Asia Week New York 2023, the first iteration of the event since Covid-19 restrictions and travel bans have largely been lifted worldwide, made more than $131m in sales as the US market for Asian art begins to return to pre-pandemic levels.
At press time, 22 out of 26 galleries and five of six auction houses taking part in the event collectively reported $131.2m in sales, the largest total since 2019, when $150m sales were reported. Last year, auction houses and dealers reported a comparatively slim $98.6m in sales.
A driving force behind the dramatic rise in sales this year is that dealers and collectors from China have been permitted to travel to the event for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic sparked strict lockdowns across the country. It’s the first Asia Week since China reopened borders this year, allowing citizens to travel abroad without quarantine requirements for the first time in several years. Earlier this month the US lifted Covid-19 testing requirements on travellers entering the country from China. China has the largest art market after the US, totaling $13.4bn and making up roughly 20% of the global art market, according to the most recent edition of Art Basel and UBS’s Art Market report.
This year’s event felt like “a homecoming”, says cofounder Joan Mirviss, who operates a gallery on the Upper East Side that specialises in Japanese art. “There’s a tremendous vibrancy. People are coming back to New York again, but coming back with money to spend. They didn’t come here just to look, they came here to make acquisitions.” Mirviss say her gallery made more than 90 sales (some still pending) and was visited by representatives of at least 27 museums.
Heakyum Kim also noticed the influx of curators at her gallery, HK Art and Antiques, and says many were looking to expand their institutions’ collections of her specialty, modern and contemporary Korean art. The US has the strongest market for Korean art outside of South Korea, Kim says, thanks in part to interest from museums. “It was a very successful Asia Week,” Kim adds.
“Almost universally, I’ve heard that [every gallery] did well this year and I don’t remember that happening for a long time,” says Mirviss, who has organised the event since its inception.
For this year’s Asia Week, New York auction houses sent out more invitations to Chinese collectors—who typically need to apply for a visa to visit the US—compared to previous years, organisers said.
A rare print of Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic Under the Wave off Kanagawa sold for a record $2.8m on 23 March at Christie’s New York after a battle between six bidders drove the price past its $500,000 to $600,000 estimate. The previously most expensive Great Wave print sold for $1.6m in 2021, and this month’s result set a new record for a work by Hokusai—arguably the most famous historical Japanese artist—at auction.
“It was a superb impression … certainly the best to come up publicly for sale in the last 20 years. And it was vastly better than the one that sold for $1.6m,” Mirviss says of the Great Wave print.
Overall, Christie’s live Asia Week sales totaled more than $6.3m (including fees), though three online sales are finishing up this week. Sotheby’s sales totaled $32.5m (including fees), led by Bulls (1961) by the Indian modernist MF Husain, which fetched $2.7m and set a record for the artist at auction during a dedicated sale of modern and contemporary South Asian art. Also at Sotheby’s, a ceremonial jade axe dating from China’s Zhou dynasty sold for more than $1m, well ahead of its $400,000 to $600,000 estimate. A large grey jade cong from the Neolithic period of China sold for more than 50 times its estimate at Bonhams, fetching $1.5m during a sold-out auction of works from New York-based gallery J.J. Lally & Co.
Fears of a cascading banking crisis in the middle of Asia Week didn’t appear to put a damper on spending, according to Marviss, who says some visitors may have been making purchases to hedge against possible trouble to come. “Maybe people decided, ‘I’m not leaving my money in the bank, I will buy something tangible,’” she says.
Recent scandals involving looted art from Southeast Asia also didn’t have much of an effect on Asia Week, she says. No galleries or auctions sold the material during Asia Week, according to Mirviss, who described the market as “static” because of laws governing the practice.
Asia Week New York sales peaked in 2017, when the collective total from participating galleries and auction houses reached $423.7m, according to organisers. Sales had declined since then, even before the pandemic, in part because of tariffs imposed on Chinese goods by the US in 2018.
Christie’s will wrap up two online auctions this week, while iGavelAuctions will continue to hold Asia Week sales online through April.