Hong Kong’s Local Art Market Is Flourishing. But Under Its National Security Law, Many Fear an Artist Exodus

Hong Kong’s fall art season started with a bang. Eager collectors crowded into the second edition of the boutique art fair Unscheduled, which took over the vacant former Topshop flagship store on Queen’s Road earlier this month. After a wave of gallery openings, the city’s elite is now preparing for an action-packed slate of auctions as well as the Fine Art Asia fair in October.

The excitement surrounding these commercial events seems to exist in a parallel universe from the anxiety gripping many in the cultural sector and beyond since the implementation of Beijing’s national security law last year. Never before has the vitality of the market felt so disconnected from the everyday lives of Hong Kong people. 

Some see the national security law, which bans activities that government deems related to secession, subversion of the state, terrorism, and collusion with foreign agents to endanger national security, as a stabilizing force after the social unrest that gripped the city in 2019. Others consider the law—and the subsequent mass arrests of pro-democracy politicians and journalists, the abrupt closure of a pro-democracy newspaper, the expansion of the film censorship ordinance, and the disbanding of civil organizations—to be a grave clampdown on freedom in the city. 

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

This fear has sparked the biggest exodus the city has seen in decades. Although the government does not keep statistics on how many people have left town permanently, figures show that Hong Kong’s population has dropped by 1.2 percent—nearly 90,000 people—since the law took effect last June. 

“Running a gallery in Hong Kong right now is more challenging than doing so anywhere else in the world,” one gallerist told Midnight Publishing Group News on the condition of anonymity. “There are too many considerations, not just about money and space. Artists are leaving. Some have left quietly, or they are planning to. The environment makes it harder to create.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, these challenges have coincided with a flourishing of business in Hong Kong as a new generation of young Asian buyers pours millions of dollars into art. “The business has been going so well over the recent year or two,” the gallerist continued. “Artists may leave, but galleries are staying.” 


“Everyone Wants to Support the Hong Kong Art Community”

Even in the shadow of the national security law, the success of Unscheduled, organized by the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, illustrates how much local dealers are benefitting from a renewed interest in Hong Kong art, which has historically been overlooked by regional collectors. (A similar dynamic was evident at Art Basel Hong Kong in May.)

Homegrown galleries Woaw and Edouard Malingue sold out their solo presentations of work by Charlie Roberts and Eric Baudart respectively. Ben Brown Fine Arts reported strong sales of Miya Ando’s works, priced between $15,000 and $25,000. 

“Everyone wants to support the Hong Kong art community these days,” said Angela Li, whose gallery sold all eight oil paintings at her stand by the young artist Cheung Tsz Hin for prices between a few thousand Hong Kong dollars and HK$70,000 ($8,994). 

The recent commercial success of Hong Kong artists such as Chris Huen, Firenze Lai, and the late Matthew Wong, who was born to a Hong Kong family in Canada and grew up in the city, has helped boost the profile of other local artists. 

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

“I have a lot more collectors who previously did not collect Hong Kong art but are now interested,” said Kenneth Young, the director of Karin Weber Gallery, which cleverly converted Topshop’s former fitting rooms into mini galleries for its presentation of artists affiliated with the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts.

The inquiries, Young continued, are coming from everywhere: locals and expats living in Hong Kong, foreign collectors who previously collected only Western and Japanese art, and financial institutions looking to boost their holdings. The fact that many of these collectors are considering art in a range of media—as opposed to just paintings—leads him to believe that return on investment is not their only motivation. 

“Maybe they know more about Hong Kong, what has happened in Hong Kong and the art market,” Young said. “A veteran Hong Kong collector tells me, ‘If I call myself a Hong Kong collector, how can I not support Hong Kong artists and Hong Kong galleries?’”      


To Stay or Go?

But while collectors may be newly committed to local artists, it remains to be seen whether local artists will remain committed to Hong Kong. 

Reports of a Hong Kong exodus have been making international headlines for months, often accompanied by heartbreaking images of families and friends saying tearful goodbyes at the airport. Emigration has become easier as countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States relax their visa policies for Hongkongers. Most people keep a low profile about their departure, announcing their relocation on social media only after they have arrived safely—if they go public at all. 

