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Off the beaten track

Bonhams has big plans to break into the contemporary Asian art market—next year

Some 12 months after Magnus Renfrew was appointed deputy chairman of Bonhams Asia, the former Art Basel Asia director presided over his first contemporary art sale in Hong Kong. While the London-based auction house has long enjoyed success in the Chinese antiques category, its inaugural sale of contemporary art on 3 October fetched around HK$20m (US$2.6m) compared with a pre-sale estimate of HK$40m to HK$60m. Renfrew described the auction as a “tough first sale… particularly for the mid-range material” in the Financial Times, but tells us about his focus on strengthening Bonhams’ capabilities in new art and new markets.

T.A.N: What changes in the Asian art market have you noted since your return to Bonhams?

M.R.: Before, we sold very little to Asia at our contemporary art sales in London and New York. But with our new team on the ground in Asia, at our July contemporary auction in London, by value, 36% were sold to buyers in Asia. It was pretty much zero the year before.

In your October sale, why did you focus on Asian diaspora artists?

Because they have built careers outside Asia; works by some of these artists haven’t found their proper commercial footing. Our sales are the perfect platform to recontextualise their work. Because they have worked away from the spotlight, often their work is less commercial as they do not have the same pressure. One example is Richard Lin, who is Taiwanese but had 30 years in UK, where he produced very impressive Minimalist painting. His prices have begun to pick up. There are several artists who we feel should have greater recognition. 

How have you organised your staff in Asia?

Rather than having all our key people in Hong Kong, we are building a network of specialists on the ground. This allows us to better understand changing tastes and collecting habits around Asia. We now have specialists in Taipei, Beijing and Hong Kong, and are recruiting elsewh ere. This structure helps us bring in consignments as well.

What is the immediate outlook for contemporary Asian art?

The traditional distinctions and the concept of “contemporary Asian art” seem very outdated. Art from Asia needs to be seen in a larger, global context. Artists from Asia think of themselves as being artists first, rather than being Asian.

Why have you introduced a prints, photographs and multiples sale in Hong Kong this November?

They are historically under-loved categories that deserve more attention. Also, we hope it will bring in new collectors. Prices for prints and multiples have less of an intimidation factor. The price point also tends to encourage people to be adventurous.