Spotlight on Asian art as Hong Kong fair opens

The glittering Hong Kong International Art Fair opened Thursday, featuring works by artists from Picasso to Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and cementing the city's status as a global art hub.

More than 260 galleries from 38 countries, representing an even split from the West and the East, have booked space at the four-day event known as Art HK, now in its fifth edition.

"The transformation here culturally has been pretty significant," art collector and fair board member Richard Chang told reporters ahead of the opening, referring to Hong Kong's emergence as a centre of the Asian art world.

"It's testament to what is happening in this region and it's very exciting."

A record 63,511 visitors attended Art HK last year, and organisers expect a bigger crowd in 2012. The prestigious Frieze New York fair earlier this month attracted a reported 45,000 visitors.

A Wednesday night preview drew thousands of VIPs who had first pick of works including Ai's "Cong", a chilling installation about child deaths in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a Sherrie Levine cast bronze called "Dada", and a fresh-off-the-easel 2012 portrait in oil of Lady Gaga by Yan Pei-Ming.

Director Magnus Renfrew said there had been a marked increase in interest from Western dealers.

"The art market tends to follow the money and the greatest source of wealth at the moment is in Asia," he said.

Traditionally known as a centre of banking and finance, Hong Kong has become a hub of all things luxury -- from fine wine to fashion and, increasingly, art -- thanks to the explosion of personal wealth among mainland Chinese.

Western gallery owners are rushing to open franchises in the former British colony, despite some of the most expensive rents in the world.

Gagosian, White Cube, Acquavella, Simon Lee and Pearl Lam are just some of the recent arrivals. The government is also weighing in, with a massive art and culture district being developed on the harbour in Kowloon.

"If you look at the calibre of some of the exhibitions this year, it's a top-tier fair now," London-based Australian gallery owner Simon Lee told AFP.

He said his "boutique-type offering" was more about making contacts and introducing his gallery to the Asian market than selling art to collectors.

"I can't hope to just come over here, plonk a few things on a booth and think it's all going to happen. It's sort of condescending to think it will all happen without doing the ground work," he said.

Asian private museum owners, such as Indonesian tobacco baron Oei Hong Djin whose OHD Museum is a de facto national gallery, were also well represented as they hunted additions for their collections.

"We do not have a national museum and the government is not taking steps in the direction, so we as private collectors have to take over that role," he said, referring to his homeland of 240 million people.

Asia's art boom has caught the eye of the world's biggest art fair franchise, Art Basel, which bought a controlling stake in Art HK a year ago. The Hong Kong fair's 2013 edition will be held under the Art Basel banner.

Meanwhile a new art fair devoted to "affordable" contemporary art will be held in Hong Kong next year, confirming the city's new status as a hot ticket on the art scene.

The fair is being put together by Affordable Art China, a company which has organised a similar event in Beijing since 2006 and is opening a new franchise in Shanghai later this year.

Chief executive Tom Pattinson said the new fair offered a chance for smaller galleries and emerging artists to showcase their work in the booming art market of Hong Kong, now third only to New York and London in terms of art auctions.

"The success of the events in mainland China has demonstrated the demand for accessible contemporary fine art in the region and Hong Kong is now a major focus for us as we launch our first event in this territory," he said.

He said the value of the "affordable art" market -- pieces priced at less than $5,000 -- in China was estimated at $1.1 billion a year, and was doubling annually.

Renfrew said the new fair was not a threat to Art HK, which is held at the city's vast harbourside convention centre, as the two events catered to "very different audiences".

"There are now more billionaires in Asia than there are in Europe, so it's a very exciting time for the art market here," he said.

"It takes time to build an audience in Asia but the galleries are increasingly seeing that they have to diversify their audience and put in that investment and time."

Art fairs and auctions around the world have seen giddy bidding despite, or perhaps because of, the turmoil in the eurozone and on the world's stock markets, as investors look for other places to park their money.

At Sotheby's impressionist and modern sale in New York earlier this month, the only privately owned version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" went for $119.9 million, the most ever paid for any art work at public auction.

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