Twice a day, Hong Kong's virtually deserted airport fills with the sound of tearful goodbyes as residents fearful for their future start a new life overseas, mostly in Britain. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Twice a day, Hong Kong’s virtually deserted airport fills with the sound of tearful goodbyes as residents fearful for their future start a new life overseas, mostly in Britain. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

It is understood that some members of Hong Kong’s arts community have already relocated abroad, mostly to Britain and Taiwan. One gallerist told Midnight Publishing Group News that at least half of the artists they work with have left or are planning to leave. “They come from all age groups,” the gallerist said. “Some of them have children.” 

There are no statistics on exactly how many people leaving the city are arts and culture professionals. But a number of prominent media personalities, political commentators, and journalists have fled, as have two of the six directors of the dystopian anthology film Ten Years, which angered Beijing. Jevons Au moved to Canada a few months ago, while Ng Ka-leung recently announced that he has landed in Britain.

Meanwhile, artist and illustrator Lau Kwong-shing, who has published drawings related to the 2019 protests, relocated to Taiwan after his father warned him not to return to Hong Kong. Critics who remain in the city have gone silent and turned down interview requests.  

The mass arrests of pro-democracy politicians—many of whom have been denied bail and remain behind bars before facing trial—this past spring is what prompted artist Kacey Wong to leave the city. He arrived in Taiwan in late August. “Hong Kong has become a red zone,” Wong told Midnight Publishing Group News from his new studio in Taichung. “I’m now in a green zone. [Taiwan] has 100% freedom, like what we used to have in Hong Kong.” 

Wong sees the crackdown as the collapse of the legal system that once made Hong Kong proud. Known for his political art, specifically performances that became fixtures at the city’s protests, Wong has also been named and shamed by the local state-owned media for “glorifying rioters.”

“I’d be really worried about speaking to the media if I were still in Hong Kong,” Wong said. “I could not function normally.” 

Indeed, speaking up can come with a price in Hong Kong. Recently, Canto-pop singer and activist Denise Ho had a performance cancelled by the Hong Kong Arts Centre, which alleged that “public order or public safety would be endangered” if it were to go ahead.

Protests against the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. (Photo by Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Protests against the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. (Photo by Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Outspoken members of the Arts Development Council have stepped down, with artist Chris Chan citing fear for his personal safety. Political cartoonist Justin Wong temporarily shut down his Facebook page, while the M+ Museum removed an image of Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen from its website as it awaits authorities’ approval. Five speech therapists were arrested over children’s books that were deemed seditious. The city’s security chief also accused the Hong Kong Journalists Association of infiltrating schools (a charge the association has denied) and demanded a list of its members. 

“My departure is a reflection of a generation of Hongkongers,” Wong said. “This is only the beginning. More people like me will appear in the U.K., Taiwan, Canada, and many other places. Exile literature, exile Hong Kong art, is likely to be big in the future.”

What about the art produced in Hong Kong? “The art market, art fairs will go on. Sales will continue,” Wong predicted. While some artists will opt for coded visual language to address sensitive issues, those who choose to stay are more likely to steer away from political topics entirely, he said. More colorful, decorative works are likely to emerge as a result. 


The Future of the Hong Kong Market

Those who choose to remain in Hong Kong—for now, at least—have hope. Willem Molesworth, the former director of de Sarthe and the vice president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, is planning to open a new contemporary art space in the city in December. 

“There are more gallery openings now than in the pre-pandemic days,” Molesworth said. “The younger generation are becoming serious collectors. More people in Hong Kong are buying art, period.” 

Hong Kong’s cultural infrastructure has also grown considerably in recent years with the opening of public institutions like Tai Kwun, the revamped Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the forthcoming M+. “People recognize the power of art, to pick up where words fail… given what the city has been through,” Molesworth said. 

Auctioneer Danielle So at Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design spring auction in Hong Kong. Courtesy of Phillips.

A number of Molesworth’s clients who buy work by established artists from major international galleries are now collecting emerging local artists as well, he said. Plus, the diverse price range of Hong Kong art points to a healthy, growing market.

