The art market: Fire sales

Art seized from the failed Korean savings bank Busan is being sold by Seoul Auction in Hong Kong on Tuesday in an $8.25m session that includes western as well as Chinese contemporary art. Busan was at the centre of a massive influence-peddling scandal and went bust last year to the tune of $8bn. Its chief executive, Kim Min-young, was an avid collector in the antique and contemporary art field, and among his 2,000 holdings were books of Buddhist sutras listed as Korean national treasures. He also ran two art galleries, both named Chang (one in Seoul and the other in Beijing), and the aptly named Watergate gallery.

According to media reports, Kim borrowed more than $32m from Busan and affiliated banks, reusing the same artworks as collateral. After it went bankrupt, Busan’s assets, which include paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Feng Zhengjie, Dan Flavin and even Julian Schnabel, were confiscated by the Korea Deposit Insurance Corporation (KDIC) to be sold on behalf of the bank’s creditors.

“We have put very reasonable estimates on the works,” says Seoul Auction’s chief executive So-Young Lee. He cites Zhang’s “Bloodline” painting, which prosecutors said Busan had bought for $1.3m and is now estimated at $615,000-$923,000. Zeng Fanzhi’s “Trauma” is expected to fetch $731,000-$1m and his “Portrait” $436,000-$667,000.

The Hong Kong sale will not be the last from KDIC: according to Seoul Auction, it has a $172m stockpile of art confiscated from Busan and other failed banks.

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Still in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s kicks off its series of spring sales with eight sessions, ranging from traditional ceramics to wine. Pre-sale totals are $233m for 2,900 lots: last year the firm clocked up $337m in the same series, but for 3,600 lots. Those sales saw weakening demand in the hitherto red-hot market for Chinese art, and auction house specialists will be anxiously watching the results this year.

The biggest buzz is about an understated, flattish stoneware bowl with a soft glaze, which comes up on Wednesday. This extremely rare piece was made in the fabled Ru kilns during the Northern Song dynasty (11th-12th centuries). “Only 79 of these have survived above ground,” says Henry Howard-Sneyd of Sotheby’s, “and only five are still in private hands.” Leading dealer James Lally describes the piece as “The be-all and end-all of Chinese ceramics.” Its estimate is $7.7m-$10.3m – but Lally says it “could make far more”.

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German-born art dealer Matthias Arndt decided last year to “work in a new way – beyond the traditional model of the art gallery.” He has moved to Australia, and while his Berlin space is currently showing Gilbert & George’s “London Pictures”, Arndt is busy in Australia with his first “pop-up” show, Migration. The ambitious exhibition opened this week in Sydney, timed to coincide with the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new wing. Organised in collaboration with Arndt’s Australian-born wife Tiffany, Migration brings 95 works by 40 international artists – among them George Condo, Sophie Calle, Jitish Kallat and Neo Rauch – to Sydney. Prices range from $6,000 to $500,000, and, says Arndt, he has already made sales of work by Yang Jiechang, Sophie Calle, Gilbert & George plus south-east Asian artists. “The Asian region is fast becoming the powerhouse of contemporary art,” says Arndt. “But a temporary project of this scale in this part of the world is as expensive as running a gallery for an entire year!”

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The best-known Russian takeover in the art world is that of Phillips de Pury, bought by Mercury Group in 2008. Now Russian art investment consultant Sergey Skaterschikov has teamed up with a “real estate developer and art investor” Dimitry Aksenov, to buy Austria’s Viennafair. The fair has a low profile on the global art circuit despite, says a local curator, being a “gateway to the whole [central and eastern Europe] region”. Viennafair was started by French organiser Reed, which also runs FIAC; it retains ownership of the name but sold the organisation of the event to the Russians earlier this year. “Sergey and his partners know the contemporary art business much better than we do,” a Reed spokesman said.

Until now the event has been held in May, a jam-packed month this year with Frieze New York and Hong Kong. Now, mindful of the gap left by the disappearance of Art Forum Berlin, the fair has been moved to September 20-23.

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More details have emerged about the sale of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Girl with Mirror” (1964) by Gagosian in 2009, currently the subject of a lawsuit in New York. The painting’s original owner, Jan Cowley, is seeking more than $15m after her son sold it through Gagosian. According to court papers, Gagosian agreed to sell the work for at least $3m. However, it was unsold at Frieze and Basel, so Gagosian finally knocked it down to $2m for New York financier Thompson Dean. A Gagosian employee told him in an email: “Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash. Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?” Dean negotiated payment terms and finally bought it, and Gagosian pocketed $1m in commission. Gagosian justified the price drop by claiming the work was damaged, but Cowley’s lawyer contends that this was not the case.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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