Billion Dollar Art Basel Hong Kong Woos Chinese Buyers

By the time Art Basel Hong Kong opened to VIPs on May 14, Edouard Malingue had already sold out his entire inventory of paintings. He spent the rest of the fair fending off disappointed would-be buyers.

“Some of my clients got really upset with my staff and I had to intervene,” said Hong-Kong-based Malingue, after all seven works by Chinese painter Yuan Yuan were sold in advance of the fair. “I explained that we’ve been selling to new collectors and the artist isn’t a factory.”

Malingue is one of many dealers who said they had their best year ever at Art Basel Hong Kong, which ended yesterday, as mainland Chinese buyers are displaying a growing appetite for less-established contemporary Western works.

Lehmann Maupin Gallery sold a canvas measuring 5.6 meters (18 feet) long and 2.13 meters high by New York-based artist Hernan Bas to a property developer in Beijing for $350,000. “Pound for pound, Bas is 36, collected by MoMA and the Whitney, his works look attractive compared to the usual suspects from Chinese contemporary art,” said Yang Sheng Nien, who sold the work. MoMA refers to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Visitors to the fair included New World Group scion Adrian Cheng, Canyon Capital Advisors LLC co-chairman Mitchell Julis, Princess Michael of Kent and billionaire Indonesian collector Budi Tek, who opened his private museum in Shanghai on May 17.

Billion Dollars

Launched as Art HK in 2008, the event was re-branded Art Basel Hong Kong last year after the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach purchased a majority stake in 2012. It is now a major stop on the international fair circuit with more than $1 billion worth of art for sale.

About half the 245 galleries from 39 countries have space in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, a deliberate decision by the selection committee to keep the fair’s original regional flavor.

Hong Kong-based 10 Chancery Lane sold works by Chinese sculptor Wang Keping, and several silk embroideries of old currencies by Beijing-based duo Muchen and Shao Yinong to collectors from Switzerland and the U.S.

“The Art Basel brand has brought in more and more regional and international seasoned collectors,” said 10 Chancery Lane owner Katie de Tilly.

A newly commissioned work by Indonesia’s best-selling contemporary artist, I Nyoman Masriadi, was sold for $350,000 by New York’s Paul Kasmin gallery.

Seasoned Buyers

White Cube sold several millions of dollars worth of art, including a scalpel blade painting depicting an aerial view of Beijing by Damien Hirst to a Chinese collector for 800,000 pounds ($1.3 million), as well as works by Theaster Gates, Christian Marclay and Tracey Emin to regional collectors.

“There is a broad interest and awareness of artists who have been until now not well-known in the region,” said Clare Coombes, associate director at White Cube. “Our sales really exceeded our target.”

James Cohan Gallery sold a painting by Italian artist Francesco Clemente to a “prominent Chinese collector,” said the gallery’s Shanghai director Arthur Solway, while works by New York-based Oscar Murillo, whose auction prices have gained as much as 5,600 percent in two years, also found Chinese buyers at David Zwirner gallery.

Fellow New York gallery owner Sean Kelly also saw strong sales. “There is a big shift each year in the quality and sophistication of visitors, in discourse and quality of sales,” said Kelly, who sold several works by Scottish artist Callum Innes, including one to a Chinese collector. “This is the best year we’ve had.”

UBS AG sponsors Art Basel fairs worldwide.

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