The broader question, however, is whether Hong Kong’s art scene can remain vibrant under these conditions long-term. “When you take the critical edge away,” Kacey Wong asked, “is it still art?”

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7 Unbelievable and Contentious Takeaways From a New Documentary About ‘Salvator Mundi,’ the $450 Million ‘Lost Leonardo’

On March 5, 2014—less than a week after its founding—Midnight Publishing Group News published a short item based on a New York Times article about the sale of a recently discovered Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, for a reported $75 million. Little did we know, in a few short years, the painting would become the world’s most expensive work of art, selling for a record $450 million at Christie’s New York in November 2017.

In the years since that initial piece, we’ve followed the story closely: from the legal dispute surrounding Salvator Mundi’s sale to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev by Swiss dealer and Geneva freeport owner Yves Bouvier to the controversy surrounding the auction and the painting’s subsequent disappearance. The dollar value placed on the work, the issue of its authenticity, and questions surrounding its whereabouts have dominated art world headlines, captivating readers around the world.

Now, the painting is the subject of The Lost Leonardo, a compelling new documentary directed by Andreas Koefoed and distributed by Sony Pictures. The film does a superb job of weaving together the saga from the start, when the painting was discovered in 2005 at a small New Orleans auction house.

“This is the most improbable story that has, I think, ever happened in the art market,” said Evan Beard, head of art services at Bank of America and one of the film’s talking heads.

An ingenious opening credit sequence tracks the painting as it circles the globe, its value skyrocketing from $1,500 to $450 million in just 12 years.

The painting goes on view in London, changes hands in Switzerland (via a sale brokered in Paris), and comes to auction in New York, where it was purchased at Christie’s by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.  That’s when a new wrinkle in the story develops, as Salvator Mundi drops out of sight, whisked away at the peak of its fame and notoriety.

The Last Leonardo, directed by Andreas Koefoed. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Poster for The Last Leonardo, directed by Andreas Koefoed. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

“The mystery is sort of solved, but not really,” says an unseen news reporter as the film fades out over a sweeping view of the New York City skyline. The scene concludes an exhaustive series of dozens of interviews—in New York, London, Paris, cities in Italy, and Berlin—with the people who came in contact with Salvator Mundi over the past 15 years, or were privy to its history and the debates that raged around it.

The film raises compelling questions about restoration, expertise (and the associated responsibilities), authenticity, and the madness and opacity of the international market. Yet another film about the painting, titled The Saviour for Sale and directed by Antoine Viktine, premiered on French television in April and is slated to open in the U.S. on September 17.

Here are seven choice quotes from The Lost Leonardo that caught our attention and reflect the thorny issues at hand.

Dealer Alexander Parrish spotted the <em>Salvator Mundi</em> at a New Orleans auction. Film still from <em>The Last Leonardo</em>. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Dealer Alexander Parrish spotted Salvator Mundi at a New Orleans auction. Film still from The Last Leonardo. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

1. On the Arrival of the “Sleeper” 


The picture came in a cardboard box, which is kind of what you would expect for the sort of money we spent.

—Alexander Parrish, art dealer

Art dealer Alexander Parrish spotted the painting for sale in 2005, at a New Orleans auction house that identified it only “after Leonardo.” He acted on a hunch, acquiring it with Old Master dealer and expert Robert Simon for just $1,500.

Both men thought Salvator Mundi was a “sleeper”: a painting that “is clearly by a much better artist than the auction house has recognized,” Parrish said. “A sleeper hunter is someone who looks for these mistakes.”

Simon and Parrish couldn’t have known it at the time, but the purchase marked the beginning of the painting’s unlikely ascent into the stratosphere.

Dealer Robert Simon purchased the <em>Salvator Mundi</em> with Alexander Parrish from a New Orleans auction. Film still from <em>The Last Leonardo</em>. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Dealer Robert Simon purchased the Salvator Mundi with Alexander Parrish from a New Orleans auction. Film still from The Last Leonardo. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

2. On the Restorer’s Aha Moment


My hands are shaking. No one except Leonardo could have painted this picture.

