Young green collectors are driving the boom in South Korea’s art market. But could growing interest in speculative buying be a slippery slope?

There is a popular online forum in South Korea called “become a salaried collectorwhich sees some 17,114 members passionately discussing a range of art-related topics, from exhibition reviews to artists to see during the week-long Frieze and Kiaf fairs in Seoul this week. They talk about art collecting like pros, yet many say they’re just ordinary people living on a salary.

These members, active in what in South Korea are called “cafés”, do not discuss art face-to-face. On local Reddit-like platform Naver, “Become an Employee Collector” is just one of many art-related discussion forums. Many others are devoted to exhibitions, art history studies, artistic creation and investment in art.

“It’s like collecting art becomes a culture,” Noh JaeMyung, a 31-year-old South Korean collector and education entrepreneur, told Artnet News. “Things are really changing in Korea…It’s not just the wealthy who collect art.”

Positive vibes aside, however, there are some worrying signs, Noh observed. The experienced collector, who started collecting during his high school years in the United States, noticed that the prices of some works of art do not match their quality, especially in the secondary market. He said that some in South Korea buy art from certain artists just because they have seen others buy it. “A lot of people don’t really care about art, but they collect because they think art is just an investment. It’s definitely not healthy,” he said.

The art boom, rooted in Seoul, isn’t necessarily all rosy, a few insiders told Artnet News. Although the data, as exemplified by the results presented in the first part of this Artnet News Pro series, could indicate unprecedented growth, this growing young crowd of art buyers behind it has little experience in art. . Some fear that this will lead to unhealthy speculation in the market and damage the careers of some young local artists in the long term.

Kiaf SEOUL 2021. Photo by Kiaf SEOUL Operating Committee. Courtesy of Kiaf SEOUL.

Bye Bye Art Advisors, Hello Social Media

The so-called South Korean Generation MZ (a popular term for generations of Millennials and Zoomers) young collectors in Asia are known to be fast-moving and tech-savvy. In many cases, prolonged exposure to the Western art world gave them confidence in purchasing artwork. They will approach a gallery directly without the need for a third party: they will bid at auction and make their own decisions.

“Therefore, they are less dependent on advisers and other parties than traditional collectors,” Jeong Seokho, managing director of Art Busan and also a young collector in his 30s, told Artnet News.

There are different types of young collectors entering the market. Some, like Jeong, come from a family of collectors (Jeong’s family founded Art Busan and has a family collection). Others entered the market without any artistic experience. Young “traditional” collectors (from collecting families) are more cautious when it comes to collecting a work, but those who started from scratch prefer auctions to galleries.

“Auctions seem to be more accessible and transparent. It is often difficult to acquire works of art from galleries because the competition is high and the collector has not yet built up a solid collection,” Jeong said. New collectors act quickly, he added, saying he is “often surprised to see that many build their incredible collections in such a short time”.

Jeong Seokho

Jeong Seokho, General Manager of Art Busan and collector, with Rose Wylie, Yellow Swimsuit and 6 Birds (2019). Photo credit: ⓒ Lee Youjin.

New young collectors may not opt ​​for art advisors, but they want to learn and take art collecting lessons from other people. Lee Soyoung, a 38-year-old art buyer, offers such courses. An art history graduate and author of nearly a dozen books on art and collecting, Lee told Artnet News that her students range from beginners who are “ordinary, hard-working people” to “self-made entrepreneurs.” in their 30s to 40s. as long-time collectors.

“It’s a hobby to enjoy and appreciate culture,” she said, adding that they weren’t shy about sharing their collections with her. collectors fair on instagram.

But for collectors like Noh, social media could be a slippery slope. He warned that some newbies pose as art connoisseurs or influencers on social media, but ultimately just post art images. Dealers and speculators also frequent ‘café’ chat rooms posing as collectors when they are in fact trying to sell art.

“You could [have your opinion] affected a lot by others on social media,” Noh joked.

A speculative market

It’s no secret that there was a turf war between galleries and auction houses in South Korea, where galleries had accused auction houses of encroaching on the market primary. But such speculative market activity shows no sign of abating after a group of galleries in South Korea staged a closed-door sale in January to protest auction houses; the sale featured mostly young artists.

The Korean Galleries Association auction at the Westin Josun Seoul Grand Ballroom in Seoul on January 26.  Image courtesy of the Korean Galleries Association.

The Korean Galleries Association auction at the Westin Josun Seoul Grand Ballroom in Seoul on January 26. Image courtesy of the Korean Galleries Association.

Data from the Artnet Price Database shows that the total sales value of ultra-contemporary artists (born 1975 or later) at Korean auctions has increased significantly in recent years. It was below $73,000 in 2017 and in 2018 it rose to $252,098. The market then quadrupled, reaching $1 million in 2020, before skyrocketing to $14 million in 2021. In August of this year, the total sales value of this young cohort of artists had already reached 18.7 millions of dollars.

“We are in talks with auction houses, asking them to reduce the number of large sales they hold,” said Do Hyung-teh, vice president of the Galleries Association of Korea, which organizes the Kiaf Seoul. and is a partner of Frieze Seoul. “Given the close relationship between the primary and secondary markets, it is important that the number of auctions and the quality of each sale are carefully managed so that the two markets coexist in a healthy way.”

Market speculation may not be a bad place to start collecting art, said Jason Haam, a 31-year-old art collector turned art dealer. Younger collectors tend to focus on hot and up-and-coming artists, according to Haam, a different approach from older generation collectors. The desire to make money, by nature, is not bad.

As these young buyers move on, they should realize that making money in art is very different from other industries “because there are relationships involved,” Haam said.

Jae Myung Noh.

Jae Myung Noh.

International art versus Korean art

The abundance of Western galleries opening outposts in Seoul has given the impression that young Korean collectors prefer international art to works produced by local talent. That’s true to some extent, Noh said. Those educated in the west grew up with the art world in London or New York, which became their starting point for collecting, and they knew little about Korean art.

Another reason to focus on international art is risk aversion. “A lot of them think collecting international artists is safer than local artists because the market is bigger,” Noh noted.

But that is about to change as these collectors, returning from overseas, incorporate Korean art into their collection. Noh has now added works by young Korean artists such as Hyun Nahm, Choi Jiwon and Ok Seungcheol to his collection of 150 works of art, and he intends to collect more. “I am Korean and I live in Korea. I feel like I should support artists from the same country more, and I think that’s also a way to make the local art scene a little healthier,” he noted.

Likewise, as an art dealer, Haam hoped to showcase Korean artists in the future. Since opening his gallery in Seoul in 2018, Haam has traveled to many art fairs, including Art Basel in Hong Kong earlier, and he will be participating in Frieze Seoul, but his roster is always full of international artists. He has shown Cheikh Ndiaye from Senegal to Hong Kong, and in this week of Frieze and Kiaf, his gallery will present a solo exhibition by the Swiss-born, New York-based artist. Urs Fischer.

He has already started his search to find Korean artists to work with, but finding a candidate has not been easy for Haam. “There have been many cases of artists who flourished for a while but completely disappeared after five years. People are always skeptical,” he said.

“Maybe one day a Korean gallery like me or others will achieve the international debut of a Korean artist. Unfortunately, there are not many successful examples yet. I want to change that, and I will try to change that,” Haam said.

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