The 2019 edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong was unarguably one of the most interesting in years. Apart from the relatively good sales made by galleries, the fair epitomized the new major trends that are currently transforming the art world, for better or for worse.
The seventh edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong brought thousands of visitors and art professionals to the Pearl of the Orient. It was attended by 88,000 people, a new record for the fair, and 5,000 more than Art Basel in Miami last December! But most of them were not ready to spend more than a million to acquire a piece, as the majority of sales were made in the mid-price range.
Two high-profile paintings by Picasso and David Hockney particularly drew the attention of the visitors: a mysterious 1941 portrait (thought to be of Dora Maar) by Picasso presented at $19 million by Luxembourg & Dayan and a $15 million portrait or Henry Geldzahler by David Hockney at Acquavella.
However, a dozen works were acquired around the $1 million mark and above, the first of which was a $2.85 million painting by Andy Warhol. Two large scale canvases by George Condo were sold for $1.2 million, as well as pieces by Zao Wou-Ki ($1.8 million) and Georg Baselitz ($1.8 million).
African-American artists also performed well during the fair as Henry Taylor sold a $850,000 painting at Blum & Poe, which is close to his last auction record. As for the late Jack Whitten, his 2012 painting "The Eleventh Loop" sold for a whopping $1.75 million.
On the exhibition side, the 2019 edition of the fair had a significant number of interesting shows, such as Gagosian’s selection of ethereal canvases by Cézanne, Morandi and Sanyu. The gallery’s curation, which created a remarkable dialogue between three artists from different cultures, highlighted the link between eastern and western still life painting.
In the contemporary art field, David Altmejd was presenting a series of new sculptures at White Cube inspired by both psychedelic and post-apocalyptic visions. It enjoyed great success at the fair and ended up being one of the most shared on Instagram due to its stunning visual expressiveness. But Louise Bourgeois and Mary Corse’s shows at Hauser & Wirth and Pace Gallery were undoubtedly the two stars of the week, as they both sold out of works in a few days.
Last but not least, a few flashy works attracted much public and media coverage during the fair such as KAWS’ monumental inflatable sculpture. Indeed, thousands of visitors went to see the floating 121-foot dead mouse in Victoria Harbor, which later had to be removed due to bad weather conditions. In the meantime, some of his works were exposed during a well-attended show at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation and one of his paintings sold for a record-breaking $14.7 million at auction in the city a few days later. It was quite a week for the street artist!
KAWS' success in Hong Kong is symptomatic of a new trend which is disrupting the art world today. Indeed, despite his lack of institutional recognition and—let's face it—the mistrust of most art professionals towards his work, the artist has managed to break into the mainstream with his pop-inspired cartoon paintings, thus achieving impressive auction results. By doing so, the street artist is currently reversing the traditional path to mainstream success with 7-figure sales at auction, which used to begin with the validation of art institutions in the past.
In the digital age, social networks like Instagram have become powerful tools to promote art outside of the traditional circuits of the art world. KAWS has perfectly understood this and uses these networks to promote mass-market artworks from plastic toys to multi-million dollar paintings. This global trend was visible this year at Art Basel, as the city was filled with other Instagram-friendly attractions such as Lee Bul's Flying Torpedo, a massive metal balloon that was shown at the Encounters sector of the fair.
We are now entering the era of social sharing and market-driven art, and it is not surprising to see this happening in Hong Kong. Indeed, it has recently become an international hub for collectors and art dealers despite the virtual absence of significant art museums and foundations in the city, thus symbolizing the fact that the market has taken a leading role over the artistic life there.
This edition of Art Basel confirmed the importance of Hong Kong for both Western and Eastern art collectors and professionals. Indeed, the director of Lisson Gallery in New York Alex Logsdail noticed that an increasing number of American collectors chose to visit Hong Kong instead of Art Basel in Miami last December. In the meantime, Sotheby's concluded its second highest auction sales there in April with a staggering total of $482 million. The city doesn't seem to be affected by the market slowdown that was observed during London auction sales in March.
However, the art fair was also marked by the reduced number of Chinese collectors, as Beijing's capital control is increasing. Indeed, a recent report by the Dutch art fair Tefaf showed that Chinese collectors were less likely to buy art outside of China, which was very clear in Hong Kong this year.
However, as the American art dealer Sean Keally rightfully noted to Artnet news, "That's the thing about Hong Kong. It's not just China—it's Singapore, it's Malaysia, it's Taipei. It's not one market". 2019 was indeed a very prolific years for Eastern collectors in Hong Kong, as major galleries like Hauser & Wirth and Pace sold the majority of their work to Asian buyers.