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Art market

Korea’s art sales set for triple-digit growth in 2021

In just the first half of the year, Korea’s art auction sales are already up 128% from last year’s full-year numbers

By Jun 29, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

▲ Baek Naumsoon’s A Grain of Wheat (1983) was sold at K Auction last week.
▲ Baek Naumsoon’s A Grain of Wheat (1983) was sold at K Auction last week.

South Korea’s art market is projected to double or even triple in size this year, thanks to the widening of the customer base across all generations in the country.

According to art industry sources, South Korea’s two major art auction houses, Seoul Auction and K Auction, have respectively sold artwork worth 65.4 billion won ($57.9 million) and 61.5 billion won ($54.5 million) in the first half of 2021.

The sales figures of the two auction houses in the first half of this year have surpassed their full-year numbers from last year, which were 47.6 billion won ($42.1 million) and 51.7 billion won ($45.8 million), respectively. In percentage terms, the market this year has already marked triple-digit growth for the first half, having increased 128% by June.

As demand is expected to stay strong into the second half of this year, the country’s art auction sales will likely achieve a full-year growth rate of more than 200%.

The rapid growth is largely driven by increased liquidity in the market due to COVID-19. Auction house insiders say that younger customers, in their 30s and 40s, have recently entered the art auction scene in larger numbers.

“We are now looking at a much younger customer base. Our data from this January to April says that those in their 40s made up the largest group of customers, contributing to 31.0% of total sales, whereas those in their 30s followed closely with 26.7%,” said a K Auction official.

The art industry says that demand has also diversified into a wider range of art. South Korea’s art market from 2014 until last year was mainly driven by a handful of big-name artists such as Kim Whan-ki, Lee Ufan and Park Seo-bo.

But now, work by other major artists such as Kim Chong-hak, Yoo Young-kuk and Lee Kun-yong are gaining popularity. For instance, Yoo Young-kuk’s Spirit, painted in 1965, was sold for 1.27 billion won ($1.12 million won).

▲ Yoo Young-kuk’s Spirit (1965) was sold at Seoul Auction this month.
▲ Yoo Young-kuk’s Spirit (1965) was sold at Seoul Auction this month.


H2 MARKET PROSPECTS

Korea in the second half will also hold the Korea International Art Fair (KIAF), the country’s first and largest international art fair.

“The number of art galleries that are participating this year has grown by 30% versus last year, whereas those that applied for big booths at the event also grew by 50%,” said a KIAF representative.

The participating galleries include the Pace Gallery and Lehmann Maupin, as well as those coming for the first time such as the Gladstone Gallery and Esther Schipper.  

“Seoul is rapidly growing as the Asian hub for art sales, amid Hong Kong’s gradual decline driven by COVID-19 as well as the protests there,” said Yuanta Securities Korea analyst Ahn Joo-won.

“The long-term outlook on the country’s art market is positive as well, with a large number of millennials entering the scene and online art auctions becoming more prevalent,” Ahn added.

At the same time, industry experts warn that it may be too risky to enter the fast-growing art market solely for trading purposes.

“The recent boom in the art market has fueled overall price hikes across different genres of art. Taking auction commission rates into account, it is almost impossible for any investor to make a profit from short-term investments in art,” said an auction house representative.  

Write to Soo-young Seong at syoung@hankyung.com

Daniel Cho edited this article.

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