Many Korean media outlets have reported that the Korean art market is losing steam despite the prospering global market in the midst of a recession. These media outlets showed a side-by-side comparison of the auction results for Seoul Auction, Christie’s, and Phillips, all of which took place in Hong Kong between the last week of November and the first week of December this year.
In short, the Seoul Auction did not meet expectations. More than that, the auction house was ridiculed for “inflating hammer prices,” adding a whopping 18% premium to the highest bid in its sales report. In contrast, the other two auction houses saw significant success. However, the trends that led up to these auction houses’ high sell-through rates should be considered.
Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong event comprised 84 pieces with a total value of approximately 16 million US dollars. This year’s Hong Kong auction, the auction house’s first event in two and a half years since COVID, opened its doors to great anticipation in the Korean art market, despite not being a truly local event. The Seoul Auction stated, “Due to Hong Kong’s COVID policy, only some of the pieces were exhibited at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, and the auction was held in Seoul.” Nevertheless, it “set up a bidding counter in Hong Kong to make real-time online and phone bidding possible through a live broadcast of the auction.”
Seoul Auction generally anticipates an average auction sell-through rate of 70%. However, this year’s Hong Kong auction finished with a relatively low 65% sell-through rate. The sales barely surpassed the halfway mark of the total value, ending at 12.5 billion Korean Won (approximately 8.8 million US dollars). Moreover, seven pieces were withdrawn before the auction began, and 27 were bought in. A total of 50 pieces were sold, and six of those were “rare whiskeys,” not art.
For blue-chip Dansaekhwa paintings, believed to be relatively immune to economic fluctuations, the auction put forth five pieces by Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo, and Yun Hyong-keun. Yet, only two of the five were sold, and other pieces by blue-chip Korean artists, such as Kim Whanki and Kim Kulim, were bought. The two works, Lee Ufan’s Dialogue (2015, 227.0 x 182.0 cm) and Park Seo-Bo’s Ecriture No. 060409 (2006, 260 x 160 cm), sold for 1.3 billion KRW (approximately 992,000 USD) and 580 million KRW (443,000 USD), respectively.
Works by young emerging artists and re-emerging masters, priced around 100 million KRW (approximately 76,000 USD), received more attention at Seoul Auction’s Hong Kong auction. Lee Bae’s Brushstroke A22 (2021) sold for 140 million KRW (approximately 107,000 USD,) Joung Young-Ju’s City-Disappearing Landscape 515 (2018) sold for 62 million KRW (approximately 47,000 USD,) Maria Chang’s Untitled (2022) sold for 29 million KRW (approximately 22,000 USD,) and Woo Kuk Won’s Black Cat (2020) sold for 96 million KRW (approximately 73,000 USD.)
Christie’s and Phillips’ Hong Kong auctions showed a similar trend, with works by ultra-contemporary artists having more optimistic results.
Phillips, which partnered with Beijing Yongle International Auction for this year’s Hong Kong auction, racked up 262 million Hong Kong dollars (approximately 33.6 million USD, including fees), achieving an 84% auction sell-through rate for its first-day sale and 97% for the following evening sale. The total amount of 213 million HKD exceeded the lowest estimate of 213 million HKD but fell short of the high estimate of 288 million HKD.
Similar to Seoul Auction, Phillips didn’t meet its expectations for the top ten blue-chip artists. Works by five of its top ten artists sold for less than the low estimate, with three selling narrowly above the low estimate. Only four of the ten artists set auction records.
The evening sale result was 22% higher than the auction house’s June evening sale but barely met half of the sales made in the spring and fall of 2021.
Phillips’ Hong Kong auction included four Korean Dansaekhwa paintings: two by Lee Ufan, one by Park Seo-Bo, and one by Yun Hyong-keun. Lee Ufan’s From Point sold for 7,207,500 HKD (approximately 925,000 USD), and Yun Hyong-keun’s Umber-Blue 76 sold for 882,000 HKD (approximately 113,000 USD). The rest were either bought in or withdrawn.
However, works by ultra-contemporary artists born after 1974 proved successful for Phillips. Loie Hollowell’s Split Orbs in gray-brown, yellow, purple, and carmine (2021) sold for twice the estimated 6 million HKD. Five other contemporary artists set new auction records: the British artists William Monk (b. 1977) and Michaela Yearwood-Dan (b. 1994), the American artists Sarah Slappey (b. 1984) and Trey Abdella (b. 1994), and the Indian artist Raghay Babbar (b. 1997).
CEO Belin of Christie’s Hong Kong stated that “with this auction, the 20th– and 21st-century art category’s total annual sales in Asia reached 3.4 billion HKD (approximately 436 million USD)” and that this “is the second-highest record for Christie’s Hong Kong, which confirms that the art market remains strong despite China’s COVID lockdowns.”
Christie’s amassed a total of 817.8 million HKD (approximately 105 million USD) over the course of two days. While this sum fell within the estimated range for the season, it was only half of what each of the previous three evening sales made. Christie’s Hong Kong racked up 1.4 billion HKD (approximately 180 million USD) this May, 1.5 billion HKD last December (approximately 193 million USD), and 1.6 billion HKD last May (approximately 206 million USD).
The number of lots, 68, fell short of recent auctions, which consistently presented over 70 lots. This year, the 20th– and 21st-century art evening sale included 51 pieces, and the post-millennium art evening sale included 17 pieces.
As with the other two auction houses, young artists thrived at Christie’s Hong Kong auction. The post-millennium evening sale ended with a 94% sell-through rate, selling all but one item for a total of 139.6 million HKD. Among the highest-selling artists was Korean artist Anna Park (b. 1996), who set a record of 3.8 million HKD. The work of the Indonesian artist Christine Ay Tjoe sold for 10.3 million HKD after a heated battle between 16 buyers, a price five times the high estimate. The work of the Singaporean artist Georgette Chen also sold for 13 million HKD (1.7 million USD), which is double the artist’s previous selling price.
According to Artnet, an American art market website, the global art market “is at a turning point due to numerous economic and geopolitical uncertainties.” The article explained that the raging anti-lockdown protests in China, in combination with the news of China’s former President Jiang Zemin’s death that broke just a few hours before the auction on November 30, deeply impacted the Hong Kong auctions.
While one Korean news source simply attributed the disappointing result of the Seoul Auction to a decrease in demand for blue-chip artists, the auction results of Christie’s and Phillips―two of the world’s largest auction houses―suggest a general decline in high-priced blue-chip artwork sales due to a global recession and China’s particular political situation. On the other hand, the demand for art by emerging artists at lower prices persisted.
Nonetheless, without a doubt, the Korean art market is in decline, indicating the bursting of a bubble in a market that has grown rapidly and consistently. To sustain market demand, the Korean arts must not rely solely on blue-chip artists but generate art historical momentum for contemporary artists and sandwich-generation artists who have played an important role in the development of Korean contemporary art history.