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CULTURE – Buying Into Art

Demand for contemporary art has reached fever pitch in Hong Kong, but there are still plenty of opportunities for would-be collectors, says Helen Dalley

The Hong Kong art market is in great shape, and demand for contemporary art is on the up. According to a recent report by ArtTactic, the city has now overtaken London as the second-biggest contemporary art auction market in the world after New York. In the first eight months of last year, the city increased its market share to 26 per cent, up from 20 per cent for the whole of 2019, with US$314.6 million in auction sales, compared to London’s US$303.5 million.

If you’re looking for somewhere safe to invest your cash and want to appreciate your investment, then head over to the auction houses and hit the galleries and find an artist whose style really resonates with you…

Art is not the stock market.
Art is art and it’s so
unique, and always nice to
display. Collectors generate
conversation through
their art.

Marcello Kwan,
Head of modern and contemporary art, Asia, Bonham’s


Abstract art takes off

Bonham’s head of modern and contemporary art, Asia, Marcello Kwan, who joined the company in June and was at Christie’s for 10 years before, says the Hong Kong market has evolved a lot in past three to five years. “Ten years ago, Hong Kong collectors had quite local tastes, and would tend to go for Asian and Chinese art. Now it’s 40-50 per cent non-Asian artists, with Banksy and other street artists really popular with Asian buyers.” Abstract artists like Taiwan’s Richard Lin and Stanley Whitney from the US are also very popular among Asian collectors. “Abstract art is easier to live with, instead of something full of political message, which is too heavy, or even portraits.” Chinese artists are on the up, he says. “Liu Ye is extremely popular… one of the key elements in his art is [his incorporation of] Mondrian paintings in his works. His work is very universal and harmonious.” Just like the Chinese contemporary art boom in the 2000s, Kwan says Liu Ye’s works are now reaching a peak, as is Hong Kong artist, Lee Kit. “He represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, and he’s really conceptual,” he notes.

It’s a new era for buying art, says Kwan. “Two years ago, online platforms were not that popular. Some even wondered if buying art online was even possible. The pandemic has pushed things to another direction, and buyers are more comfortable buying online.” Last year, Bonham’s introduced a new app and website, and encouraged clients to register and consign online. “It’s very easy – you can do it anywhere. We don’t necessarily need to see each other.” Nevertheless, he says some clients treasure the moment to look at the art together. “You can’t replace the human touch and seeing people’s reaction. Digital isn’t replacing everything but it’s helping, as a lot of people still can’t travel. One recent online sale of contemporary art showed 35 percent of new buyers were bidding online, which is a very encouraging number. We’re not talking about big lots, but it does show that people feel relaxed about bidding online.” While some reports indicate that more than 80 per cent prefer to buy offline, the buying impulse is so huge that collectors can’t wait. “If you wait, you lose the chance,” he says.

Kwan notes that young collectors are more open minded, and keen to invest in digital art, which has been a hot topic recently, particularly Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT). “Our London team sold an NFT artwork of a Cristiano Ronaldo trading card, ground-breaking in terms of concept and medium, for US$400,000 to a collector in the US,” he says, adding that some are building collections of digital art and installations.

“A digital art fair was recently held at NFT gallery, Start Art, which is the world’s first physical blockchain art gallery,” adds Kwan.

In the next 12-18 months, collectors will be looking for new artists to invest in, Kwan predicts. “A lot of collectors aren’t just doing it for personal enjoyment, but want to see some good financial return, and see that their pieces have the potential to grow in value. There’s more and more money going into the art market, as the super-rich are looking for something to collect for investment purposes and art has proved to be a good asset for the portfolio,” he elaborates.

Before starting an art collection, ask yourself why you want to collect, Kwan advises.

“Is it for personal enjoyment or investment or other reason. It’s important to understand what you are buying and doing research is very easy nowadays on sites like Artnet, which are quite transparent about prices.” If clients want to build a collection, Kwan suggests making it consistent with their tastes, not just jumping around randomly. “That’s the beauty of buying art, it represents your personality, your knowledge, your taste. Young collectors might, for example, go for hip street art… you’re creating your own style, showing that you want people to see you as young and energetic and positioning yourself away from the traditional.” He always hopes clients can display their art works. “Art is not the stock market. Art is art and it’s so unique, and always nice to display. Collectors generate conversation through their art.”

Is the White Cube Obsolete?

The de Sarthe gallery offers a platform to a new generation of Asian artists whose practices are influenced by digital culture and the omnipresence of technology in the 21st century. “These artists explore the evolutional changes in society that normalise anxiety and restlessness in the prevailing post-Internet era. Their works reflect on the psychological side-effects of humanity’s overindulgence in technology,” says founder and owner, Pascal de Sarthe.

De Sarthe believes we are experiencing a transitional art world. “New technology is constantly changing and will continue to change the way art is being created and consumed. We could make a parallel with how photography changed art at the end of the 19th century. The gallery’s white cube space will soon be obsolete. With our represented artists being part of that change, we are rethinking our business model.”

