Art Basel Hong Kong shows there’s life in the city’s art market yet

“I’m glad to confirm that reports of Hong Kong’s demise have been greatly exaggerated,” says Nick Simunovic, director of Gagosian, speaking at Art Basel Hong Kong, which opened its first fully fledged fair since 2019 to VIPs on Tuesday and runs until Saturday. The renewed buzz at a fair that has suffered during the city’s years of stringent Covid restrictions has come as a relief to many. “We had felt that this year’s fair was a litmus test for Hong Kong and its visitors, and I’m glad to say that it looks really serious,” says Alysha Lee, an associate at Empty Gallery in Tin Wan. “The opening was really, really busy and we had a strong first hour.”

Part of the international appeal this year is the chance to see Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, which now boasts the vast M+ and Hong Kong Palace museums. “It helps that there is so much happening in the cultural district,” says Patricia Crockett, senior director at David Zwirner. “We have had a great first day.” Her gallery’s art fair sales included Jordan Wolfson’s “Red Sculpture” (2016-22), which sold to Shanghai’s Long Museum for $900,000.

‘Untitled (Beaver lodge)’ (2023) by Cy Gavin, shown by Gagosian at Art Basel Hong Kong © Courtesy Gagosian

News from outside the art-fair walls, including Art Basel sponsor UBS’s takeover of Credit Suisse, barely entered the Convention and Exhibition Centre, exhibitors say. “It was among the weekend conversations with some of the more senior collectors around, but now it seems everyone has already forgotten about it,” says Singapore-based gallerist Richard Koh.

He and others note that the event’s visitor profile had shifted. “There’s a much younger crowd than before,” he says. Henrietta Tsui-Leung, founder of Hong Kong’s Ora-Ora gallery, echoes his impression, and notes the dominance of overseas visitors from Asia, including mainland China, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. Simunovic says: “The pan-Asian participation is enormous. I hope people realise that Hong Kong is back — and spread the word.”

Also in Hong Kong, Hauser & Wirth is moving out of the 15th and 16th floors of the towering H Queen’s building to a nearby space that opens on to the street. “We have had 17 great shows in H Queens, but there are extraordinary advantages to being on the ground floor, as we are in our other galleries. It makes access easier in every way,” says president Iwan Wirth. The new gallery also offers much more space, he says — two floors for exhibitions and another for offices, amounting to 10,000 sq ft — plus a rare (for Hong Kong) four metre-high ceiling. On the junction of Ice House Street, Duddell Street and Queen’s Road Central, Hauser’s new Hong Kong home should open by the end of the year, once Selldorf Architects, a gallery favourite, has worked its magic.

After the intense Covid period, the decision is good news for Hong Kong’s Central area but a blow to H Queen’s. The 24-storey building was designed for galleries and restaurants, and opened to great excitement in late 2017. The pandemic seems to have taken its toll, while there are now more options in the city. Pearl Lam closed her H Queen’s gallery in 2020 and Ora-Ora moved to the revamped Tai Kwun Centre in 2021. International galleries David Zwirner and Pace remain in H Queen’s.

Zadie Xa next to her work ‘Homecoming’ (2022) © Artifacts

London’s art dealers are concerned about the news of six redundancies at Whitechapel Gallery, including of respected curators Lydia Yee, Candy Stobbs and Tarini Malik. Gilane Tawadros, who came in as director of the museum last year, blames the combination of “a reduction in [Arts Council England] funding alongside rising energy costs and pressing environmental and social concerns”. She describes the redundancies decision as “very difficult” in the face of a “significant financial deficit in 2022-23”.

“It’s saddening that UK institutions have to make such difficult decisions under the pressures of funding cuts, and a great shame that talented curatorial staff are casualties in this instance,” says gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac. This week, he announced global representation of the Korean-Canadian artist Zadie Xa, whose largest solo exhibition in London is at Whitechapel until April 30 and is curated by Malik. At Art Basel Hong Kong, Ropac gallery sold two of Xa’s recent works for £22,000 each.

A registered charity, Whitechapel Gallery’s Arts Council funding dropped from £1.5mn annually in 2018-22 to £1.4mn in 2023-26.

‘Bum’ (1966) by Pauline Boty, which sold for £190,000 (est £60,000-£80,000, £239,400 with fees)

There were some unlikely heroes at Christie’s largely underwhelming Modern British and Irish art auction in London on Tuesday evening. Artists including LS Lowry, David Hockney and Ben Nicholson were among the nine works that went unsold (from 45 lots), while Pauline Boty, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and William Roberts all sold above their presale estimates. Boty’s study, “Bum” (1966), opened the sale and went for £190,000 (est £60,000-£80,000, £239,400 with fees) as the overlooked female Pop artist, who died aged 28, breaks into the mainstream market.

A collection including nine works by the niche Vorticist artists — Britain’s avant-garde through the first world war led by Wyndham Lewis — sold well. These included a small carving and a pastel on paper by Gaudier-Brzeska, both originally owned by the poet Ezra Pound, who gave the movement its name. The French-born Gaudier-Brzeska also died in his twenties, fighting for his country, in 1915. Overall, the Christie’s sale made £15.4mn (£19.3mn with fees) — below its presale estimate of £16.9mn-£26.2mn and last year’s equivalent £25.5mn auction.

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