Francis Belin, president of Christie’s Asia Pacific (Christie's)
When Korean contemporary artist Kim Whan-ki’s masterpiece “05-IV-71#200 (Universe)” fetched 13.2 billion won ($9.6 million) as a highlight of the Christie’s autumn auction season in 2019, it became the highest-ever price for a Korean artwork sold at an auction house. The record remains unbeaten.
The record sale has attracted attention to the late artist from home and abroad. Kim is a pioneer of Korean abstract paintings that feature lines and dots with colors reminiscent of the ocean around his hometown, located at the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula.
"There are many (Korean) artists of which we have established world records, from Kim Tschang-yeul to Rhee Seund-ja. Interestingly, we have seen a fairly high number of records in the past seasons. This season in May in Hong Kong, we broke 35 records of artists in total, of which four are Korean (artists). There is a strong belief in Korean art,” said Francis Belin, president of Christie’s Asia Pacific during an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday in Seoul.
"What we bring is the global stage to Korean art. We bring global attention when we put Korean art into our sale, because we put them along other very prominent artists -- whether they are modern artists or contemporary artists. This is where we see our contribution to the Korean art market, which is giving it an international platform, not domestic one which is very well-structured and very active,” he said.
An installation view of “Flesh and Soul: Bacon/Ghenie” in Seoul (Christie's)
Belin arrived in Seoul two weeks ago, ahead of the Frieze Seoul opening on Friday, to showcase the exhibition “Flesh and Soul: Bacon/Ghenie” at Boon the Shop in southern Seoul, which brought together 16 works by Francis Bacon and Adrian Ghenie -- works to which Koreans have not been widely exposed.
The three-day exhibition that opened on Saturday went viral on social media and the reservation roster of 1,000 people filled quickly as soon as it opened on Sept. 2. The works in total are worth more than $440 million, according to Christie’s.
"It was the first time that these two artists were put together, and no institutions have done it. The reason why we do this is because a lot of galleries are coming to town, and a lot of things are going to happen here (coinciding with Frieze Seoul),” Belin said. “It is an amazing moment for Seoul, and we wanted to do something very unique. This is also a way to start a conversation with our clients.
Christie’s has been one of the forerunners in the international auction scene in Seoul, opening its office in the capital in 1995. Since its opening, there has been steady development in the South Korean market. Over the past two years, there has been a clear acceleration, and expansion of the office is under consideration, Belin said.
"The Korean market is increasingly important for us. In the past few seasons, we have seen a very strong uptake (of Korean collectors),” he said. “We are constantly looking at our real estate footprint in Seoul.
Young collectors are growing -- particularly in the Asian markets, including South Korea. While some people are skeptical of the sustainability of the Hong Kong market, Belin said the art market is still strong and that people need to see the Asian art market as a “growing pie” rather than a “zero-sum game.” Christie’s has signed a 10-year lease for a new Asia Pacific headquarters at The Henderson in Hong Kong, which will open in 2024
South Korea’s art market has a “strong ecosystem” involved by a variety of stakeholders in the art scene – art institutes for academic aspects and galleries and auction houses on the commercial sides, growing collectors and great artists, he said.
When asked about the recent infighting between local galleries and auction houses in the country, Belin said that tension between the primary and secondary markets could happen in any region, but it should be a “healthy competition,” as they are all intertwined together to create an ecosystem of the art world.
"Galleries are our clients too. They may sell with Christie’s or they may buy with Christie’s. We must respect our clients. It’s really important to create a successful ecosystem of the stake holders, and we are small part of it. Is one more important than the other? No, they are all important,” he said.
By Park Yuna (firstname.lastname@example.org)