The gallery says stringent quarantine measures have helped increase local visitors to its gallery, as evidenced by the strong footfall for its Mak2 (Mak Ying Tung 2) House of Fortune exhibition last December. One of the exhibition highlights was Feeding the Multitude, a mass of 3D-printed crystals created from a single digital file that was blessed in a Kaiguang consecration ritual by a Fengshui master. “Local collectors suddenly realised that right in their backyard were interesting galleries and artists, compensating for the lack of foreign visitors and collectors. Our Mak2 opening generated great local and online sales. Just one week after the opening, we sold 17 works from the exhibition,” he notes.

Multimedia artist Mak2 has been labelled Hong Kong’s rising star, says de Sarthe. Such artists have attracted a younger generation of Asian collectors who share similar cultural upbringings and are now attracting the interest of Western collectors. “Important local and Western collections have acquired the works in her current exhibition and the largest painting from the show is going to the UBS art collection. We are also now in discussion with two big American and European contemporary art galleries,” he confirms.

As for the current state of the contemporary art market in Asia, he says there’s many liquidities and a strong appetite for art in the Asian region. “Asia is still an emerging market with lots of newcomers whose focus is on decorative, easy-to-understand paintings. Their lack of experience prompts them to collect art with their ears, and this influx of new cash is creating a bubble for trendy styles and forms of art.”

Pascal’s son, Vincent, plays an important part in choosing the artists they work with. “He managed our Beijing gallery from 2014 to 2018 and brought some of the Chinese artists we currently represent. We like artists that react and express themselves based on current life. In this transitional period, the swell of social, environmental and political changes was inspirational for artists. China is at a turning point and leading changes for the 21st century. That will have an impact on the art. American artists were the last to break radically with the past, and I believe that the next long due break in tradition will come from China.”

People buy art for lots of different reasons, but the commercial and speculative aspect of it has taken the art world by storm, says de Sarthe. “Buying art is more like purchasing baseball trading cards. That’s not new, but the art market’s expansion today makes it more obvious. But the art that’s in fashion today will no longer be tomorrow.”

Reading about art history will make you better understand your interests in contemporary art, says de Sarthe. “Get to know the artist, the gallerist and be part of the contemporary art conversation. Make your own judgment, don’t follow the trend! Learn to live with the art!” De Sarthe says you should also be able to pick up some bargains by emerging artists. “Contemporary art by young artists should not be expensive.”

Hot Western artists

Established in 2004 as the Chinese contemporary art market was booming, Opera Gallery Hong Kong was one of the first international galleries to have a presence in the city and recently relocated to the Galleria on Queens Road in Central. “Our collectors are from all walks of life. But all share one same passion: the art,” says the gallery’s director, Olivier Demblum.


“We know that the art world, and what collectors are looking at, is always in flux, which is why we are constantly bringing in new and ground-breaking works to clients,” he says. A good example is Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch, whose works are often based on the ritualistic practice of sacrifice and involve blood, animal entrails, and nudity. “Art enthusiasts and collectors alike have been swept off their feet by his works, and with the new perceptions that they have with engaging with new works, they become more open to ideas about what kind of art they like.”

The gallery carries works from masters from the 20th century alongside promising and established contemporary artists. “20th century artists like [French expressionist painter] Bernard Buffet and [French abstract painter] Georges Mathieu are popular with local collectors.” So far as contemporary artists are concerned, it has seen a lot of interest for Swiss painter Andy Denzler, Spanish artist Manolo Valdés and French painter Andre Brasilier. “We attribute the success of these artists to their ability to encapsulate emotions and ideas in their artworks,” says Demblum. Contemporary sculptures, such as ones from Manolo Valdés and British /American Anthony James, have also been selling very well, partly due to the kind of connections that people make with them,” he adds.

The director says it understands now, more than ever, that having a strong digital presence is essential for growth. “The pandemic has taught us that it’s important to be present and functional in the virtual space and connect with a wider range of audiences. We’ve created more virtual online viewing rooms, as we see that many are looking for a new kind of art experience.” Collectors still like to the feeling of walking around our physical galleries, however. “Most of them like to pay us a visit first before buying online. This is very similar to auctions, where collectors will visit the exhibition first or mandate someone to do so before making an important purchase decision.”

As for the advice he’d like to share for those keen to start an art collection, Demblum reveals three key points that were recounted to him by Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler in Basel when he was still a young collector. “The first one is to buy for the right reason – purchase what you like. The second one is to be curious and open minded. Educate your eye as much as possible: visit galleries, fairs, exhibitions of all kinds, periods and styles. This will help your tastes to mature and know yourself better, and your collection will always reflect your personality. The third one is to find a good advisor who understands you and your art journey, as each art journey is different.”



(including delivery)

Mainland China, Hong Kong & Macao



(including delivery)

Asia, North America, Africa and Europe

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