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The new collector’s guide to Asian contemporary art

Who’s hot? Which regions are undervalued? How important is an auction history? Specialist Sarina Taylor addresses these questions and more about a fast-growing market

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  • Should I focus on a particular region?

There’s no need to limit yourself. In the past the market for Asian artists was more regionally focused — Chinese collectors only focusing on works by Chinese artists, for example — but now we’re seeing more collectors acquiring works regardless of geography or nationality. 

Artists from Asia are increasing their international presence and enjoying more attention from collectors internationally. One example of this is Zao Wou-Ki, who has long been considered a modern master in Asia but has only recently received the same level of recognition in the United States. He has held retrospectives in Taiwan since the mid-1990s, but only just had his first American museum retrospective in 2016 at the Asia Society in New York.

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  • Are editions a good way to start a collection?

Editions are an excellent way to acquire a work by an Asian artist you admire at a more accessible price point. Examples of artists who offer high-quality editions of images from their iconic series include Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang

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  • An artist I admire is best known for paintings. Should I collect the same artist’s works on paper or sculpture?

Works on paper and sculpture can give you a different perspective on an artist’s process. The charcoal on paper works of Zhou Chunya, who normally uses oil on canvas, for example, offer an alternative interpretation of his paintings. Similarly, Park Seo-Bo’s mixed media paintings can be compared with his silkscreen prints. Works on paper and sculpture complement the artist’s primary medium, or can be collected and appreciated as works in their own right. 

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  • What impact does the condition of an artwork have on its value?

This depends on the artwork and the artist. Takashi Murakami’s Flowerball Series  prints, for example, should be in pristine condition — anything less would negatively affect the value of the work.

For some artists however, what may appear to be deterioration or damage can be an integral part of their practice. Walasse Ting’s works on paper are often creased because he saturates thin Chinese paper with brightly coloured ink or acrylic paint, and the wetting and drying of the paper and mixing of different media affects the condition of the work. The resulting marks of imperfection would be considered a part of the artist’s technique, and not a reflection of the artwork’s quality.

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  • Which is more important to consider, market value or historical value?

Market value doesn’t necessarily reflect the historical value of an artwork. Photography by Chinese artists is particularly undervalued relative to their significance in the history of Chinese contemporary art. 

Photographic works by Rong Rong, for example, document some of the legendary performances made by the avant-garde artists who formed a collective in Beijing’s East Village in the early 1990s. These ephemeral performances, probing the relationships between the human body and its natural and urban environments, were fundamental to the development of Chinese contemporary art as we know it today.

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  • What are the prospects for Southeast Asian art?

The market for Southeast Asian artists is growing rapidly, and shows immense potential. Many of these artists have established careers and long sale histories within their own countries but, until recently, their market has been very regional. Thanks to Biennales, art fairs and international exhibitions, they’re becoming more accessible to collectors across the world.  

Since Southeast Asian art is still an emerging market, the works are relatively affordable, making this category an excellent entry point for new collectors. Our May 2017 sale included works on paper by Filipina painter Pacita Abad (see main image, top), Rudolf Bonnet — a Dutch artist who lived much of his life in Ubud in Bali — and Singaporean painter Tay Bak Koi.

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  • How can I integrate Asian contemporary sculpture into my home?

We are finding many artists who are creating unique, highly conceptual pieces that blur the lines between sculpture and decorative art. For example, Yoshitomo Nara’s Doggy Radio (2011)  is a fully functional FM radio in the form of a puppy, a well-known character within the artist’s oeuvre; this work takes up an alternative space within the home, and might be an excellent complement to any flat works or other pieces of sculpture in your collection.

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  • Who is collecting contemporary art from Asia at the moment?

There’s a global demand for Asian contemporary art, from the United States to Europe and of course within Asia. We’re finding that collectors, particularly new buyers, are attracted to the affordability of this category. Most of the works in our upcoming sale are also reasonably sized and convenient to transport or hang, making it both beautiful and practical for apartments or small homes.

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  • I like an artist for whom there seems to be little to no auction history. Should I be concerned?

If an artist has a short auction history, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their market value. Many Asian artists could be very successful in their own country through their studio or a local blue-chip gallery or institutions, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to establish themselves on the international scene or through auction houses. 

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  • Which new artists should I look out for?

Asian contemporary art is still a relatively new market in global terms and we are regularly discovering artists, both emerging and established, who are worthy of attention. Right now, we recommend you keep an eye on Xue Song, Shu Ohno, Kumi Sugai and Ai Yamaguchi