The eighth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong opened to select guests Tuesday morning with a bang—a $35 million bang.
Within the first hours of the VIP preview, Lévy Gorvy Gallery, which has outposts in New York and London, sold Willem de Kooning’s abstract painting Untitled XII, 1975, consigned from tech billionaire (and ARTnews “Top 200” collector) Paul Allen for $35 million to a private collector—so private the gallery would not even disclose whether the person was from Asia, Europe, or the United States. According to Dominique Lévy, the gallery had been in discussions with the buyer for some time, but he came to Art Basel Hong Kong to confirm his interest and the sale was finalized.
That big-ticket sale was one sign of a fair that has matured into an art-market powerhouse.
“I think the energy here is different this year,” Lévy said. “There is a wider range of people coming from everywhere and I think the fair is much better organized and much more sophisticated. The galleries are making a much bigger effort. In the first few years, people brought things that were second rate, but in the last two years, people have been really stepping up.”
The de Kooning was her way of stepping up—a painting you would be more used to seeing at the 48-year old mothership fair Art Basel in Switzerland in June. “We wanted to bring a painting that no one had seen,” Lévy said, “that was fresh to the market and sort of show honor and respect because there is an extraordinary group of collectors here and they deserve to have the best.”
Art Basel Hong Kong’s director, Adeline Ooi, agreed that the fair has entered a new phase.
“I’ve only been here four years and I would never have thought that something would sell in that price range when I started my work here,” Ooi said. “But here we are four years later. You know how time changes in Asia and everything is accelerated here.”
If people didn’t look quite as jet-lagged as in past years at the VIP preview, it was likely because they’d flown into Hong Kong a day earlier, for gallery openings on Monday night, including the new gallery building at H Queens on Queens Road, where David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth opened for the first time in Asia, joined by Pearl Lam, Tang Contemporary, Ora Ora, and Pace, which already had a small gallery in the city.
Pace had a successful opening day at the fair, selling Yoshitomo Nara’s In the White Room, a 2003 work on paper, for $750,000, Zhang Xiaogang’s brand new painting The Boy Standing on a Chair for $300,000, and Qiu Xiaofei’s work Willow Field No. 3 (2017) for $160,000, among many other pieces at lower price points.
This year marks Pace’s tenth year in China. The gallery opened a huge space in Beijing’s 798 gallery district in 2008.
“This year Beijing business is normal, in keeping with previous years,” said Pace’s Asia president, Leng Lin, who runs the outpost in the capital city. “It developed, but the speed cannot compare with that in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the fastest development. Pace now has two galleries [here] so you can judge the amount of business at this moment.”
Pace’s president, Marc Glimcher, was on hand for Art Basel, and the opening of his second Hong Kong space.
“Western collectors are too slow,” Glimcher said. “They can’t keep up. Mostly it’s been Chinese collectors so far. Hong Kong is a meeting place. It’s a place where people who do this—curators, writers, collectors—want to be.”
Chinese Collectors, International Artists
David Zwirner, also celebrating his Hong Kong gallery opening, had a major display of work by Jeff Koons in his booth, including paintings with blue mirrored balls and a trio of sculptures with prices ranging from $2.5 million to $8.5 million, including an artist’s proof of Swan (Inflatable), 2011–15. Koons himself was on hand, hamming it up for a very well-attended photo-call. The gallery also had works by Oscar Murillo, Luc Tuymans, Sigmar Polke, and Josh Smith, a recent addition to the Zwirner stable.
Zwirner’s new Hong Kong gallery is headed up by dealer Leo Xu, who closed his own gallery in Shanghai to join Zwirner.
“I’m sad to lose my gallery, but I’m happy about my future,” Xu said.
Asked what was the gallery’s strategy for bringing works to the fair, he said, “We will bring works that will respond to the current context of this region and try to deepen the conversation. The context has to do with the complexity of Asian culture, Asian countries and identities, but also, there’s a learning curve from the local audience. We are very much interested in that and speaking to a learning audience.”
Indeed, this year Chinese buyers seem particularly open to investing in works by international artists, something that seemed impossible only a few years ago.
