The Asian art market has long been dominated by artists from China and Japan. In recent years, it has seen growth in the South Korean and Singaporean markets with notable auction sales and increased demand from local and international collectors. This article analyzes the reach of asian art, the changes in the region, its motivating factors and exceptional sales results.
The genesis of art in the region
The vast Asian continent boasts a rich tapestry of art forms predating Western counterparts. Ancient Chinese innovations encompass pottery, large-scale bronze sculpture, jade carving, lacquerware, calligraphy, and terracotta sculpture. Chinese artistic prowess extends to painting, metalwork, and monumental statues. Chinese influence also left an indelible mark on East Asian art, including Korea and Japan.
Historically, Asian art can be traced back to Japan in 10,000 BC during the Jomon period where the earliest ceramic wares were produced. Japanese artists earned global acclaim in woodcuts, origami, ceramics, ink-and-wash painting, and wood carving. Meanwhile, Indian art, known for its longevity, developed independently, with influences from Greek and Persian Mughal art. Southeast Asia boasts Khmer temple architecture, Buddhist sculpture, batik textiles, and unique metallurgy.
Overtime, China remained a dominant market for the evolution of Asian art as other materials were produced such as porcelain and silk, all the while other countries in the region such as India and Sri Lanka honed their skills through decoration of religious temples with buddhist sculptures, decorative wall markings etc. Later, artists began experimenting with painting techniques of other regions, in addition to western painters like the Italian artist Giuseppe Castoglione who journeyed to China as a missionary before becoming the court painter for three emperors during the Qing dynasty.
Competition in the Asian art market
The main market leader in modern and contemporary art, thanks to economic prosperity and national strength. Though in recent years, its market position became threatened by the Covid-19 restrictions with a negative impact on the chinese art market, causing a 34% drop in annual turnover from $5.9 billion to $3.9billion in 2022. The Chinese auction market ranked as one of the top markets worldwide, celebrated its 30th anniversary in the same year, and in 2023, Sotheby’s Hong Kong set their record for the most expensive sculpture sold in Asia for HK 129.2 million ($16.5 million). The record is held by Louise Bourgeois for her 2 meter bronze Spider IV sculpture.
Louise Bourgeois, Spider IV, 1997 © Sotheby’s
Furthermore, Sotheby’s Hong Kong has been the auction market leader in Asia for 7 consecutive years, with a modern and contemporary art sales record of HK$ 3.1 billion (US$397 million) in 2022. This signifies the growth of the market, supported by the growth in emerging and established artists and the increased demand from collectors all over the world.
In 2022, 4 Chinese cities topped the charts for highest turnover in fine Art and NFT auction © Artprice
Korean art, like its Asian counterparts, has evolved from granite carved, Chinese inspired Buddha sculptures and ceramic production. Art in Korea was heavily influenced by the political situation at a specific time. Neo-confucianism became the dominant political ideology during the Joseon (“Fresh dawn”) dynasty in 1342, rejecting Buddhism after over a thousand years and ushering in winds of change in arts and culture. Following this, Artists in the court’s Bureau of Painting created works promoting Neo-Confucian ideals for example, portraits of “meritorious subjects” consisting of political figures who served the goals of the state and the monarch. By the 16th century, the demand for locally produced porcelain products increased, leading to an international revolution in ceramics which would later spread to Japan and Europe.
Porcelain Jar from the Korean Joseon dynasty © Met museum
In recent years, Inflation and an unstable environment took their toll on the Korean art auction market. South Korea's art auction market dropped by almost 50% in the first six months of 2023. This shows a volatility in the Korean art market unlike China or Japan. The total auction sales amounted to $47.9 million in the first half of 2023 compared to $100million in the first half of 2022.
The Japanese art market was once characterized as high selling, especially with auctions until it slumped in the 90s due to economic stagnation. Since then, Japanese collectors made lower value purchases, only spending high values on conservative blue chip Impressionist and modern artworks or traditional Japanese fine art and ceremonial objects.
A new generation of collectors have emerged in the Japanese contemporary art market, comprising young wealthy entrepreneurs. During the lockdown period, bidding activity at major international auction houses rose significantly, as Japanese dealers reported a 28% rise in sales between 2019 and 2022, with local buyers accounting for 81% by value. In 2022, Japan ranked 7th in the global art market by annual auction turnover with a record of $185 million, an 11% increase despite fewer transactions, which signifies an upward trend in pricing and a strong competitive spirit among Japanese bidders. The top sale price is owed to a Liz Taylor portrait by Andy Warhol, sold for $18.9 million and setting a new record for an artwork at public auction.
Andy Warhol, Silver Liz (Ferus type), 1963 © Christies
While the Asian art market has historically been dominated by artists from China, Japan and Korea, Singapore has risen over the years to become an art hub in the Asian region. The fast growing market in Singapore is one to follow, as the demand for Modern and contemporary art in the region steadily increases. This demand, coupled with a growing collector base led to Sotheby’s hosting its first Modern and contemporary Art auction in 2022 and was met with spectacular results. Notably Walter Spies’ Tierfabel (Animal fable) sold for SG$4 million (US$2 million), in addition to new auction records set by Georgette Chen, Willem Gerard Hofker and Michel Majerus. Though this auction was held for the first time in 15 years, its total sale of SG$24.5 million (US$17.5 million) surpassed pre-sale expectations, further proving the strength of the Singaporean art market.
Walter Spies, Tierfabel (Animal fable), 1928 © Sotheby's
A dynamic art market
As a region full of rich history and culture, the Asian art market is as dynamic as its western counterparts with a new set of collectors emerging to further shift the paradigm. Cross-continental art market engagement provides an exciting opportunity for collaboration and cultural exchange, to foster understanding and enrich the global art community. The region has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades with countries like China and India emerging as major players in the global art scene.
As wealth accumulates in Asia through some of the world's fastest-growing economies, more people are investing in art either as an asset class or a status symbol, creating a new generation of collectors. Furthermore, the unique perspectives, techniques and narratives of Asian artists are gaining recognition and attracting interest from international collectors and professionals. A continued streak of record breaking sales across different countries and the evolution of Singapore as the new Asian art market hub proves that this region is one to pay close attention to in the coming years.