Asia’s Art Market Is Back in Business

Asia’s Art Market Is Back in Business

Asia’s art market is recovering from the effects of the pandemic and a new landscape is emerging.
Asia’s art market is recovering from the effects of the pandemic and a new landscape is emerging.

A sia’s art capitals are eagerly welcoming the world back, with big new fairs generating buzz alongside the backbone of longer-running local and international events. While some shifts in the landscape were inevitable, particularly with the continued zero-Covid inaccessibility of Hong Kong and Shanghai and spring’s hard lockdown of the latter, something like pre-pandemic conditions are starting to return.

The size and value of the art market is difficult to estimate, but Dong Rui, chief researcher at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art’s Art Market Research Centre (AMRC), says that – at auction at least – Asia is now dominant. “Over the past two years Asia has surpassed North America and Europe to become the world’s largest art market [by auction sales], accounting for about 36% of the world’s turnover,” he says. Unlike the Art Basel and UBS Art Market 2022 report, Dong’s figures do not include estimates for gallery sales. When these are taken into account the US is in the lead with 43% of the total art market, and China is number one at auction, with 33%, one point ahead of the US.

Installation view of Mary Corse: Seen and Unseen, Pace Gallery, Seoul, 2022
Installation view of Mary Corse: Seen and Unseen, Pace Gallery, Seoul, 2022. Photo: studio_kdkkdk © Mary Corse; courtesy Pace Gallery

Korea and Hong Kong

A highlight of the new Asian art season is the debut of Frieze Seoul in September. The fair is partnering with the Korean Gallery Association, which for the past two decades has organised the Korean International Art Fair (KIAF). Frieze and KIAF Seoul – including a section devoted to new-media art, KIAF Plus – will run alongside one another in a city already bursting with world-class museums, galleries and artists.

“A defining feature of the Korean art market is its enthusiasm for collecting Western art,” says Leng Lin, partner and president of Pace Gallery for Beijing, Hong Kong and Seoul – where it has just expanded its premises. “South Korea has consciously used its rapid economic development and inclusive market to organise East Asian art exchanges,” he adds, citing the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Asia Culture Center and the Gwangju Biennale.

Pace first opened in Seoul in 2017, one of the first Western galleries in an influx that now includes Perrotin and Thaddaeus Ropac. These arrivals, along with excitement about Frieze, have sparked speculation that Seoul might claim the mantle of Asia’s leading art trading centre from Hong Kong, which has been battered by censorship and Covid restrictions.

Singapore is also considered a contender, with a stable presence since the 2010s of diverse regional dealers, including China’s ShanghArt, Korea’s Columns, Australia’s Sullivan+Strumpf, Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam and Malaysia’s Richard Koh. In August, Sotheby’s held its first live auction in the city-state for 15 years. A new fair, Art SG, is also poised to join local platform S.E.A. Focus in 2023.

Seoul’s energy parallels Hong Kong’s in the late 2000s, when it attracted a phalanx of international dealers such as Gagosian and Levy Gorvy – and its roster of galleries still exceeds the number in any other Asian city. Though reduced in scale, Art Basel Hong Kong retains its status as the region’s pre-eminent fair, while the city also benefits from expanding ranks of local collectors, artists and institutions such as M+.

Along with its generous tax regime, the Special Administrative Region has a uniquely expansive cultural reach. “South Korea and Hong Kong are not so much competitive as complementary,” says Leng. “South Korea needs the platform of Hong Kong to establish a broader connection with the outside world.”


Long before anywhere could be “the next Hong Kong”, Hong Kong itself aspired to be “the next Tokyo”. Despite its celebrated artists and museums Japan’s regional predominance slipped away after the 1991 financial crash, a trend that Atsuko Ninagawa, the director of Take Ninagawa gallery, aims to reverse with Art Week Tokyo, which launched last year. Even after its challenging decade in the 1990s, “Japan’s art scene had a strong relationship with other countries in Asia until the [next] global financial crisis of 2008,” she says.

Atsuko Ninagawa. Courtesy: Katsuhiro Saiki

In recent years overseas interest in historic movements such as Gutai and Mono-ha has increased, but opportunities for young artists and curators have shrunk. “Japan is a heavily monolingual society, and now, with the pandemic, I fear the art scene may become even more closed and domestically oriented,” says Ninagawa.

“In terms of being a global powerhouse, Japan is a victim of its own local success. It has just the right population, the right economy and the right geopolitical situation to sustain its own artistic universe. So we have museums all across the archipelago showing world-class artists – both Japanese and international – but the preparation of English promotional materials is often an afterthought.”