—Dianne Modestini, conservator

Realizing that the roughly 500-year-old painting had sustained damage and heavy-handed restoration work over the years, Parrish and Simon hired expert Dianne Modestini to examine and restore the painting. (Absurdly, given its future price tag, they brought it to her in a black plastic garbage bag.)

Her first impression was that “there are very lovely passages, and other passages are very damaged, overpainted.” The first hint that the painting is not a mere copy is a pentimento showing that the thumb was originally positioned differently.

Then, after months of work, a subtle detail convinces Modestini that this is something even rarer: “There is a transition in this area from the lip to the upper lip that is imperceptible. There is no line there for the edge of the lip—it’s exactly what is present in the same area in the Mona Lisa.”

But with just 15 known Leonardo paintings in the world, such an attribution was an extraordinarily bold claim.

“To say I have found a [Leonardo] picture is akin to saying you know, ‘I had a spaceship on my lawn and I saw some unicorns,’” Parrish admitted. “It’s just so far-fetched, don’t even try to convince yourself it’s right, because you’re just going to look like a fool.”

Maria Teresa Fiorio, a Leonardo expert from Milan, was invited to view the painting <em>Salvator Mundi</em> at the National Gallery in London. She denies having authenticated the work, later shown there as an autograph Leonardo. Film still from <em>The Last Leonardo</em>. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Maria Teresa Fiorio, a Leonardo expert from Milan, was invited to view Salvator Mundi at the National Gallery in London. She denies having authenticated the work, later shown there as an autograph Leonardo. Film still from The Last Leonardo. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

3. On the Central Question: Who Said What?


Nobody asked me a formal opinion about this painting.

—Maria Teresa Fiorio, Leonardo expert from Milan

After Modestini finished her restoration, Simon reached out to Luke Syson, then a curator at the National Gallery in London, about the potential Leonardo discovery. Syson asked to see it in person, and arranged to have five experts on the artist come for a viewing at the museum in 2008.

In 2011, the work went on view at the museum with a wall label identifying it as a rediscovered Leonardo—a move that remains controversial a decade later. But did the art historians and scholars at the National Gallery really authenticate it?

That’s the million-dollar—or hundred-million-dollar—question at the heart of the film.

“I didn’t really get an answer. I didn’t get a direct answer. I also knew not to insist,” Simon, who was there, admitted. But about a week later, he claims he got a call from the museum saying that “basically everyone had agreed that the painting was indeed by Leonardo.”

But Maria Teresa Fiorio, one of the experts on hand, claims she never authenticated the work. And even Martin Kemp, who was also part of the viewing and remains one of the painting’s most steadfast defenders, acknowledged that “expectations are dangerous, because you end up by seeing what you want to see.”

“Everybody wanted it to be a Leonardo, so everybody took the most optimistic view of it as they could as a Leonardo,” London-based art reporter Georgina Adam said. “And perhaps it is a Leonardo.”

New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz—perhaps Salvator Mundi’s biggest detractor—took a more cynical view: “Everybody was complicit in dreaming up this beautiful dream of a lost Leonardo da Vinci.”

When pressed by the filmmakers, Syson insisted he had no regrets about his role in legitimizing the world’s most expensive painting. “You’re not going to get anywhere,” he said.

Dianne Modestini restored the <em>Salvator Mundi</em> and stands by her belief it is an authentic Leonardo. Film still from <em>The Last Leonardo</em>. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Dianne Modestini restored the Salvator Mundi and stands by her belief it is an authentic Leonardo. Film still from The Last Leonardo. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

4. On Who Actually Painted the Canvas


You have the old parts of the painting which are original—these are by pupils—and the new parts of the painting, which look like Leonardo, but they are by the restorer. In some part it’s a masterpiece by Dianne Modestini.

—Frank Zöllner, German Leonardo expert and author

Modestini’s careful work repairing and restoring the cracked wooden panel ultimately became a source of controversy.

“The joke circulating around the contemporary art world was that that painting was a contemporary painting because 90 percent of it had been painted in the last 10 years,” dealer and Midnight Publishing Group News contributor Kenny Schachter said.