Hauser & Wirth sold out its entire show of Mark Bradford paintings at its inaugural exhibition at its new space in H Queens. Success followed the next day at the fair with sales including Paul McCarthy’s WS, White Snow Flower Girl #2, for $575,000, and a piece by Takesada Matsutani for $85,000, both to an Asian Foundation. McCarthy is having a major exhibition of 47 videos at M Woods Museum in Beijing, including his provocative Snow White, shown two years ago at New York’s Seventh Regiment Armory. This will be his first show in China; getting it past the censors is probably the result of the savviness of the museum’s founders, Wanwan Lei, Lin Han, and Michael Xufu Huang. “The show in Beijing will really explain the depth of McCarthy’s work to an audience that might have only heard about him,” Iwan Wirth, the gallery’s co-founder, said. McCarthy, who had attended his opening in Beijing, was present at the fair.
“We’ve been coming to China ever since the fair opened but we have been busy in mainland China for almost two decades,” said Wirth, who has been representing Shanghai artist Zhang Enli for more than 15 years.
On opening the new gallery in Hong Kong, Wirth said, “A few things came together. And when the stars aligned, we didn’t hesitate. We signed a lease and, within two months, we renovated the space, and now we are open.”
“This year there’s more of everything at ABHK,” he added. Hauser & Wirth also sold a piece by Rashid Johnson to a collection in Hong Kong for $215,000. “More Western collectors but more Asian buyers as well,” he said. “Major sales and lots of energy for all the work we brought.”
New York gallerist Sean Kelly also seemed happy on VIP preview day.
“It’s too early to tell, but it seems like there are a lot more Western people here than we’ve seen in previous years,” Kelly said. “It certainly feels very good. I’m optimistic about it.”
Kelly’s booth attracted major interest from a foundation and a museum for the modest sized paintings of faces by Liu Wei, who will be having a show of 180 of them at the gallery in New York in May. The works were shown together at the Ullens Center in Beijing this past year. They are being sold in groups of ten for $250,000. Large-scale paintings by the artist rarely come on the primary market but at auction can bring anywhere from $450,000 to several million, according to the gallery.
A Strong Showing by Asian Galleries
A veteran of Art Basel Hong Kong, Chinese dealer Pearl Lam brought paintings by Zhu Jinshi, who also shows with American gallery Blum & Poe, in the $250,000 price range, plus a trio of paper sculptures from the 1990s priced between $50,000 and $90,000. Beijing’s Long March space devoted its booth to a retrospective of works by Yu Hong, from the early 1990s to this year. One painting, A New Century (2017), measuring about 8 feet by 30 feet, is slated for the artist’s solo show at Shanghai’s Long Museum later this year.
Shanghai gallery Antenna Space mixed recent paintings by Allison Katz with paintings by Zhou Siwei priced from $12,000 to $15,000, and there was already a reserve on a painting by young painter Cheng Xinyi who lives in Paris. Antenna also had two sculptures by Guan Xiao, who recently had a solo exhibition at ICA London, selling for $23,000 each.
“They are very reasonably priced because we work with younger artists,” said Antenna Space’s director, Simon Wang. With Leo Xu closed, Antenna is now the most influential young gallery in Shanghai. “We had a few reserves and I’m sure they will confirm by the end of the day,” Wang said. “Collectors were interested in everything in the booth.”
Beijing Commune was showing a video by Song Ta, currently in the New Museum Triennial in New York, at $23,000, and cyanotypes of pin-up girls from 1970s magazines, forbidden in China at the time but smuggled in from Japan, for $8,000 apiece. Todd Smith, director of the Orange County Museum of Art in California, was eyeing them, as well as a video installation of Zhang Pelli at Boers Li Gallery for $50,000.
“This year, there’s a lot of new and exciting work that I haven’t seen at other fairs, and the quality is as strong as I’ve seen it,” Smith said. “I am interested in seeing the work that we haven’t seen stateside and work that helps our collection, which is pan-Asian, and being exposed to artists who have not had much exposure in the States yet.”
Other museum professionals at the fair included Guggenheim Museum senior curator Alexandra Munroe with a group of museum patrons, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach.
Jeffrey Deitch was also seen wandering around the fair, spreading word that Ai Weiwei will be the opening show at his new Los Angeles gallery.
Summing up her fair’s VIP preview, Adeline Ooi, the fair’s director, said, “I honestly feel that the dialogue between art from Asia and the rest of the world has come together this year. I enjoy the convergence and the overlaps. Art Basel Hong Kong is a great way to see the world differently.”