The pandemic catalyzed the growing trend of listless wealthy people outbidding one another via online auctions, turning any possible luxury acquisition into a “so-called alternative asset class.” This inadvertently spurred the art auction market to new heights, with global auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s reporting sales totaling $7.1 billion and $7.3 billion, respectively, for 2021. Recent sales reports indicate that 2022 looks set to retain that level, even though Sotheby’s reported a decline in fine art sales from 2021.
Notably, Asian art buyers were a major factor for this growth, making up 31 percent of Christie’s global sales, 36 percent of Phillips’ global spend, and 46 percent of lots sold for more than US$5 million at Sotheby’s. While all three auction houses reported a drop in bidders and buyers from Asia in 2022 as compared to last year, they are still doubling down on their focus on the continent.
In July 2021, Christie’s revealed plans to move into a 50,000-square-foot, four-story Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong in 2024. The Russian-owned Phillips partnered with Poly Auction for its Hong Kong sales and announced plans to move into new, expanded premises next to the new M+ museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District in March 2023, coinciding with Art Basel Hong Kong and their inaugural 20th century and contemporary art sales in the city. Sotheby’s will also be moving to its brand-new headquarters at the upcoming Six Pacific Place in Hong Kong, a short distance away from the auction house’s newly announced year-round exhibition space, both set to open in 2024.
International auction houses have also been expanding their teams in the continent. Bonhams made a slew of new appointments recently, with its Asia team now the biggest it has ever been. This is in addition to opening a new office in Shanghai in June 2021. Back at Sotheby’s, Alex Branczik, former London-based head of contemporary art, and Max Moore, a New York–based specialist focusing on NFTs, joined the house’s Asia team last year.
Intriguingly, this year in particular, specific cities, beyond China and Hong Kong, have caught the attention of the global auction market. At the end of August, Sotheby’s held a successful auction sale in Singapore for the first time in 15 years while Christie’s hosted a highly popular public viewing of a controversial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the city. Moreover, Christie’s posted a job ad for an associate specialist in Singapore. And Phillips will hold a pop-up exhibition showcasing works by California-based artist Brett Crawford in Singapore during the week of the launch of ART SG, the city’s biggest art fair.
One of Singapore’s biggest draws is its position as the center of one of the most dynamic and underhyped regions in the world, Southeast Asia.
According to Francis Belin, president of Christie’s Asia Pacific division, “The Southeast Asian market has been fundamental to our business, alongside Greater China, and we have been operating representative offices there since 1990s. In recent seasons we have witnessed growing participation from regional buyers in our art and luxury auctions and increasing recognition and desire for artworks by Southeast Asian artists.”
While their buyers from Asia Pacific dropped by 40 percent from the first half of 2021 to 2022, Christie’s reported that in the first half of 2022, buyers from Southeast Asia in particular, tripled their purchases in international auctions from the first half of 2021, which indicates that post-lockdown auction market appetites are still growing in this part of the world.
Additionally, 2021 and 2022 saw the world auction records for Southeast Asian artists double from before the pandemic in their Hong Kong salesroom. Singaporean painter Georgette Chen’s Still Life with Rambutans, Mangosteens and Pineapple (ca. 1960s) hammered at HK$13 million in November at Christie’s Hong Kong 20th and 21st century art sale while one of Thailand’s foremost contemporary artists, Natee Utarit’s GOD (2011) sold for HK$4.03 million in May during a Christie’s Hong Kong 20th and 21st century art evening sale. Both were new artist records.
As auction houses look to engage with different countries in Southeast Asia directly, Singapore’s standing as a long-established global financial hub and its easing of pandemic restrictions seem to hold sway.
“As the world opens up post-Covid, Singapore has emerged as one of the most progressive economies, and we have observed that wealthy collectors from across Asia are increasingly settling in the city and using it as their base,” said Jonathan Crockett, chairman of Phillips’s Asia division. “Increasing numbers of global companies have already or are relocating their base of Asia operations to Singapore.”
Chong Huai Seng, a Singaporean art collector and the cofounder of art advisory Family Office for Art, agreed, stating that economic and geopolitical uncertainties in Hong Kong and China makes Singapore, by contrast, a reliable safe haven for family wealth. In fact, the exponential rise of Family Office is a clear indication of the ongoing massive inflow of wealth to the city.
“Besides, Singapore is situated in the centre of ASEAN, a stable and fast growing region with a young, consumer base. Therefore I believe the reality of the market place has basically pushed and pulled the auction houses to do more in Singapore,” he added.
South Korea, the rising art capital with international galleries opening in the city alongside the launch of Frieze Seoul this past September, is also very attractive to global auction houses right now. This is in part thanks to its local art market, which is set to exceed 2021’s record of $682.8 million.
In fact, Phillips recently appointed Minhee Suh, formerly a senior specialist in K Auction, a local company in the city, as its Seoul regional director. Similarly, Sotheby’s reportedly hired Jane Yoon, a former international fair and auction specialist, as managing director for South Korea.
Nicolas Chow, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and its international head and chairman of Chinese art, called South Korea one of the “territories we have been watching closely for some time. With new recruits on the ground there, we will be focusing on nurturing our local footprint in the region.”
So far, most international auction houses remain steadfast in their commitment to their presence in China, despite the country’s domestic tensions and wealth policies, with Sotheby’s even announcing the launch of new Shanghai headquarters in early 2023. But there are visible signs that indicate tremors beneath the surface. For one, Phillips partnered with Chinese auction house Yongle this month for its Hong Kong and Beijing auctions, moving away from its previous partnership with China’s state-owned auction house Poly Auction amid industry buzz that the Russian-owned auction house might have new owners in the future.
“The major challenge [for auction houses] has been and will be political,” said Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based art adviser who formerly worked at Christie’s. “At the moment, with the insecurity in Hong Kong, I know numerous collectors moving their works to the Singapore Freeport for example, and others who are simply trying to get their money out, often to Singapore as well. The word on the street is that South Korea may become the next Asian hub with their stability being a factor as well.”
Local auction outfits are also increasingly looking beyond their shores. Poly Auction is considering expanding its market presence further in Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea, in the coming years, according to Jenny Lok, the house’s Hong Kong–based head of business development and operations. SBI Art Auction House, a well-known Tokyo based auction house specializing in modern and contemporary art, is also looking into expansion in Asia, according to their spokesperson, although nothing has been announced yet. “Clients in Asia love the thrill of the chase,” Goldsmith added. “There will always be this demand, the challenge will be finding the right supply.”
Correction, 12/16/22, 7 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated Chong Huai Seng’s name.