Frank Zöllner, a Leonardo scholar in Germany, said that he thought that the best-preserved parts of the painting, including the hand and the hair, look like they were painted by a pupil of Leonardo, and that the area that is most skillfully done is “exactly the part that has been restored.” In the effort to return the work to its former glory, he opined, Modestini had “overdone it a bit.”

“I can’t paint like Leonardo,” Modestini countered. “It’s very flattering, but it’s absurd.”

Further complicating matters was Modestini’s financial interest in the painting. She called rumors that she was a part owner “completely untrue,” but acknowledged that her contribution went beyond restoration, helping secure the attribution and serving as a Salvator Mundi spokesperson.

“I said to Robert one day, ‘I’m not sure what to charge you for this, because it’s more than just a restoration.’ He said, ‘When we sell it,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you what you know, I believe you deserve,’” Modestini said. “He paid me generously.”

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen takes bids at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" during the Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie's on November 15, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen fields bids for Salvator Mundi during the postwar and contemporary art evening sale at Christie’s on November 15, 2017 in New York City. Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images.

5. On the Popularity of the Subject 


Jesus is not an easy sell.

—Alexander Parrish

So says Parrish at the start of the film upon the painting’s initial discovery. And for a time, he might have been right. He and Simon spent years unsuccessfully trying to sell the painting for $200 million, with institutions in Boston, Houston, and Dallas all ultimately passing.

“It was a very frustrating thing,” their third partner, Warren Adelson, said. “I had the rarest painting in the world by the greatest artist in the world, and I couldn’t sell it.”

But thanks—in no small part—to one of the most hyped-up marketing campaigns ever seen in the auction world, the numbers ultimately proved Parrish wrong.

In an ingenious move by Christie’s, the painting was branded the “male Mona Lisa,” drawing a parallel between Salvator Mundi and Leonardo’s most famous portrait. A slick promotional video didn’t show the painting at all, instead focusing on the enraptured faces of viewers, including actor and art collector Leonardo DiCaprio.

The auction house’s strategy was to “convince the potential buyer that you’re now buying a celebrity that will play into the power and prestige of your acquisition” Beard, of Bank of America, said.

And it worked: “It was the trophy to end all trophies,” journalist Alexandra Bregman said.

The record-breaking sale is all the more remarkable given that Jesus is one of the prophets in Islam, and religious scholars typically forbid that the prophets be depicted in art.

“It’s a sacrilegious painting,” said New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick, who was the first to reveal Bin Salman as the buyer.

Yves Bouvier flipped the Salvator Mundi for an enormous profit. Film still from The Last Leonardo. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Yves Bouvier flipped Salvator Mundi for an enormous profit. Film still from The Last Leonardo. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

6. On the Art of the Deal 


It’s common sense. You buy low and sell high.

—Yves Bouvier, freeport magnate and art dealer

Before the painting hit the auction block in 2017, Yves Bouvier made an outsize profit on the Salvator Mundi, acquiring it for $83 million from Parrish, Simon, and Adelman in a deal brokered by Sotheby’s. That same day, Bouvier sold it to Rybolovlev for $127.5 million—a $44.5 million markup.

“It’s extraordinary and quite frankly extremely unheard of in the art world” Adam, the London art journalist, said.

The freeport magnate had initially tried to discourage the purchase. “Don’t buy this painting, it will never be a good investment,” Bouvier warned Rybolovlev, noting the pre-restoration condition issues. “It’s like selling a car that has been in an accident.”

But in the end he was happy to conduct the sale, driving up the price by inventing fake negotiations with the sellers in email exchanges revealed in the film. Bouvier falsely told Rybolovlev that the buyer was asking for as much as $150 million.

This was “just a business game,” Bouvier said. “I was nice because he was ready to pay $130 million.”

Nevertheless, Rybolovlev was furious when he found out. In total, the Swiss dealer made $1 billion in profits on a group of 37 artworks he sold the Russian, who claimed to have been defrauded.

Of course, it’s hard to feel too bad for Rybolovlev, considering he ultimately sold Salvator Mundi for $450.3 million, pocketing the $400 million hammer price. So we’re talking about a profit of roughly $273 million here, a fact which the film inexplicably does not note.

