Hong Kong was born out of the drug trade. It was the result of the global trading explosion of the 19th century, and an early indication that the Western world, mostly Britain and the United States, would seek maximum profits at all costs. The opium brought to China from India and Turkey by these merchants created an epidemic of addiction, and the resulting wars led to the secession of Hong Kong into the British Empire.
Today the city is a booming metropolis, with an art market that many of the world’s dealers and collectors hope will make them richer. This week Art Basel opens its fourth edition in Hong Kong. There are 239 galleries participating, chosen from 600 applications. Half of them have exhibition spaces in Asia, though many of those are Western galleries like Gagosian and Lehmann Maupin, which have galleries here in Hong Kong.
One important difference between drug trafficking in the 19th century and art dealing today is that there was no trade show for selling opium. While China’s economy continues to slump, Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s Asia director, was unperturbed at the opening reception on Tuesday, as rain beat down outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. “Asia is bigger than China,” she said. “I am certain that we are very well supported.”
For proof, Jürg Zeltner, president of wealth management at Swiss bank UBS, one of the fair’s primary sponsors, joined Ooi on the stage to announce the opening of the show. He referred to the art market as a growing asset class with returns “beyond what liquid assets offer.” That’s something moneyed folks from all of the world can get behind. But Art Basel director Marc Spiegler reminded everyone not to lose sight of why they’re here in the first place: “The best way to invest in art is to buy something you love,” he said.
If you love Warhol, there were plenty to choose from. There were Maos and dollar signs aplenty hanging in the booths at the fair. So many that you might have some trouble deciding which to buy. “This one is a painting,” explained a dealer at Marlborough to a prospective client, pointing across the way to the same Mao image hanging in another booth. “That one’s a print.” Over at Galerie Thomas booth, scarcity was the pitch: “There are lots of Maos,” explained the dealer, “but just one panda.”
Dollar signs, communist leaders, and pandas. It seems the art world has got the Asian market all figured out.
If spiders are more your thing, you’re in luck. Literally. The eight-legged arthropods bring happiness and wealth according to Chinese folklore. Hauser & Wirth must have done the research. The gallery took a curated approach to booth building, with bugs and spiders as the theme, and Louise Bourgeois’s Spider Couple (2003) as the centerpiece.
Some said this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong is less blinged-out than past editions—perhaps a response to the the current economic vibe here. But there were plenty of the usual Instagram opportunities for showgoers working on their personal brands. There was of, course, a large Anish Kapoor, an art-fair-selfie staple, at Kamel Mennour. Across the way, seemingly in competition for most “likes,” Olafur Eliasson’s crystal balls drew a crowd at Neugerriemschneider. Even Derek Blasberg, the fashion journalist and Gagosian staffer, couldn’t resist the allure of his own reflection in Jeff Koons’s metallic blue globe at his boss’s booth.
As is to be expected, Asian artists were featured prominently throughout the fair. Nam June Paik’s installation of “Robot Drawings” and his video TV Cello (1971) fronted Gagosian. Lehmann Maupin sold a number of works by another Korean artist, Do Ho Suh, priced from $10,000 to $200,000. And Taipei’s Eslite gallery dedicated its entire booth to paintings by the Chinese-American artist David Diao.
Things happened at the galleries here, too. On Monday, the day before previews began for Art Basel, locals and fresh-faced arrivals, not yet beaten down by jet lag and days breathing recirculated convention-center air, descended on the historic Pedder Building, packing in to see Massimo de Carlo’s new space, Dan Colen’s show at Gagosian, and Tracey Emin’s show at Lehmann Maupin, where Adrian Brody appeared to be considering a purchase. Meanwhile, the K11 Art Foundation and Serpentine Galleries presented a group show called “HACK SPACE” at the Cosco Building that included works by Simon Denny and several Chinese artists. Hans Ulrich Obrist, who organized the show with Amira Gad, held court for a crowd at the opening. And at Duddell’s, the restaurant owned by the collector Alan Lo, Margaret Lee, the artist and co-owner of 47 Canal, had a show of her paintings as dim sum was passed about the room.
Back at the fair, painting was the medium de rigueur. Many of the best works were found hidden behind front-facing walls—Elizabeth Peyton at Sadie Coles, several very fine Morandis at Maggiore (plenty available, starting at €800,000, or about $895,000), and Portuguese artist Paula Rego’s discomforting Snow White Playing with Her Father’s Trophies (1995) at Marlborough. David Zwirner dedicated his entire booth to painting, including another fantastic Morandi and works by Luc Tuymans, one of which sold for $1.6 million during the preview days. Pace had a large Agnes Martin, unusual in size, color, and title (Desert, 1985, and not her more common Untitled), priced at $6.5 million. And at Xavier Hufkens a very large Katherine Bernhardt painting of sharks, cigarettes, and socks was the perfect antidote to the mostly serious business of art taking place.
As of Thursday evening, the rain that began here on Sunday had not stopped. The murky, gray skies and cool, damp air have become persistent, oppressive forces, and the terror attacks in Brussels on Tuesday darkened the mood. Many here are hoping for some sunshine.