Seven-Figure Sales Jump-Start Art Basel in Hong Kong

Forlorn rows of sagging tents, remnants of the Occupy-style demonstrations that rocked Hong Kong in late 2014, still hunch in silence near the harbor-side home of Art Basel in Hong Kong, which kicked off its third edition on March 13 with a succession of VIP events. 

  • Skarstedt Gallery's Booth. Courtesy Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015, MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG.

While the political discontent that ignited the protests remains largely unresolved, collectors were nonetheless in high spirits, with some impressive sales registered within hours of the fair’s opening. Art Basel’s decision to shift its Hong Kong edition from May to March has been a hit, attracting a spate of new galleries and leveling out a lopsided fair and auction calendar for collectors. And the opening evening’s boisterous sales bode well for 2015 to be a watershed year in the Asian fair’s young history.

With 233 galleries hailing from 37 countries (half of them from Asia), Art Basel in Hong Kong continues to play the diversity card, acting as a gateway to discovering Asia Pacific-based galleries alongside noteworthy European and American names. A strong spattering of younger galleries presenting emerging artists in the Discoveries section too. In spite of the variety of galleries and artists, the fair’s 2015 edition is a consistently painting-heavy affair: from Lee Ufan’s gestural one-touch strokes at Paris-based ABHK newcomer kamel mennour to Xu Zhen’s slick take on Gustave Courbet’s notorious L’origine du monde at Beijing’s Long March Space—a healthy supply of Yayoi Kusama canvases are also to be seen seemingly everywhere.

  • David Zwirner's Booth. Courtesy Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015, MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG. 

New York- and London-based David Zwirner bookended the VIP opening with sales of two large-scale paintings: Chris Ofili’s Dead Monkey—Sex, Money and Drugs (2000) for $2 million within the first hour of the fair (the work had sold at Christie’s in May 2010 for $962,500 and the artist has seen great critical and market acclaim following his New Museum show last fall); and Neo Rauch’s Die Fremde (2014) for $1 million to a new mainland Chinese client in the evening's final minutes. A Sean Scully canvas from 1988, Battered Earth, sold for $850,000 at ShanghART (Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore), while New York’s Skarstedt, a fair first-timer, sold both a recent painting by David Salle, Post Card (2014) and a George Condo for $550,000.

Such substantial sales on the inaugural VIP day are promising for prospects throughout the rest of the week. However, some first-time gallerists to the Asian market describe a reigning wait-and-see attitude amongst VIP attendees. “In the West, collectors come in and buy relatively quickly. They know what they are looking for,” said Dr. Regina Fiorito of Cologne’s Galerie Gisela Capitain. “Here, it takes time for visitors to get into our works, so we need to be patient.” Fiorito’s thoughtfully hung booth featured a black-and-white silkscreen by English conceptual artist John Stezaker, new heavily crafted yet succinct work by New York-based post-conceptualist Seth Price, and two works by the legendarily prolific Martin Kippenberger, whose estate the gallery manages. “For this first time, we came to Hong Kong with a spirit of openness,” Fiorito continued. “We wanted to avoid big names and too obviously Chinese-geared works.”  

Gisela Capitain is one of 29 new galleries to show at this year’s edition—a significant increase over previous years—and the organizers believe the date change has contributed to the swell in demand. “It took two years to move to March and get the right fit with the international art calendar,” explained Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler. “In the end, we have a much stronger line-up, and a return rate of 94% of previous exhibitors.” While dealers like New York’s Andrea Rosen, Berlin’s Esther Schipper, Paris’s Air de Paris, and London’s Thomas Dane Gallery are among the newcomers to Art Basel in Hong Kong this March, the galleries are far from the sole beneficiaries of the calendar shift. “We have a huge wave of Western collectors coming to Hong Kong for the first time,” revealed Adeline Ooi, Director Asia for Art Basel. “I want to keep them coming back.”

  • Sullivan+Strumpf's Booth. Courtesy Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015, MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG. 

Whatever the future may hold, the collectors in attendance were as diverse as the exhibitors themselves. Spotted at the opening were a range of prominent figures from Hong Kong-based Yana Peel to Asia-centric Belgians Guy and Myriam Ullens to the Swiss Maja Hoffmann and Abdullah al Turki from Saudi Arabia. American actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Susan Sarandon also bowed in for discreet appearances.

The rage of the 2014 demonstrations may well be reduced to lines of curb-hugging tents retreating into a murky collective memory. Hong Kong is nonetheless a buoyant place, carried at once by steadfast resilience and a fundamentally optimistic conviction. Art Basel in Hong Kong is not unlike the city it calls home—nimble, hopeful, and determined. And with new dates in place and undeniable momentum, the fair is set to serve as a kind of artistic connective tissue for the vastly varied swath of geography it represents.

—Kevin Jones

Explore Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015 on Artsy.

Share article