Simon de Pury on How NFT Star Beeple Came to His Rescue in Seoul, and Discovering Korean Culture in the Flesh

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Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market. 

Having just returned from Seoul I am still basking in the glow of the fascinating week I spent there. WWD Korea was organizing its second annual Art Gala to coincide with the second edition of the Frieze Seoul art fair, and asked me to conduct a benefit auction devoted to emerging Korean artists. I always need a pretext to travel anywhere and so this gave me the perfect reason to go for the very first time ever to Seoul.  

I have led a nomad existence of near constant travels around the globe for most of my life, and am amazed that I never managed to go there before. Not only had I never been in Seoul but I didn’t even know that you don’t pronounce it, as I used to do, as Sé-oul but as Soul. This suits me fine as I love Soul music, Soul food and anything related to the soul.  

In many ways it was the perfect timing for my first trip to Seoul since Korean contemporary culture is currently the most influential on the global youth. Teens and pre-teens anywhere are following closely what is happening not only in K-Pop, but in fashion, cosmetics, online Netflix series, cinema, and contemporary art and graphic expression. I have become an expert on K-Pop music thanks to my youngest daughter, who is in charge of musical programming whenever we go on a lengthy car ride. I developed in the process a particular liking for groups such as Mamamoo and Blackpink. In August, Alexandre Arnault announced that Rosé from Blackpink and Jimin from BTS were becoming brand ambassadors for Tiffany’s Lock campaign. 

Gallery Baton, Frieze Seoul 2023 Photo by Lets Studio. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze.

Gallery Baton, Frieze Seoul 2023
Photo by Lets Studio. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze.

All this didn’t start yesterday of course. It was in October 2012 that PSY released Gangnam Style. the dance track that conquered the world. I didn’t know what Gangnam was or meant until I was told that the Josun Palace Hotel, where the WWD Art Gala took place on September 6, was located in the heart of Gangnam, one of Seoul’s most affluent districts. During dinner I told one of my lovely neighbours at table “this is Gangnam style,” and she replied “please don’t mention that song! It is such an ear worm, that I now can’t get it out of my head!”  

Choi Seung-hyun, better known under his stage name T.O.P. became a mega star when he started performing as the lead singer in the boy band Big Bang back in 2006. He became a hugely important taste maker and was instrumental in spreading interest among Korean and Asian collectors to acquire Western contemporary art. He has 17 million Instagram followers. Some colleagues in the art market used to marvel that I had so many followers on the social platform. I never confessed until now that the main reason for that was that T.O.P. was following me and that whenever he liked one of my posts, it instantly brought me loads of new followers. When he joined the army, he discontinued his Instagram account. After the completion of his military service, he restarted an IG account on which tragically he was no longer following me. My number of followers has grown much more slowly ever since. 

Bong Joon-ho’s film, Parasite became an instant classic when it was released in 2019. It won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and in early 2020 became the first non-English language film to ever win the Academy Award for best picture. I loved its spectacular cinematography and its views of various parts of Seoul. Exploring this buzzing city, I felt as if I was in outtakes of this extraordinary film. 

I usually try to arrive at the destinations where I am scheduled to direct an auction the day before. This time it wasn’t possible since I had given a lecture in Hamburg on the evening preceding my trip. Arriving at the Incheon International Airport I took a taxi expecting the drive to take one hour. It took me double that time to get to my hotel as I was instantly confronted with the paralyzingly heavy traffic of the city. 

Cylinder, Frieze Seoul 2023, Focus Asia Photo by Lets Studio. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze.

Cylinder, Frieze Seoul 2023, Focus Asia
Photo by Lets Studio. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze.

The invite for the Art Gala stipulated a starting time of 7 p.m. Expecting there to be a cocktail time preceding the seated dinner I arrived with, for a Swiss, an uncharacteristic delay of 12 minutes. Seeing very few people in the reception area I walked into the main ballroom, where to my great surprise, I saw most guests already installed at the table waiting for the first course to be served. After the proceedings started in the beautifully adorned setting, speeches were given including one by Yuna Kim, the brilliant entrepreneur and CEO of WWD Korea.  

Soon enough I was asked to go on stage and to start the auction. I had been forewarned that there was no tradition in Korea for fundraising galas along the lines of those that are customary in Europe or the U.S. After having described the merits of the starting lot, I didn’t see a single arm going up. This is of course an auctioneer’s nightmare so I said “by the way it does help at an auction to raise one’s hand,” and discovering that Beeple was sitting at the top of one of the long tables near the stage I added “am so excited to see that the God of NFTs Beeple is amongst us. I must admit that I only heard of NFTs after he sold one of his for $69 million at Christie’s!” At that moment all the guests were staring with fascination at Beeple and, a very good sport, he raised his hand. This prompted someone else to bid and after a short bidding exchange Beeple emerged victorious and the proud owner of the work. I am most grateful to him because he clearly unlocked the auction and all subsequent lots sparked lively bidding resulting in several of the artists achieving new price records. 

Gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac in Seoul. Frieze Seoul 2023. Photo by Lets Studio. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze.

Gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac in Seoul. Frieze Seoul 2023. Photo by Lets Studio. Courtesy of Lets Studio and Frieze.

Being badly jet lagged we immediately embarked on Seoul night life, which is as buzzing as its art scene. In a short week I managed to only scratch the surface while running from event to event, artist to artist and collector to collector. It is only on the last day that I managed to visit both Frieze and Kiaf that are taking place on different levels of the same building. It was absolutely packed with people, and several galleries had already rehung their booths. For once not visiting a fair either on the VIP preview day or during the initial days brought the advantage of not bumping into someone one knows every two seconds. At Frieze most galleries presented top of the range material and the two fairs offered a good overall insight of Asian contemporary art. 

Seoul offers a vibrant art scene in terms of the number of good artists living and working there, the depth of good collectors and of several excellent galleries having been active there for already many years. Frieze was well inspired to start its activities in Korea last year, and so were galleries such as Thaddaeus Ropac who opened in 2021. The country is economically strong and there is a clear feeling of momentum. It will not happen to the detriment of Hong Kong that will remain the main Asian auction centre. The two art scenes differ in a way not unlike the ones of Los Angeles and New York. 

Simon de Pury is the founder of de PURY, former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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