Where is the ‘Asian’ art market?

Talking about auctions with MutualArt CEO Al Brenner.


INTERVIEW  NICKKY FAUSTINE P. DE GUZMAN

A Japanese collector bought this Jean Michel Basquiat painting for US$110.5 million.

According to MutualArt CEO Al Brenner, the art world has a tendency to reduce the “Asian” art market— the auction, in particular—to Hong Kong, where Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips hold court.

In an e-mail interview with High Life, Mr. Brenner pointed out that other countries have much to offer even if recent “headline-grabbing” sales have all been based in the so-called fragrant harbor.

“In Thailand, Bangkok’s H Gallery provides emerging artists with international exposure, while in South Korea, Gana Art Gallery is dedicated to promoting Korean art globally. In Singapore, events like the Affordable Art Fair and Art Stage promote Southeast Asian artists,” he said.

MutualArt is a website that provides art enthusiasts with the latest trends in the global art scene. It has over 500,000 members, many of them collectors and art professionals, from 187 countries.

In this Q and A, Mr. Brenner shares his thoughts on the East/West divide and future prospects.

Is there a market for Western art in Asia and vice versa?

Asian collectors have typically had to travel to auctions in New York and London to buy big-name Western artists at auction. This does not reflect a lack of demand: In 2015, Modigliani’s Reclining Nude was purchased for US$170 million by Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian and, more recently, Basquiat’s Untitled 1982 painting went to Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa for US$110.5 million, both in New York sales.

Auction houses in Asia have only recently begun to respond to this demand. In May, Christie’s Hong Kong held a sale it described as “groundbreaking,” presenting Western artists including Cecily Brown, Willem de Kooning, and Gerhard Richter alongside works by Hong Kong auction regulars including Sanyu, Zao Wou-Ki, and Shozo Shimamoto. Phillips followed suit, offering big-name Western artists in its May sale, which was preceded by a special auction of Andy Warhol photographs, taken on a trip to China in 1982.

Results for these auctions have so far been mixed: at Christie’s Hong Kong, works by Western artists sold at or below their low estimates, while a painting by Cy Twombly failed to find a buyer. Western artworks received a similarly tepid response in Sotheby’s earlier Hong Kong sales in April.

There is a general thinking that “Asian” art is limited to artwork from China, Japan, and Hong Kong. What about the Asian nations from the Southeast or the Middle East?

Major auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s have worked to establish sales that represent the richness and variety of Asian art in its entirety, with curated sales offering works, not just from China, Japan, and Hong Kong, but from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and India.

In March, Christie’s Dubai Modern and Contemporary Art sale presented works by artists including Dia Al-Azazawi, from Iraq, and Mahmoud Saïd, who lives and works in Egypt. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian departments, offering both ancient and contemporary works.

Could you comment on the sophistication of Asian collectors?

Not everyone who begins collecting has an exhaustive knowledge of art history, but it’s the opportunity to discover and learn that makes art so exciting.

Many collectors eventually become experts in their own rights: the businessman Liu Yiqian, for example, is highly self-deprecating, claiming to know little about the art and antiques he collects. Despite this, he has built a collection of museum-quality pieces, working, not with an art advisor, but on his own.

What is the future of Asian art breaking into the West and vice versa?

I think that this is part of the rise of global connectivity and the resulting international cultural exposure that comes with it. We are seeing Asian influences on Western culture in other fields (bubble tea shops everywhere, Japanese anime, etc.) and this cross exposure will continue to grow. It, of course, touches art as well.

In the art market, we can see auction houses continue to offer works by Asian artists in major sales in both London and New York, while the presence of fairs such as Art Basel in Hong Kong and Art Stage Singapore, which has an international mix of artists, suggests a willingness to develop an appetite for Western artworks in Asia.