Amoako Boafo’s ‘Joy in Purple’ (2019), sold for unexpectedly high $540,000
Amoako Boafo’s ‘Joy in Purple’ (2019), sold for unexpectedly high $540,000 at the recent Phillips live streamed auction

Art business leaders are among those keeping a watchful eye on Hong Kong now that China has enacted its new national security law. Adeline Ooi, director of Asia for Art Basel, which ran its first fair in Hong Kong in 2013, describes the current situation as “complex and developing”. She says “it is too early to speculate on the impact that the law might have on Hong Kong, its arts community or any art-related business [there]” but underscores that “we firmly believe that long-term Hong Kong is the best location for our show”.

Questions surrounding liberties and censorship hang in the air. Greg Hilty, the curatorial director at Lisson Gallery who works closely with the high-profile Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, says: “We anticipate continuing to present his work in fairs in Hong Kong, and would like in due course to exhibit him in our space in Shanghai.”

Several international art dealers have opened outposts in Hong Kong in recent years and remain committed to the region but are privately nervous. Some note, however, that a crackdown on the pro-democracy protests, which began to shut down their activities last summer, could ease business in the short-term.

The recent Phillips live streamed auction © Thomas de Cruz Media, Haydon Perrior

The livestream evening auction season is now in full swing. On July 2, Phillips sold all 25 of its modern and contemporary art offerings, for a within-estimate $34.7m ($41.1m with fees). Its enhanced digital session didn’t have all the razzmatazz of Sotheby’s marathon $363.2m auction earlier in the week, but still proved a lively, highly watchable affair. Top lot was Joan Mitchell’s “Noël” (1961-62), which sold for $9.5m ($11.1m with fees, est $9.5m-$12.5m) and was protected by a third-party guarantee.

Among the more unexpected prices reached was $540,000 ($668,000 with fees) for “Joy in Purple” (2019), a painting by the Ghana-born, Austria-based artist Amoako Boafo, that had been estimated to sell for between $50,000 and $70,000. In December 2019, new paintings by Boafo were on offer at Art Basel Miami Beach for up to $45,000 by Mariane Ibrahim, one of the artists’ primary market galleries. Such price discrepancies between the primary and secondary markets may make huge, quick gains for sellers but are generally seen as unhealthy for an artist.

“It’s unquestionable that [Boafo’s] work is exceptional, with a strong visual signature. But he doesn’t benefit from being traded like a financial product. The paint is barely dry. Artists and their work need time to breathe,” Ibrahim says. “Such high prices exclude most museums and newer collectors,” she adds.

This column went to print ahead of Christie’s livestream mega-auction, which runs relay-like between four locations on July 10 and is estimated to make up to $465m.

Installation rendering of Untitled, Art fair — powered by Artland and featuring paintings by Koak © Koak, courtesy of Altman Siegel San Francisco

Now that digital art fairs seem to be a longer-term prospect than expected, some organisers have begun to reassess their exhibitor fee structure. So far, fairs have mostly replaced their physical events with an online version, generally at no cost.

“The challenge for physical fairs is that when they do open, collectors don’t have to come. We had to start looking at additional models,” says Jeff Lawson, founder and owner of the Untitled, Art fair. He has planned longer-term and launches a separate Virtual Reality edition of the Miami and San Francisco fair from July 31 ( For this, the 40 exhibitors will pay what organisers call a “nominal fee” (maximum $3,000) and will then be charged a commission on sales, on a sliding scale up to 15 per cent. Booths at the fair’s physical events range from $12,000 to $40,000, Lawson says.

In May, Art Dubai also announced a new success-based payment model as a potential sweetener to exhibitors while for its Hong Kong edition next year, Art Basel has relaxed the payment terms for exhibitors, who now initially need to pay a 25 per cent deposit, rather than in full.

The art world’s forced move to online is here to stay, says Robert Read, head of art and private clients at the insurer Hiscox. His firm’s annual report on the online art trade reflects the market’s digital reluctance before the pandemic struck. Sales made online were up 4 per cent to $4.8bn between 2018 and 2019, but the annual rate of growth fell from 9.8 per cent. This rate has fallen steadily from 24.1 per cent in 2015, the report finds. “Online art sales have spluttered for the past 10 years, but once you’re forced into a corner, you do it,” Read says.

Column chart of Year-on-year % change showing Falling growth in online art sales before the Covid-19 pandemic struck
Breakdown of online art sales

The report includes interviews with 44 senior managers and chief executives, conducted before and after the Covid-19 pandemic by ArtTactic. Two-thirds of those surveyed believe that their marketplace will be dominated by just a few global players within the next five years and nearly half think that disruption will come from an art market outsider.

The fine art online marketplace Artsy, which has 1.7m users, says that between March 1 and June 30 this year, sale volumes rose by 15 per cent. Heritage Auctions, the largest online auction platform, reports a 10 per cent increase in sales between January and May 2020 and the same period in 2019. 

Juan Muñoz’s ‘Conversation Piece, Dublin’ (1994) © Kristien Daem; Juan Muñoz and David Zwirner

David Zwirner gallery now represents the estate of the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz. The artist died in 2001, when he was only 48, after which his family continued to work with Marian Goodman Gallery. Unusually, the recommendation to change their representative to David Zwirner came from Goodman. “We have a very collegial, respectful and friendly relationship,” Zwirner says.

Of the artist, best known for his installations of groups of figures, Zwirner says, “Muñoz described himself as a storyteller and his story is not complete until the viewer enters, as if interrupting.” The market for works by Muñoz was “very strong about 10 years ago, but has quietened down a bit,” he says, adding that “This gives us opportunities to bring him back.” The gallery plans a show of six major installations by the artist in its Chelsea, New York space in spring 2021.

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