The resumption of Hong Kong’s art week following three years of Covid restrictions kicked off this week with the opening of Phillips's new 52,000 sq ft headquarters in West Kowloon. The auction house’s chairmain of Asia, Jonathan Crockett, anticipated a “high level of energy and sales” as the international art community descended on the city.
Crockett expresses his optimism about Hong Kong's potential to rebound as an art market hub, despite several challenging recent years due to both the pandemic and increased governance from China. “There are other, wider obstacles and difficulties that we’ve encountered in Hong Kong, but when it comes to the art market, the market for collectibles, we haven’t seen much of an impact,” from a slowed economy, “other from the difficulties we faced from the Covid pandemic,” he says.
Phillips launched its first Asian operations in Hong Kong in 2015. In 2020 it “had to get creative,” says Crockett, first by selling online. “By the end of 2020, we were able to have our strongest year ever in Asia, and 2021 topped that; we had our strongest ever sales in June of 2021.” During that period, “we found that with a captive audience here in Hong Kong, unable to travel, people were more engaged actually.”
Last year brought a different terrain, Crockett says, “as the fifth wave hit other art businesses, which really struggled. “Because of what was happening in Hong Kong, people were distracted and disengaged. That did contrast with what was happening with the auctions in London and New York, which saw our strongest year ever. Remarkably we were supported significantly by the Asia collecting community.” Basquiat’s Untitled, which sold at Phillips New York for $85m in December 2022, was both consigned and bought by Asian collectors. Phillips now has a team of over 100 staff in Asia, spread over eight locations.
The local focus that emerged during Hong Kong’s Covid years has also proved to be a silver lining for the closed off city, and throughout art week an increased celebration of Hong Kong artists was noticeable. It also extends to Phillips’s fundraising section in support of the Hong Kong Art School, for which the auction house has worked with galleries around the region to consign works from emerging artists.
“We wanted to show contemporary artists who are really emerging," says Crockett, with some proceeds going to the artists as well as the school. "We’re very conscious that art selling for huge prices by young contemporary artists most of the time doesn’t benefit artists themselves." The section features works by young Hong Kong artists including Lulu Ngie, Szelit Cheung, Fu Rao and Amy Tong. The evening spring sale also includes works by local stars Matthew Wong, Chris Huen Sin Kan and Stephen Wong Chun Hei.
In the coming months, Phillips’s Hong Kong exhibition space will feature a duo selling show of work by the Japanese artists Chiaru Shota and Yayoi Kusuma, followed by a solo presentation of Brett Crawford. In the summer it will show a Hong Kong patron’s entire collection. “It’s not for sale, but is such an interesting and eclectic group of objects,” says Crockett.
“Being in the heart of West Kowloon Cultural District, it’s key that we engage with the community and help grow the wider appreciation of arts,” through the exhibitions as well as a café and lounge,” says Crockett, “to help build our ecosystem”.