Hong Kong’s Art Basel Lures Collectors Chasing Warhol

(Bloomberg) -- Celebrities, billionaires and art moguls have descended on Hong Kong, lured by the chance to buy works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat at Asia's biggest art fair.

Art Basel Hong Kong, an edition of the fair that started in Switzerland, is selling as much as $3 billion worth of art displayed by 233 galleries from 37 countries, according to insurer AXA Art.

The Hong Kong version has become a major stop on the global art fair circuit of one-stop shopping malls for the mega-wealthy seeking to diversify their stock portfolios with paintings and sculptures by brand names and hot young artists.

First night sales, in a truncated VIP preview that lasted only three hours because the fair format was revamped from previous years, indicated that the economic slowdown in China hasn't dampened sales.

"We were in China before this for two weeks and it certainly wasn't palpable to me," said dealer Sean Kelly, who sold a work by Sun Xun for $145,000, as well as works by James White and by Hugo McCloud.

‘Very Happy'

White Cube dealer Jay Joplin echoed Kelly's sentiments. "It's been excellent, I'm very happy," he said, adding that his gallery sold works by Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky and Theaster Gates.

Rachel Lehmann, of Lehmann Maupin was more cautious. "You cannot judge the success of an art fair in three hours," she said. Still, by the end of the evening she had sold two Alex Prager photographs, a work by Tracey Emin, a Hernan Bas painting and several works by Korean artist Do Ho Suh.

It's common for galleries to pre-sell works to preferred clients ahead of fairs, and dealers expected a flurry of purchases when the doors opened to select guests Friday at 6 p.m.

Art Basel anchors what is informally called art week in Hong Kong, a time when luxury goods companies, private banks and Michelin-starred restaurants are pulling out the stops in their pursuit of the vast amount of wealth pouring into the city as art and commerce converge in Hong Kong.

Tate Modern director Nicholas Serota, Swiss collector and auctioneer Simon de Pury and New World Development Co. scion Adrian Cheng are among the expected fair visitors. Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss and Robin Thicke have been invited to browse the booths since they're in town for a charity benefit to raise money for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, on March 14. Actress Michelle Yeoh is being honored at the fundraiser.

Fair Rebranded

The fair, which began as Art HK in 2008, was rebranded Art Basel Hong Kong two years ago after the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach took over.

Mainland collectors are on the prowl for trophy works to adorn the walls of their homes in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Sydney, or to fill private museums in China.

Billionaire Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei are in town for the handover of a 15th century Tibetan embroidered thangka they purchased at Christie's Hong Kong for $45 million in November for their private museum in Shanghai.

Wang Zhongjun, chairman of Beijing-based film company Huayi Brothers International, keeps a Vincent van Gogh still life he bought for $62 million at Sotheby's New York last fall in his Hong Kong pied-a-terre.

Depth, Experience

Asia has 492 billionaires, according to the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2015, 53 of whom live in Hong Kong.

Still, dealers said the market lacks the depth and experience of the U.S. and Europe, where collectors have amassed works for decades. China accounted for 22.4 percent of global sales in the art and antiques market, ranking it second behind the U.S., according to an annual report published March 11 by the European Fine Art Foundation. Yet that's a decline from 24 percent in 2013, according to the report.

"There is a vibe around Art Basel and lots of clients want to be part of it," said Edie Hu, art advisory specialst at Citi private bank in Hong Kong. "Though a lot of the cutting edge art might not be to their taste, when they come across something like a Picasso or Warhol they have seen before it's like comfort food, for them."

Expanded Offerings

While dealers are expanding their offerings of abstract and conceptual works, blue chip contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have a captive audience in the region.

"I show Picasso, Basquiat, Henry Moore; they are attracted to this kind of art," said dealer Christophe Van de Weghe, who is bringing two of Warhol's works, and a Gerhard Richter with an asking price of about $8.5 million.

London's Victoria Miro gallery is offering $2 million pumpkin sculptures by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and $225,000 tapestry works by Britain's Grayson Perry.

Gajah Gallery is returning to the fair with Bali, Indonesia-based American painter Ashley Bickerton's works, which provide a contemporary take on the fascination that 20th century painters had with Southeast Asian exoticism. The most expensive, "Party Time" is priced at $270,000.

Fair partner UBS Group AG said it expects several hundred high-net-worth private banking clients to fly in from around the region, and the bank expects as many as 8,000 visitors at its fair VIP lounge that displays works from its permanent collection including David Hockney, Hong Kong ink painter Wilson Hsieh and Wayne Thiebaud.

Satellite Fair

Those with more modest budgets can head to a new satellite fair, Art Central, which opens to the public March 14 in a tent on Hong Kong island's waterfront. With 75 galleries from 21 countries, most works will be priced from $1,000 to $100,000, said managing director Charles Ross, who describes the fair as a "fun, fresh and edgy complement to Art Basel."

While Art Basel has become increasingly dominated by international dealers, 65 percent of the contemporary galleries are from greater Asia, with 18 from Hong Kong alone.

Each year at this time Hong Kong's social life goes into overdrive with gallery openings, charity auctions and champagne parties on rooftops, at poolsides and in parking garages.

New World's Cheng, who hosted a dinner for 90 people Thursday, said he had invitations to 14 other events the same evening.

"That doesn't even include the private bank requests," said Cheng, who will try to squeeze in time to look at a dozen works he's thinking of buying.

Elsewhere on Thursday, guests removed their Christian Louboutin heels to get into the party hosted by Zurich-based Bank Vontobel AG aboard the 27-meter-long (87 feet) Ferretti yacht organized by My Yacht Group founder Nicholas Frankl, who enforced a no-shoes policy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Matthew G. Miller at [email protected] Mary Romano