Overview of South Korea’s art market

[22 Apr 2014]


The breakthrough of South Korea onto the international art market dates back to the 80s with the presence of Korean galleries at the Paris International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC) in 1984 and of Korean artists at the Venice Biennale in 1986. Ten years later, the development of the Korean art scene prompted the inauguration of the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale – one of the world’s most prestigious international art events since 1895 – and the invitation of South Korea as guest of honor to the 1996 FIAC. With the boom in Asian art during the 2000s, Western art institutions increasingly focused their attention on Korean artists: in 2008, the Espace Louis Vuitton in Paris hosted an exhibition entitled Métamorphoses, Trajectoires coréennes (1 October – 31 December) with Do Ho Suh, Beom Kim, Hyungkoo Lee, Ham Jin, Sookyung Yee, Yong-seok Oh, Heryun Kim, Jeon Joonho, Suejin Chung and the Flying City collective. The following year, Contemporary Korean art firmly established itself on the agenda of the globe’s major cultural capitals with a high-profile exhibition in London entitled Korean Eye: Moon Generation (June 20 – September 13, 2009), fruit of a collaboration between Korean Eye, Standard Chartered and the Saatchi Gallery. The event was so successful that it was repeated in 2010 with a show entitled Fantastic Ordinary.
As Contemporary Korean art became increasingly sought after outside Korea, the country’s domestic art market also boomed, and the first 7-figure auction results were recorded in Seoul in 2007.

Korea’s oldest home-grown auction company, Seoul auction, was established in 1998. It remained Korea’s only auction company until 2005 when K-Auction was founded. The latter quickly found its market and in 2013 K-Auction posted an even better performance than Seoul Auction with total turnover of $12.8m (ranked 66th in the world) from art sales compared with $12.2m at Seoul Auction (ranked 72nd). Prompted by the 2008 crisis, Seoul Auction decided to open a branch in Hong Kong to find new buyers and, since then, its Hong Kong sales include artworks by Western and Asian artists while offering a more international platform for Korean artists than Seoul. The two Korean auction firms provide a reliable barometer of the Korean market and are diligent promoters of their domestic artists. They are supported in this endeavor by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which have incorporated Korean Contemporary art into their sales catalogues since 2007.

In terms of total turnover from art sales, South Korean auctioneers generated $23.5m in 2013 (from 878 lots sold) which represents 0.2% of total proceeds from Fine art sales in the world compared with 3% in 2010. In 20th place on the global market, Korea is ahead of Spain but very far behind the global leaders of the art market like China and the United States (both posted totals above $4 billion in 2013), the United Kingdom ($2.1 billion) and France ($549 million). In effect, the Korean art market is under construction, which implies strong variations in results from one year to another. Still at an early stage the Korean auction market has substantial potential as it is supported by a proactive policy within the framework of the Korean government’s cultural development program. Seoul also benefits from its position on the circuit of major international art fairs (the 4th edition of G-Seoul will open from 8 to 11 May 2014) and from the global market visibility achieved by a number of the country’s artists who have penetrated the international market, particularly at its high end.

The best auction results in Korea

Only four Korean artists have managed to generate 7-figure auction results (in dollars) in Seoul. They are Park Soo-Gun, Whanki Kim, Jung Sup Yi and Lee Ufan.

Soo-Gun PARK (1912-1965) : a leading light of Korean Modern art and winner of numerous prizes, Park Soo-Gun’s works started to spread to the West in the 1950s particularly after the East and West exhibition in San Francisco in 1957 and Modern Korean Art exhibition at World House Gallery in New York in 1958. Moreover, it was in New York that Park Soo-Gun was first introduced into sales catalogues, and he was already earning big results by the beginning of the 1990s at Christie’s ($210,000 for Farmers, a small oil on cardboard measuring 19.5 x 39 cm, on 27 April 1993). Today, Seoul vies with New York to sell his best works likely to reach the million-dollar threshold (the artist has generated a total of eleven 7-figure auction results). His auction record currently stands at $5.3 million for a work entitled A wash place, an oil-on-canvas from 1950 that sold at Seoul Auction on 22 May 2007. That sum also represents the auction record for a work of art sold in Korea.

Whan-Ki KIM (1913-1974) : Korea’s second best auction result was generated by a work by ​​Whanki Kim who belongs to the first generation of Korean abstract artists. A museum is dedicated to his work in Seoul (the Whanki Museum, established in 1992) where he spent much of his life before arriving in New York in 1963. His New York career allowed him to make contact with a number of collectors in the city where his auction record (for “2-V-73 #313”) is $1.2 million (over $1.4 million including fees, Christie’s New York, 23 March 2011). In Seoul, his record is three times higher, equivalent to $3.6 million (The Flower and Jar, Seoul Auction, 22 May 2007). In 2013, Whanki Kim generated the second best sales total for a Korean artist sold in Seoul, behind Lee Ufan and ahead of Kim Tschang-Yeul.

Jung Sup YI (1916-1956) : Three 7-figure (dollar) results have been generated for works by Yi Jung Sup since 2008, all hammered in Seoul, including the 5th best Korean auction result ever recorded (A bull fetched the equivalent of $2.9m on 29 June 2010 at Seoul Auction) behind Park Soo-Gun, Whanki Kim, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

Ufan LEE (1936 – ) : The Korean artist Lee Ufan – champion of the Mono-Ha group – is coveted worldwide. His first million-plus auction result was hammered in New York in 2007. A canvas from his Point series («78083», from Point Series) tripled its estimate with a final bid of $1.7m ($ 1,944m incl. fees) at Sotheby’s on 16 May 2007. That price has not been beaten in New York since then; but it has been in Seoul, and again in Hong Kong. Lee Ufan is one of the most in-demand artists at Korean sales, and in 2013 his works generated the best local artist turnover total (over $3.6m from 59 lots sold).

Seoul Auction and K-Auction also sell a selection of Western artists. The most popular are the stars of London and New York sales like Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst, as well as “classics” like Marc Chagall, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alberto Giacometti. These artists are the only Western artists who have managed to generate one or more of the 37 auction results above the million-dollar threshold ever hammered in Korea.

Outside the Korean market, several artists have broken onto the international scene through the opening created by the legendary figure Nam June PAIK. Their careers usually involve stints of varying durations in New York, as with Do Ho SUH (whose sculpture Karma fetched $644,500 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April 2014 ) and Soo-Ja KIM (too rarely seen at auction), whose lastBottari (“package” in Korean) fetched $18,000 at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York (12 May 2006). Both live in New York.

The Land of the Morning Calm is today open to the rest of the world, but Korean artists are still relatively unknown to Western publics compared with the reputations already acquired by Chinese, Japanese and Indian artists. A correction of this imbalance appears to be underway.