Among Japan’s more outward-looking institutions, Tokyo’s National Museum and the National Art Center mark their 150th and 15th anniversaries respectively this year, and the Aichi Triennale opened its fifth edition in July. Next year the Taipei Dangdai art fair’s backer, The Art Assembly, will launch a new event in Japan: Tokyo Gendai. This will add to a scene that already features a number of established local fairs, including Art Fair Tokyo, which ties with Art Taipei as Asia’s oldest contemporary art fair – both date back to 1992. “We are seeing the emergence of a new generation of collectors who are looking for every opportunity,” says Ninagawa. “The more choices they have, the more they will have to think about what really matters to them. If the competition leads to a more robust art market, then it benefits everybody.”

Southeast Asia

Tom Tandio. Photo: The Leonardi Photography Studio, courtesy: Art Jakarta

The Art Assembly is also launching a new Southeast Asia fair next year. Art SG will run in January alongside Singapore’s annual art week and the existing boutique platform S.E.A. Focus. “Singapore is a strong city with good government support, such as a tourism board that will fly in clients, so Art SG will be a game-changer and help the region,” says Tom Tandio, director of Art Jakarta, which along with Art Fair Philippines and smaller local fairs drives regional art sales.

Southeast Asia was hit hard by Covid, and in Indonesia galleries and museums have been shuttered during outbreaks, says Tandio. But there may be a silver lining, he says, because lockdowns meant a significant younger population spent more time at home and started looking into collecting art. “Indonesia has a bigger, growing and richer younger population. These people are better educated, and more supportive of arts and culture.”

Tandio sees a lot of new Indonesian wealth coming from start-ups and the tech sector. “This young generation is starting to buy art in Indonesia. I can’t, however, speak for the rest of Southeast Asia.” But luxury consumption is burgeoning across the region. The Philippines, already home to renowned galleries such as Living Room and Silverlens – which has just opened a New York space – will get its own regional edition of Vogue magazine from September.

Luxury brands are also eyeing the growing wealth in Vietnam, where the small arts infrastructure, including The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, does not reflect exploding international demand for its modern masters. “We all hope the interest in Vietnamese modern art will increase interest in other Southeast Asian modern artists,” says Tandio.

The Global Outlook

Installation view of Chen Ying at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai, 2022

Shanghai’s international heft has meant its lockdown has had wide-reaching effects. “For the art industry Shanghai is a major import and export channel, which came to a near halt during the pandemic – not just because of the closed port itself, but more importantly because logistics companies had no way to ship and pick up goods,” says AMRC’s Dong Rui.

Other Chinese ports picked up some of the slack, and shipments had largely resumed by summer this year, but the wider economy will take longer to recover: China posted growth of just 0.4% in the second quarter of 2022. Historically, says Dong, the size of the art market follows macroeconomic conditions, just with a six- to 12-month lag. “A slowdown or even a recession will directly affect the money in the hands of collectors, and their need for liquidity will change, which directly affects their behaviour in the art market,” he says.

He is cautious about a rally this autumn. “Collectors will be more rational in analysing their budgets, reconsidering their lives and hobbies, and even doing more research into market,” he says. Political and economic uncertainties are adding to their circumspection. Still, he sees potential in the resumption of more global art commerce.

“Western art dealers are optimistic about the resumption of Asian fairs and exhibitions, which I think is reasonable. When suppressed market demand is rereleased it often ushers in a rebound in sales.”

Shanghai’s Yangshan Port.
Shanghai’s Yangshan Port. Roland Nagy / Alamy Stock Photo.


Shanghai experienced the world’s strictest, longest, largest and most harshly enforced lockdown in spring. With mass tests every two days and shorter lockdowns frequently resuming at community-wide level, the city’s populace, including its arts community, remains on edge. Major museums such as the Power Station of Art and the Long Museum, both commemorating their first decade this year, are catching back up on their exhibition schedules, with solo shows for Wang Xingwei and Yuan Yunsheng respectively. Scores of respected galleries still call the city home, including international dealers such as Lisson, Perrotin, Arario and Ota. But global and local galleries are still reeling from four months of suspended operations. “Like many other galleries in Shanghai we had to close down our exhibitions and withdraw from overseas art fairs, including Frieze New York in May,” says Vigy Jin, a director of MadeIn Gallery.

“But we did manage to attend Art Basel Hong Kong remotely and make sales digitally.”

Shanghai’s art world “will need time to recover, both financially and mentally, from the trauma”, says Jin. For many galleries survival will require a strong rally at the November Shanghai fairs, West Bund and ART021.

“We can only hope that Shanghai will be able to maintain its global position while its borders remain effectively closed,” she says.

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