‘Seoul is still a boomtown’: solid sales at Frieze and Kiaf defy market dip

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Reports of a dip in the South Korean art market cast a shadow on the run up to Seoul Art Week, which sees the second edition of Frieze Seoul and the Korea International Art Fair (Kiaf), taking place concurrently on different floors of the Coex convention centre in Gangnam (6-9 September).

Nonetheless, crowds thronged and their impulse to spend money on art appeared mostly undeterred. Multiple gallerists at both fairs report better VIP day sales this year than last.

“It’s more packed than last year, and with more Americans”, says Andrew Hamilton, a director of the Modern Institute in Glasgow, one of the 121 galleries to take part in the fair (around the same number as the first edition). Indeed, a date clash with the Armory Show in New York—which was recently acquired by Frieze—raised doubt as to whether collectors from the US would attend. But these were quelled by the presence of around ten US museum groups, including those from The Bass, Perez Art Museum, Lacma, Aspen Art Museum and Dia Art Foundation, as well as private American collectors. Prominent European collectors in attendance included Maja Hoffman of Luma Arles in southern France. Almost 40 museum groups came in total, including the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the Auckland Art Gallery.

Perhaps an even bigger shift from 2022 is the return of Chinese collectors, who could not attend Frieze and Kiaf last year due to Covid travel restrictions; both South Korea and China have lifted virtually all Covid precautions and face masks are a rare sight at the fair. Chinese institutions in attendance include Hong Kong’s M+ and the Pingshan Art Museum, in Shenzhen.

Mandarin can be heard at many booths, and while ethnic Chinese people from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia are also part of the mix, the mainland art contingent is attending in force. “This is the first time since China reopened [after zero Covid] so curiosity is high,” says Lucien Y. Tso, the founder of Shanghai-based Gallery Vacancy. He reports a sell-out booth of works by the Belgian artist Pieter Jennes, with bright paintings priced around $30,000 and tactile soft sculptures of black cats selling for $1,500 per feline. Both darkly reference a 1932 Antwerp circus fire. Tso posits that the date conflict with Armory has had little impact as both it and Frieze Seoul are so regional in nature, he says, adding that today he has encountered a mix of collectors from Taiwan, Korea, mainland China, Thailand and Canada.

This mirrors the geographical makeup of collectors at another sell-out booth—London’s Josh Lilley gallery, which has placed all 15 paintings by Tom Anholt, to buyers from Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. The gallery prioritised offers from Asia “as we don’t come to Frieze Seoul to sell to Brits,” says its director, Joseph Harrison Davies. Josh Lilley also took part in the inaugural Art SG in Singapore this January. Davies says sales in Seoul have far eclipsed those of Singapore, with a “greater urgency” felt in Korea.

At the top end of sales today at Frieze Seoul, Hauser & Wirth have placed a 2023 Rashid Johnson painting with a “private Asian collection” for $975,000. Lisson Gallery have sold a 2004 Stanley Whitney painting for $550,000 and a work by Ryan Gander composed of an antique mirror and marble resin sold for £75,000. Thaddaeus Ropac, which this month doubled the size of its Seoul gallery, sold a 2023 Lee Bul mother-of-pearl work to a private Japanese collector for $190,000 as well as two Daniel Richter paintings for €375,000, one to a Chinese collector and the other to a Korean.

No works in the seven figures were reported to have sold by the end of VIP day, although last year a small handful of galleries made sales of works for more than $1m on the second day of the fair. Works in that price range this year include a Calder mobile at Pace, valued “in the millions”, and a towering Jeff Koons Gazing Mirror Ball sculpture from 2004 at Robilant + Voena for $3.6m. This is perhaps to be expected, as last year at Frieze Seoul many gallerists reported a sweet selling spot of between $100,000 to $200,000, while struggling to place anything above $500,000.

And at certain stands, signs of a downturn in sales could be gleaned. “People are certainly talking of a slower market,” says Salomé Zelic, a director at Galeria Continua. As of 7pm Korea time on preview day the gallery had not yet sold any works. “Usually our clients are at the upper end of net worth so things like this don’t bother them, so it’s interesting that this dip seems to be affecting people,” she says.

Kiaf increased the number of participating galleries by a third © Studio Z/Kiaf 2023

Downstairs at Kiaf, sales and crowds appeared more sedate, although Jaesok Kim, a director at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul, says this year demonstrated an upswing in sales activity compared with last year. The standard in quality also appears to have been somewhat raised—gone, for example, were signs of galleries placing stickers on their stand walls to mark the sale of a work, as happened at times last year. “Booth presentations were more varied and a higher calibre,” Kim says. Among the works sold by Hyundai at Kiaf was a 1966 painting by the South Korean artist Seundja Rhee for $210,000.

This year, Kiaf has significantly increased the number of galleries taking part, by around 33%, with more than 240 exhibitors. It is made up mostly of Korean galleries, including some of its largest, such as Kukje, which was responsible for a number of the most expensive reported VIP day sales, including sculptures by Ugo Rondinone for between $50,000 and $90,000.

Returning for the second year to Kiaf is the German gallery Isabelle Lesmeister from Regensburg. Its eponymous director says she sold just one work today, a sculpture of a piece of wood ash, twisted like a bow, by the artist Jeremy Holmes for $15,000. Lesmeister is confident at placing more works as “this isn’t the quickest fair at which to sell” she says, adding that Seoul is a “boomtown” for art. Asked about the downturn in the Korean market she acknowledges there have been fewer sales to local collectors than last year but this is true the world over. “Everywhere people are buying less art. In Europe, I have collectors who are worried about rising energy costs because of the war in Ukraine, it’s not a localised thing.”

“We’re entering into the second phase of the Korean art market now,” says the Seoul-based dealer Jason Haam, whose eponymous gallery is taking part in Frieze. Last year Haam was one of a handful of Korean galleries to take part in both Kiaf and Frieze. This year he has elected to do only Frieze as he found the prospect of doing two fairs and staging an exhibition in his gallery “too exhausting”.

While Hamm acknowledges there was a dip in sales earlier this year, he says this “cleared up by July” and that, at least for his collectors, it was largely down to a “psychological fear” rather than a “real decline in wealth”. Economics aside, he adds that what is most promising is not a “substantial material increase in the market”, but an increase in the level of quality. “Dozen of galleries are opening up in the city and they’re all professionalising. Commercial spaces now stage important shows throughout the year rather than just once. It’s very reassuring.”

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