‘Hong Kong Is Rolling Out the Red Carpet’: Art Basel Returns With an Inflatable King Tut and Collectors Still Hungry for Ultra-Contemporary Art

To paraphrase Mark Twain, it appears that reports of Hong Kong’s demise as the arts hub of Asia are greatly exaggerated. After nearly three years of some of the most draconian quarantine measures anywhere, preceded by mass protests in 2019, skeptics questioned the city’s ability to bounce back.

Judging from the first day of Art Basel Hong Kong, and the whirlwind of parties, new gallery openings, dinners, and more parties, Hong Kong has got its mojo back. The excitement at the fair was palpable as collectors and dealers who had not been able to visit the city since 2019 plied the aisles.

Indeed, the city’s cultural offerings multiplied during the pandemic with the addition of the Palace Museum and M+, which until now have received only a trickle of international visitors. M+ which officially debuted in 2021, opened its doors exclusively to VIP guests for a private viewing followed by a party for more than 2,000 people on the eve of the fair. “Everyone is pulling out the stops,” said Shasha Tittmann, director at Lehmann Maupin Gallery. “Hong Kong is rolling out the red carpet.”

Installation view, Hauser & Wirth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.. Photo: JJYPHOTO.

Installation view, Hauser & Wirth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023. Photo: JJYPHOTO.

Auction houses are doubling down too. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips are all moving to new, greatly enlarged premises. “With the events of the past few years people started asking if other cities in Asia could rival Hong Kong,” said Jonathan Crockett, chairman for Asia at Phillips, which opened a gleaming new 52,000 square foot space opposite M+ on Saturday. “This is an opportunity for Hong Kong and its arts and cultural institutions to come together and put Hong Kong back on the map.”

But it is the fair that will provide the true acid test of Hong Kong’s ability to rebound after being hermetically sealed for nearly three years during COVID. In 2020, it was an entirely virtual fair, followed by two pruned-down editions in 2021 and 2022, with just 104 and 130 galleries taking part, respectively. This year features 177 galleries, still down from 242 in 2019, partly because Covid restrictions in Hong Kong were still in place when the application deadline closed last June. 

A work by Yinka Shonibare at Stephen Friedman's booth sold to Saian museum for £200,000. Photo: Frederik Balfour.

A work by Yinka Shonibare at Stephen Friedman’s booth sold to Saian museum for £200,000. Photo: Frederik Balfour.

The excitement was palpable as VIPs clutching champagne flutes browsed the fair. “There is a very, very good buzz,” said Stephen Friedman, whose London-based gallery got off to a flying start. 

A 2023 sculpture entitled Birdcage Man by Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare sold for £200,000 ($244,794), and a Jeffrey Gibson acrylic on canvas painted in 2022 for $250,000. Both were acquired by Asian museums. Friedman said he had sold more than 20 other works, but he drew the line when a Chinese collector tried to buy four cane-backed chairs used by the staff manning the booth.

Not only were mainland buyers back in force, but the fair has attracted many influential international collectors including Sheikha al-Mayassa of Qatar, Maja Hoffmann, Swiss founder of the LUMA Foundation and fellow Swiss collector Uli Sigg. Pharrell Williams, who has telegraphed his arrival to Hong Kong with a cover story in glossy magazine Tatler, is expected to visit the fair on day two, the Art Basel team said.  

The fair offering reflects a growing trend among Asian collectors to embrace young, international contemporary art. Five years ago, you couldn’t walk more than 100 feet without seeing a Warhol, Picasso or Damien Hirst for sale. Now more galleries have moved away from blue chip artists in favor of lesser-known names. “The whole Asian market has matured immensely in the past few years,” says Ben Brown, whose eponymous gallery has brought works by African American conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas and Ethiopian-born Awol Erizku.  

Awol Erizku's Gravity, (2018-2023) presented by Ben Brown Fine Arts. Courtesy Art Basel, Photo: Isaac Lawrence.

Awol Erizku’s Gravity, (2018-2023) presented by Ben Brown Fine Arts. Courtesy Art Basel, Photo: Isaac Lawrence.

Erizku’s ten-meter-high inflatable replica of King Tutankhamun, hanging in a shopping mall because it was too big to show at the fair, has attracted a huge amount of attention after a local newspaper reported that Chinese knockoffs were advertised for sale at online marketplace Taobao for about $76. Though Brown said the artist was very upset, he added: “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” The work, not yet sold, is priced in the six figures.

For the first time, two galleries from Africa are showing at the fair, SMAC from Cape Town, South Africa, and Retro Africa, from Abuja, Nigeria. Dolly Kola-Begun, Retro Africa’s founder, is presenting a solo exhibition by Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian-born artist who divides his time between Lagos and Maryland uses plastic rosary beads to produce semi figurative tapestries priced between $40,000 and $150,000.

Though Ehikhamenor has been purchased by museums in the U.S. and Europe, bringing him to Asia poses a new challenge. “Though the gaze is on Africa, we are coming in here blind,” says Kola-Begun. “Coming to Hong Kong is daunting and there may be very little cultural context for people, but that’s true of Africa the world over, even in Miami or L.A. and we would like to rectify that.”  

Developed by Art Basel in 2020 in lieu of a physical fair, online viewing rooms (OVR) have since become an indispensable marketing tool, dealers say. Take David Kordansky Gallery. Within 24 hours of the VIP OVR preview going live, it had sold 10 of U.S. artist Adam Pendleton’s works, including all seven large-scale works on Mylar for $95,000 and three small paintings on canvas for $135,000. The third and final work, also on Mylar, sold for $135,000 at the fair. All buyers were based in Asia. 

Ugo Rondine's painted bronzes bought by Liu Yiqian at Art Basel Hong Kong. Photo: Frederik Balfour.

Ugo Rondine’s painted bronzes bought by Liu Yiqian at Art Basel Hong Kong. Photo: Frederik Balfour.

Liu Yiqian, who made his name on the auction circuit for buying tens of millions of dollars worth of rare Chinese antiquities with his AMEX card, and using the airline points to fly around the world acquiring more art, was busy shopping again. He also picked up Red Sculpture, 2016-2022, by Jordan Wolfson for $900,000 from David Zwirner and a Helen Marten silkscreen on multimedia from London-based Sadie Coles HQ for $285,000. He also picked up two painted bronze sculptures the color of highlighters priced at $350,000 each from Gladstone Gallery executed by New York-based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. 

Zwirner also sold an oil on linen entitled Truffaut, painted by Elizabeth Peyton in 2005 for $2.2 million to a major Asian museum. Coles, who skipped the fair during the pandemic because she “really didn’t want to do a ghost booth,” was back with strong first day sales. She sold a 2021 Richard Prince for $750,000 to a European buyer. The work is based on the joke archives of Rodney Dangerfield belonging to the artist. She also sold five works of wash on paper painted in 2023 by 92-year-old Italian artist Isabella Ducrot for €4,000 each.

Art Basel Hong Kong is on view through March 25 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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