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Seoul’s inaugural Frieze Fair opens to strong sales

Sangmi Cha
Sangmi Cha • 7 min read
Seoul’s inaugural Frieze Fair opens to strong sales
Seoul’s inaugural Frieze Fair opens to strong sales
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Frieze Seoul, the contemporary art fair’s debut in Asia, attracted long lines of collectors who within hours snapped up works by established artists including Donald Judd and emerging stars such as Tavares Strachan and Katherine Bernhardt.

Gagosian gallery, one of the many western blue-chip galleries at one of Asia’s most highly-anticipated art events this year, said almost all of its works on display by artists including Louise Bonnet, Takashi Murakami and Nam June Paik sold out on Friday, highlighting the market's recovery from the pandemic’s hit as well as strong enthusiasm for contemporary art in the South Korean capital.

“There is a palpable energy,” Gagosian’s managing director Nick Simunovic said as VIP guests took a look through the fair at the Coex Center in the upscale Gangnam district before its opening to the public from Saturday through Monday. “We are seeing seasoned art collectors, new art collectors, the genuinely interested public that have never been to an art fair before.”

David Zwirner gallery also reported strong first-day sales, selling a sculpture by Donald Judd for $850,000. A Katherine Bernhardt piece depicting a florescent Pink Panther sold for $250,000.

David Zwirner dealer Chris D’Amelio said the gallery had come in with low expectations about Seoul because a previous visit a decade ago wasn’t successful.

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“I’m happy to say that we are happily surprised not only by the sales, but the energy and enthusiasm of the whole city, museums and the galleries,” he said, adding that he was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm of younger people.

“They are standing in front of the actual painting, they are very open and enthusiastic. People are walking up to us and asking for price,” he said.

Frieze’s choice of Seoul for its Asian debut heralds South Korea’s emergence as a cultural power house, following the global popularity of its K-pop bands as well as the success of its dystopian Netflix series Squid Game and dark comedy film Parasite. It also presents the city as a possible alternative to Hong Kong as the region’s art capital. Hong Kong’s strict pandemic measures and crackdown on civil liberties have raised fears that the global art market will turn elsewhere.

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Some say the attention on Seoul’s burgeoning art scene is long overdue. Pieces by acclaimed South Korean artists such as Lee Ufan and Park Seo-Bo feature prominently at major international galleries and biennials. Seoul and the port city of Busan are now home to a growing number of well-regarded galleries, including Kukje Gallery and the outposts of big-name institutions including Pace and Perrotin.

At Frieze, Perrotin featured works by Caribbean-born New York artist Tavares Strachan, whose cosmic and politically-themed pieces sold for $250,000 each.

Another attractive feature has been South Korea’s broad range of collectors, including wealthy individuals and corporate buyers. South Korea’s family-run industrial conglomerates, known as chaebols, have been amassing art collections and contributing to museums since the 1980s.

A younger generation of tech-savvy and western-educated collectors is seen bolstering the ranks of local art patrons and fueling more interest in mediums beyond paintings, such as sculpture and installations.

“Frieze choosing Seoul for their launch in Asia really validates what's happening,” said Patrick Lee, the director of Frieze Seoul. The show is being held in conjunction with Kiaf, a more established art fair which the Galleries Association of Korea has been running for two decades.

“The market here has deep roots and strong foundations, but it is trending younger and to a broader audience.”

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Teo Yang, a Seoul-based interior designer and avid collector of contemporary art, said younger collectors were far more proactive than his generation, contacting galleries and artists through Instagram and attending international exhibitions themselves.

“They really know how to utilize that and use that data to collect art,” he said, adding that they were also competitive when it came to acquisitions. “Since three to four years ago, it has become really competitive to acquire a new collection of art. There have been so many great collectors and emerging collectors who’ve been collecting very aggressively.”

South Korea’s young buyers are also known for being particularly savvy at using social media to buy and show off their collections, approaching art as a way of building up their personal brand or image. RM, the leader of K-pop group BTS, is representative of this new phenomenon, presenting his art collection on social media.

RM and Squid Game actor Lee Jung-jae were among South Korean celebrities who turned up at a pre-opening event on Thursday, mingling with other wealthy art patrons including SK group chairman Chey Tae-won and Samsung heiress Lee Boo-jin.

Frieze Seoul’s Lee said Seoul was also an “easy place” to do business — a view echoed by many collectors and gallery owners in attendance. Seoul, like Hong Kong, has no taxes on art purchases from galleries and fairs. Artworks valued below 60 million won ($44,193) are also exempt from capital gains taxes. Even above that threshold, the tax rate is limited to 22% on up to 20% of the sales price, and there’s no levy on works by living, local artists.
“Stability” was another watchword among gallery owners and collectors at the fair, given the Covid pandemic and strict entry and quarantine measures imposed by China and Hong Kong.

“Suddenly, Korea is looking like a stable haven,” said Rachel Lehmann, co-founder of Lehmann Maupin, which represents work by some of the country’s leading contemporary artists like Lee Bul and Do Ho Suh.

Despite weak stock market sentiment, South Korea’s contemporary art market sales surged to 922.3 billion won last year from 419.8 billion won in 2018, according to the Korea Arts Management Service. Experts estimate the market will surpass a trillion won this year after hitting 532.9 billion won in the first half.

Despite such growth, and declarations of Seoul as Asia’s new art capital, many say Hong Kong isn’t giving up its crown just yet. Art Basel Hong Kong is still the region’s biggest art event, even as people worry about the impact of Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory.

Even with Seoul’s increasingly vibrant art scene, for example, its auction market is still a fraction of the size of China’s. In the first half of the year, it saw $115.5 million in fine-art sales, compared with China’s $2.4 billion, according to the Artnet Price Database.
“South Korea has developed so much culturally but it’s still a small place compared to other global art capitals like Hong Kong, New York and LA,” said Lee Jung, curator at PKM, which featured works by Korean painter Yun Hyong-keun at Frieze.

Simunovic at Gagosian said he didn’t think Seoul would replace Hong Kong, and that Asia’s burgeoning art market meant there could be multiple hubs for collectors. Elsewhere in Asia, Singapore is due to hold the Art SG fair in January next year. Japan, whose collectors were once among the world’s most aggressive buyers of art during the asset-inflated bubble economy of the 1980s, will host a new contemporary art fair called Gendai in next July.

“I think Seoul can be an art hub, but it’s not going to become an art hub at Hong Kong’s expense,” he said. “ I think Frieze Seoul will be enormously successful and Hong Kong Basel will be successful, I hope the coming fair in Singapore is hugely successful – I don’t think we should think of it as a zero-sum game.’

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