New Emissary

Art as Big Business?

Sky-high art sales continue in Asia, but does this mean art is going the way of big industry?

Earlier this week I mentioned Iran as a country poised to become a major player in the international art market. (The piece is also now available on The Diplomat’s Chinese language site.)

But currently, it’s still China that is grabbing most of the headlines when it comes to the global art business; namely the activity centered in its special administrative region of Hong Kong.

While several prestigious Christie’s auction events held late last month in the Asian metropolis were again widely acknowledged as a big success, there was also another major art event held in the city around the same time that garnered a lot of attention.

Art HK10, a large-scale art fair, was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from May 27 to 30 for its third annual run, with 153 international exhibitors this year compared to last year’s 116. The Financial Times recently ran a piece on the event, and simultaneously reported on the reasons why Hong Kong is such an international art hotspot right now. Calling it the ‘hub for wealthy buyers’ hailing from the entire Asian region, including places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea and Australia, it suggested that art aficionados and businesspeople alike are attracted to Hong Kong for its convenient location as a ‘gateway to China,’ its growing auction market and ‘mushrooming’ class of superrich—the city had over 60 billionaire residents as of last year.

Meanwhile the Korea Times also just touched on the topic, quoting prominent Japanese art director Fumio Nanjo asserting that while his own country’s art boom ended in the 1990s, China’s is now only beginning. According to Nanjo also, there is a distinct shift in who, or what, is carrying high-priced art work nowadays and that this is certainly affecting the art market and business in general: ‘It used to be an age of museums, but that's over now and it's the age of collectors.’ He cited as an example a Damien Hirst work valued at $2.3 million that was at the art fair, which was sold to a private Taiwanese art collector rather than a gallery, which would actually have ‘no hope in spending so lavishly on a single piece.’

Meanwhile, other big sales from the ART HK10 included a painting by Zhang Xiaogang that went for $1 million, several paintings by Liu Wei priced in the range of $600,000 which sold to buyers from mainland China, Indonesia and Singapore and several works by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara valued at up to $350,000 each that went to collectors from Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia.

So while it’s nice to know that art is being appreciated and booming internationally and within the region—I can’t help but feel a little bit uncomfortable with all the big monetary sums being thrown around. While I am glad artists and art aficionados can cash in on their talents, I just hope that art doesn’t turn the way of big industry.