Hong Kong: welcome to the epicentre for the trade of arts

Mar 21, 2019

Spring is the time of plans and projects. Especially for art dealers, collectors and gallery owners who gather in Hong Kong every March for two annual flagship art fairs – Art Basel and Art Central.

The business entrepôt of southern China has long been renowned for its art of trade. Yet, few might have realised that the city would one day master the trade of arts: it has become the Asian centre for Western auction houses and the Asian base for the world’s largest art fair, Art Basel.

Established in the Swiss city in 1970, with a second outpost in Miami established in 1994, Hong Kong was the obvious Asian city of choice to become the third home of Art Basel in 2012, thanks to its formidable history of art and precious antique dealing stretching back a century.

Located in Hong Kong Island’s Western District, Hollywood Road was one of the first roads built in the city as the British first stepped ashore in 1841. The road became an epicentre for merchants from India, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the early 20th century. In the 1970s, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the road got a new lease of life, thanks to an influx of migrants and art lovers from around the world, and became an internationally acclaimed hub for art and antiques trading.

Today the lively thoroughfare and its surrounding precinct of Sheung Wan and Central continue to be the top destination for international galleries and arts-related ventures to establish themselves in Asia. The dynamic arts scene that we enjoy in this part of Hong Kong today would be non-existent without the deep-rooted arts heritage of the Hollywood Road neighbourhood.

The market on an up

Hong Kong, which serves as Asia’s economic hub, has long been home to prestige auction houses including Sotheby's and Christie’s. But the introduction of major annual art fairs, Art Basel in 2012 and its satellite, Art Central, launched three years later, cemented the city’s international profile as an arts hub and a significant contributor to the city’s economy.

Exhibitors and buyers are attracted to Hong Kong’s advantageous tax laws, combined with the ease of dealing with the necessary legal and logistic requirements of transporting art offshore.

2012 2013 2015 2016 2017
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The fairs have benefited not only art enthusiasts in the spring, but also helped to attract more tourists and cultural activities over the course of the year.

Number of inbound tourists in March:

While the art fairs draw over 75,000 visitors each year, the art scene has also helped to bolster visitor numbers to the city during what is widely considered “low season”. Arts tourists visiting the city towards the end of March now report having trouble securing accommodation in the city’s centre.

Number of cultural activities:

Since the cultural influence of Art Basel has bedded down in Hong Kong, the public interest towards arts and culture has also increased with the number of cultural activities and exhibitions held in the city rising more than 25 per cent within five years. The extra exposure for the arts has seen a new breed of local collectors emerge, in addition to those who visit the annual fairs from mainland China and other parts of Asia.

The public interest, in addition to the economic boon, has seen Hong Kong’s art market become the world’s third largest in less than a decade, snapping at the heels of New York and London. It is no exaggeration to say that the annual presence of the hefty Art Basel, and its first satellite fair Art Central, have firmly cemented Hong Kong as Asia’s most important arts hub.

Number of exhibitors in Art Basel & Art Central

This year over 240 galleries and 100 galleries from over 35 countries expected to take part in Art Basel and Art Central, respectively – more than the combined number of galleries expected to participate in the other three key art trade events in the region, Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, Taipei Dangdai and Singapore’s Art SG, whose inaugural show will be in November 2019. Even another regional flagship Art Fair Tokyo, the nation’s largest with around 150 galleries, is still overshadowed by the line-up in Hong Kong. While China, the world’s second largest economy, has also become the second largest art market, the number of galleries that have exhibition space in mainland China participating in Art Basel has grown by 44 per cent.

Number of exhibitors with a space in mainland China:

44 per cent growth: the number of exhibitors with a space in mainland China has grown from 25 in 2013 to 36 in 2019.

Number of visitors to the fairs

Both Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central continue to attract art collectors, art lovers and the just plain curious in the tens of thousands – numbers that are not too far shy of those for the much longer established Art Basel Miami, which boasted 85,000 visitors in 2018, and Art Basel in Switzerland, which saw around 95,000 attendees in 2018.

Art Basel

Art Central

Over 39,000 international collectors, curators and art enthusiasts and over 100 leading international galleries, 75 per cent of which hailed from the Asia Pacific

The city of choice

As the gateway to Asia for many Westerners, coupled with its long history as a centre of business and trade, Hong Kong is a natural choice of location for arts dealers and collectors to gather. Growing interest in all things arts and culture and the exposure that Art Basel and Art Central have given – and continue to give – international blue-chip and local galleries has helped buoy the number of permanent galleries in the city.

The Swiss-based Lévy Gorvy gallery, which opens in Central on March 26, is just one of many notable independent galleries to have chosen to have Asian outposts in Hong Kong. Its arrival follows that of La Galerie in 2015, Massimo De Carlo, in 2016, and David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth, both in 2018. Other galleries that have had a longer presence, include de Sarthe – founded in Paris in 1977 – which opened a gallery in Hong Kong in 2010 (and another in Beijing in 2014), Gagosian which was established in Hong Kong in 2011 and White Cube in 2012. All of these galleries give locals and visitors alike the opportunity to view and buy art all-year round.

In addition to regular sales through the established galleries, in recent years a number of star sales have taken place during the fairs, and at independent auctions in the city. In 2013, the oil painting The Last Supper, by Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi, became the first Chinese painting to be sold for more than HK$100 million (US$23.3 million) at auction. The sale, carried out by Sotheby’s on behalf of its owners, Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten – the renowned art collectors and co-founders of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing – also set the record at that time for the highest price paid for a work by an Asian artist.

Wayne Cheng
“It’s thought-provoking to see all contemporary pieces under one roof,” says Cheng, chairman of his family business, Auspic Paper, who lived in the city from 2004 to 2016, and been a regular patron of the city’s art fairs since they were launched. “With the increasing presence of Asian galleries in the show, Hong Kong during that week in March seems ever more globalised and strangely foreign to me.”

Eric Weng
Art Writer & PR
“It’s like a never-ending art party, and it’s so easy to hop on from one to another,” The Taipei-based art PR says. Weng is regularly visiting most key art events around the world and the flagship events in Hong Kong have become the must-go on his calendar since 2016. Outside of the fairs, he’s often seen enjoying dim sum at tea house and milk tea at cha chaan teng.

The evolving history of Hollywood Road

Hong Kong’s home-grown and street art was already well established in Hollywood Road and the nearby areas of Sheung Wan and Central before the arrival of the art fairs and galleries. Here we look back on Hollywood Road’s past 100 years.

Click over the years to see more information

1920sUpper Lascar Row (Cat Street) emerges 1970sCollectors emerge at the end of the Cultural Revolution 1980sAntique stores number 300 and rising 1999 & 2001The major auction houses arrive
1920s 1970s 1980s 2001

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