While the majority of cultural institutions across metropolitan centers in the United States and Europe closed their doors over the past couple of weeks amid the rapid spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19), Art Basel carried out its annual Hong Kong edition—but for the first time virtually, after having announced the cancellation of the in-person fair last month.
At 6 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, Art Basel Hong Kong’s online viewing rooms went live to VIP guests for the first preview day, and will run through March 25. With this virtual option replacing the typical large crowds and networking that takes place between collectors and dealers, the online iteration is a sobering remedy to the major disruptions that the coronavirus has wrought on the global art calendar. As a possible measure of success, it seems engaged participants reached critical mass: they overwhelmed the website’s servers, causing them to go down for around 25 minutes.
Despite this slight hiccup, as several dealers characterized it, many galleries said they had heard positive things from their collector bases. Shasha Tittmann, director of Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong space, said this online option has been important to those in Hong Kong—and beyond—as international travel has been restricted. “It’s new, and will take some getting used to; it’s not how we’re accustomed to experiencing an art fair,” Tittmann said. “The collectors I’ve spoken with, however, were genuinely excited to register and test it out. There’s interest and curiosity, but it’s clear from the initial experience that it requires strong guidance to lead clients to the viewing room.”
A spokesperson for Pace Gallery agreed, adding that the gallery had heard from clients that context was important in order for them to move forward with purchases. In light of this, Pace said it will launch curator-led tours of the gallery’s online viewing room next week, separate from the Art Basel tour and “accompanied by interpretative materials to offer a rich contextual lens through which to engage with these artworks.”
For its online booth, Pace had a 1978 Warhol screen print collage, titled Retrospective (Blue), that features the image of mother-daughter pair Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli; it was going for $1 million. Another highlight is a small work on paper by Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang titled Bathtub (2018) that is on offer at $150,000. Zhang’s surrealist-influenced style and dark subject matter have established him as a forerunner in Chinese contemporary art. At the 2018 fair in Hong Kong, a Chinese foundation bought a large-scale 2012 painting by Zhang for $1 million.
A David Zwirner spokesperson characterized interest in the work they had brought to the online fair as “brisk,” noting that several sale inquiries had come from the gallery’s own customized online platform, as opposed to the one designed by Art Basel. (The spokesperson also said that clients preferred the design of the Zwirner site to the Art Basel one.) The gallery, which began having online viewing rooms in 2017, said that in terms of buyers they found those from Asia were the most active, followed by ones based in the U.S., who had woken up early for the fair, with less participation from collectors in Europe.
Zwirner reported that, in the initial hours, a Marlene Dumas work sold for $2.6 million to an American client and a Mamma Andersson painting sold for $400,000 to an Asian client. By the end of day on Wednesday, the gallery had also sold a Luc Tuymans for $2 million, a work by Liu Ye for $500,000, and a painting by the late Noah Davis for $360,000. Following a survey of Davis’s work at Zwirner that ended in February, and a $400,000 auction record set in the March New Now sale at Phillips, the artists’s market is expanding.
No stranger to selling art online, Gagosian, which first offered online viewing rooms in 2018, sold a group of paintings by three female artists. They were featured alongside a black-and-gold work by Georg Baselitz, on offer for $1 million that, as of Wednesday evening, was without a buyer. The gallery’s sales included Mary Weatherford’s Splendor in the Grass (2019), a giant mixed-media painting intersected by two neon tubes. Presented here online for the first time, the piece sold for $750,000 within the first half-hour of the VIP preview. Other gallery sales included Jennifer Guidi’s 2019 yellow monochrome An Instance of Becoming, for an undisclosed price, and a small-scale geometric painting by young Chinese contemporary artist, Jia Aili.
Among the top-tier works Paris-based dealer Thaddaeus Ropac was peddling was Robert Rauschenberg’s Rice Wine Dog, Tuak Hudok-Iban (ROCI Malaysia), from 1990, priced at $1 million. The work draws from the artist’s cultural and humanitarian concerns that culminated in a seven-year, ten-country tour, including Malaysia. Ropac also showed a major double portrait by Alex Katz completed this year, priced between $250,000 and $500,000.
Offered at $1 million, Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley #21, from 1954, starred in a presentation of major modernists and postwar staples at Acquavella Galleries, which also showed a 10-by-12-inch painting by Wayne Thiebaud, titled Four Slices (2016–19) and also going for $1 million. Thiebaud works saw an onslaught of attention earlier this month, with two pieces selling for an aggregate $4.6 million at Sotheby’s.
At Skarstedt, George Condo’s 2001 The K-Mart Girl carried a price of $950,000. The painting came up at auction in Sotheby’s contemporary day sale not even two years ago, in November 2018, selling for $735,000.
There tends to be robust interest in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings at fairs of Art Basel Hong Kong’s caliber, but this year’s offerings included only his works on paper. At Lévy Gorvy, a 1983 Basquiat graphite and oil on paper portrait was priced at $1 million. At Van de Weghe, Basquiat’s Ape drawing from 1984 carried a price of $500,000–$1 million; several Warhol screen prints were on sale in the same price range. Last year, Van de Weghe had priced Ape at $4 million, but it went unsold during Art Basel Miami Beach in December, marking a significant decrease in the figures for the auction headliner artist.
Blum & Poe, with locations in Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo, brought a modest grouping of works this year, with a 2018 work by Yoshitomo Nara priced at $275,000. Another of the dealer’s highlights was Japanese-Brazilian painter Asuka Anastacia Ogawa’s figurative portrait Walking, 2020, priced at $48,000. Ogawa is another of the young primary-market stars showing promise, with her work collected by fellow contemporary artists such as Mark Grotjahn and Rashid Johnson; her first New York solo show in June 2019 at Half Gallery sold out before the opening.
Following a recent global trend, many dealers have been savvy in promoting high-quality works by their blockbuster artists in the range of $500,000–$1 million, exhibiting few works for more than $10 million. Most surprising about this fair is that, during the preview, anyone with a VIP login could see the prices for many of the works on offer by most galleries. Typically, dealers play coy about the cost of works.
In an email, Emanuel Layr, whose eponymous gallery has locations in Vienna and Rome, said, “I think it is interesting and a big step that most galleries are displaying prices, which could create more transparency and will also help people to compare better. But this comes also with a problem: The serious evaluation of prices is hard work and is part of a cost intensive work of galleries. I am for more transparency, and showing prices is for sure customer friendly, but if this information is used by people to try to either resell works … or offer similar works at lower prices, this might be problematic.”