art district. “The art fair was an eye-opener for us,” Shimizu said. With each of the four editions of West Bund they have participated in, she said the gallery noticed how rapidly the art scene in Shanghai and the market in China more broadly were expanding.

“We decided that we wanted to be a player here and not just a guest,” she said.

Across the fair, most galleries reported selling a handful of works on opening day but, like Shimizu, noted that sales were expected to continue to trickle in throughout the rest of the week; even at Art Basel in Hong Kong, collectors in this region tend to take their time, sometimes calling in the last minutes of a fair to confirm a purchase, as if at an auction.

Ink Studio sold one work each by artists Yang Jiechang, Li Jin, and Huang Zhiyang on opening day for prices on the range of $35,000–$60,000. The Beijing-based gallery previously participated in both this fair and ART021—the larger of the two Shanghai fairs this week, which includes a number of West Bund participants—but this year opted just for West Bund. Co-founder Craig Yee said this was due to an appetite for higher-priced works among the collectors who come to the smaller fair.

“The price points here—the price you can throw out and a collector doesn’t bat an eye at—are about double what they are at 021,” he said, adding that West Bund has the additional benefit of having fewer dealers competing for collector attention than ART021 and other fairs the gallery attends.

“If you’re a major collector in Shanghai, you’re going to come and spend time here,” he said.

Installation view of Ink Studio's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Ink Studio.

Installation view of Ink Studio's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Ink Studio.

Installation view of Ink Studio's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Ink Studio.

Installation view of Ink Studio's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Courtesy of Ink Studio.

While Yee acknowledged many collectors in the region have flocked to Western contemporary art, he said that with time and education, they’re coming back and beginning to look at artwork created by fellow Chinese and in traditional mediums like ink.

“If you’re a member of a society that’s emerging across nations, if you have a transnational existence you should be collecting art from around the world, you should see the world and use art to help understand it better,” he said. “But, my god, shouldn’t a portion of your collection be devoted to who you are and your cultural origins and be able to speak about what’s happening with contemporary art in China today?”

Since opening a Shanghai outpost in the West Bund development one year ago, Hong Kong gallerist Edouard Malingue has played an increasingly important role in shaping the conversation about contemporary art in China. His artist Wang Wei’s contribution to the fair’s Xian Chang section of mostly large-scale works, curated by ArtReview Asia editor Aimee Lin, won a prize juried by collectors Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and Adrian Cheng. Titled Shadow (2017), the poetic work is a mosaic installed around a magnolia tree in the plaza in front of the West Bund Center in which the shadow of the tree is mimicked in the tiles (on a unseasonably warm opening day, visitors could be seen attempting to take refuge from the sun where no shadow was actually to be found).

Malingue’s were among the strongest early sales at the fair, by volume, with an aged mirror work by Su-Mei Tse selling for €18,000, three paintings from a wall of eye-themed pieces in different media by Laurent Grasso for €28,000 to €80,000, three paintings by Yuan Yuan for around €60,000 apiece, and a photograph by Jeremy Everett for $8,000. Malingue attributed this success in no small part to the effort he and his colleagues have put in in mainland China over the past year.

“We felt that being in Hong Kong was not enough to connect with the crowd here and this changed dramatically since we opened. Now we are accepted like a Chinese gallery,” he said.

He said sales in the first eight months of being in Shanghai were slow but in recent months have picked up steadily. In that time, he’s observed “thousands of different profiles of collectors” but has noticed that the conceptual aspect of their program tends to attract “people who aren’t the investor type and who aren’t trying to buy social status.”

Installation view of Capsule Gallery's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Photo by @capsuleshanghai, via Instagram.

Installation view of Capsule Gallery's booth at West Bund Art & Design, 2017. Photo by @capsuleshanghai, via Instagram.

Enrico Polato of Capsule recalled a similar experience since opening in Shanghai, also one year ago. “It’s been challenging but rewarding,” he said of that first year.

Works by two American painters, Sarah Faux and Louis Fratino, were the first to sell on Thursday. But Polato said that his growing base of collectors didn’t adhere to the brand-name trend, insteading opting to support young Chinese artists from his program.

“There is a group of young, local collectors who are coming up and are supportive of young artists,” he said. These new buyers were mostly self-made—CEOs and entrepreneurs—and many had studied and worked abroad and were now returning home to China.

Capsule is among 16 galleries showing in West Bund’s new Talent section for young dealers held in a tent across the street from the main fair. Fourteen of those have never exhibited at the fair before, while two—Canton Gallery from Guangzhou and Shanghai Gallery of Art—moved into the section from across the street this year.

Shanghai Gallery of Art manager Cindy Yang said that the move to Talent had allowed the gallery to experiment more and to try working with artists they haven’t previously exhibited. One of those artists, Zhang Miao, sold during the preview.

That West Bund, a government-owned entity, is investing in bolstering the region’s young galleries and the market for its emerging artists is a good sign. The fair and the surrounding district are part of a grand, long-term project, built on the premise that each year a handful more galleries will take a booth, a couple others will open a storefront, another collector will decide it’s time to put his or her works on public view, and a wider public will come to experience it all. (The Xian Chang section further advances this vision by installing a number of its large public sculptures along a nearby section of the waterfront that has been turned into a running and cycling path and dog park.)

For it to succeed, it will need new, young galleries to grow and flourish, in order to turn what is now a buzzing island of cultural activity into a well-integrated hub within the city as a whole. Impatient Westerners may be skeptical, given the uncertain path emerging galleries face elsewhere. But Chinese collectors’ ever-growing numbers and hunger for knowledge, and the country’s skill at taking the long view when it comes to achieving a grand vision, will almost surely prove those doubters wrong.

Alexander Forbes is Artsy’s Executive Editor.