Asia’s New Art Collectors Seek Status, Style, Smart Investments

HONG KONG ~ A pioneering art fair in Hong Kong is expected to attract 15,000 potential buyers, reflecting how modern art has become as desirable for many Asian consumers as the latest luxury-brand watch.

The fair, which opens May 14, will assemble 100 international galleries under one roof selling works ranging from Picasso masterpieces to prints by emerging local artists.

With the Asian art market booming, organizers hope the inaugural event will prove that owning art is not just for expert connoisseurs but can be hugely satisfying, and even profitable, for first-time buyers too.

Such an attempt to increase the number of collectors in Asia comes as the region’s auction rooms enjoy unprecedented interest in contemporary art produced in Asia and elsewhere.

At the Sotheby’s Contemporary Chinese Art sale in Hong Kong in early April, an oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang sold to a private Asian collector for more than US$6 million, twice its estimate.

It was one of several records set during the sale, and was the highest auction price paid for Zhang, a successful artist from China who has exhibited around the world for 20 years.

“Contemporary art is developing into the ultimate luxury brand,” said Magnus Renfrew, director of the fair, which will be held in the dramatic harbourside exhibition centre.

“A fair like this can be a fixture for the international jet set: somewhere people come to see and be seen.

“Many of the ‘new rich’ in China and elsewhere in Asia are now looking to contemporary art because they have their cars, their beautiful houses and yachts. So what’s next to buy? What way can you next express your wealth?

“We’re not seeing any weakness in the art market despite problems in the global economy, and the timing could not be better. We are expecting visitors from Taiwan, Korea, mainland China and Japan, as well as from outside Asia.”

While a Picasso might still be beyond the means of most of Asia’s newly wealthy, the Hong Kong International Art Fair has been carefully tailored to match their various wallet sizes and tastes.

The fair aims to cater for all budgets, with minimum prices of around $2,000, while at the upper end of the scale one or two museum-quality pieces will add a touch of essential glamour and extravagance to the event.

The Picasso, a 1955 nude portrait, is likely to sell for several million dollars, while a Francis Bacon work from London’s Marlborough gallery tops the price list at $35 million.

A Damien Hirst “spot” painting and a 1962 Andy Warhol silkscreen could also fetch millions, organizers say.

“With so many top-caliber galleries exhibiting a huge range of 20th and 21st century art there will be something for everyone,” said Renfrew.

“If people are looking for a young artist whose work they might fall in love with, buying a piece at the fair should not be beyond them.”

“People collect for a variety of reasons: to express their cultured nature, for passion, and for investment,” he said.

But David Tang, Hong Kong’s most colorful businessman and a major collector of modern Asian art, issued some frank advice to profit-seekers as he welcomed the fair’s launch.

“The art market is very economically sensitive,” he said at his China Club in central Hong Kong.

“People should only buy if they love a piece so much that they feel they just can’t live without it hanging over their bed.

“It is a wonderful feeling to own art you love. And it should hurt a bit financially: that means you really want it.

“I can’t stand people who go into art just for investment,” said Tang, founder of the Shanghai Tang fashion brand. “That is no longer art, it is just commodities and you may as well trade pork bellies or tin.

“Buy for yourself. The last thing you want to worry about with art is the price always going up and down.”

Katie de Tilly’s Hong Kong gallery 10 Chancery Lane will sell pieces for between $5,000 and $250,000 at the five-day fair.

She said the modern art market in Asia is in unchartered territory.

“So much has happened in the past seven years,” she said. “And the change seems to be getting faster and faster.

“There is a new generation of collectors looking to China, but also at contemporary art from Indonesia, Japan and Korea. Now Thailand seems the next exciting place.

“There are a lot of speculators out there, but at the same time there are many collectors. In such an evolving market, we advise buyers to ask endless questions about the gallery, the market, the style and of course about the artist.

“Above all, spend a lot of time just looking at art. This fair will be a great opportunity to see what’s out there, to research, and for people to find out what they like.”

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