Meanwhile, after years of legal battles surrounding the dispute, Bouvier claims to “have lost everything,” but looked remarkably content showing off his out-of-left-field unicycling skills to filmmakers.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France in 2018. Photo by Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, and French president Emmanuel Macron at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, in 2018. Photo by Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

7. On What Actually Happened at the Louvre 


If the Louvre says it’s an autograph Leonardo, that is a big deal. It’s not just art history, it’s world politics.

Art Newspaper editor Alison Cole

In 2018, Salvator Mundi almost became the centerpiece of a blockbuster Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre in Paris celebrating the 500-year anniversary of his death. Ahead of the show, Bin Salman visited the museum with none other than French president Emmanuel Macron. The painting is said to have been there too, for a secret technical analysis at the Louvre laboratory.

Ultimately, the picture was not included in the exhibition because the owner “refused to lend it,” the film reveals. The loan fell apart because Bin Salman “wanted it opposite the Mona Lisa as a civilizational masterpiece,” Beard said.

The Louvre came so close to showing the painting that it even produced a book on its technical findings. A few copies got out, showing that the museum ultimately confirmed the work was by Leonardo’s hand—but the Louvre has refused to acknowledge its contents, with a spokesperson telling investigative journalist Antoine Harari, “We didn’t publish such a book. I think you understand it was connected to the loan. The loan didn’t happen.”

Though Bin Salman has never publicly admitted to owning the painting, possessing Salvator Mundi is certainly a form of soft power—and the film questions whether political dealings between France and Saudi Arabia could have influenced the Louvre’s opinion on its authorship.

“It’s difficult to know what to believe when you’ve got a lost painting, a lost book, and no access to the scientific examinations themselves,” Cole said.

The debate around the picture may never be resolved, but the uncertainty almost adds to its allure, especially the longer it stays hidden from public view.

“My greatest regret,” Modestini said, “is that it did not go to a museum. And, of course, everyone’s idea of the picture is now formed by mystery and legend and speculation.”

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We Know the Art Market Is in Recovery. But How Do the Numbers Stack Up to Pre-Pandemic Times?

The marquee evening auctions coming up in New York next week have been deemed the first major test of the art market coming out of the lockdown era. But data from the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database suggests that the art business is already in a better position than it was at the same juncture pre-lockdown in 2019.

Total global fine-art auction sales in March 2021 clock in at $1.1 billion—up by more than a fifth over March 2019, which saw $939.9 million in total auction sales. 

Both supply and demand also appear to be stronger in March 2021 than they were in the equivalent month in 2019. How can we tell—and why should we care? Read on for the rundown. 

All data © Midnight Publishing Group Analytics.


–Both the number of lots offered (one way to gauge supply) and the sell-through rate (which some see as a proxy for the size of collectors’ appetites) were up in March 2021 compared to March 2019. 

–Sell-through rate in March 2019: 65 percent

–Sell through rate in March 2021: 73 percent



–Hold up, you might be thinking. Is this comparison apples to apples? 

–Well, both months under examination saw heavyweight Impressionist & Modern and postwar and contemporary art evening sales in London, as well as major Chinese art sales in Hong Kong. So it’s as close to apples to apples as we can expect to get in the increasingly shifty unsettled landscape.



–Part of the shift may be due to an increased number of salesperhaps driven by pent-up energy from lockdown. March 2021 has hosted more fine-art auctions than the equivalent month in 2019—572 vs. 519. 

–But more than anything, the increase appears to be attributable largely to a growing number of pricey lots hitting the block. In March 2019, seven works sold for $10 million or more at auction; in March 2021, that figure more than doubled, to 15 works

–These trophy lots alone account for a quarter of the total $1.1 billion in fine-art sales at auction houses around the globe in March 2021.

–Zooming out, this growth at the top tracks with trends in overall wealth distribution: the world’s richest saw their fortunes grow by an estimated 20 percent last year, according to Forbes.  



–All this bodes quite well for the outcome of next week’s marquee evening sales. In 2019, the major drag on the market was a lack of high-priced works. In the first six months of 2019, total auction sales of works over $10 million dropped by 35 percent year over year, according to the fall 2019 Midnight Publishing Group Intelligence Report

–Now, that trend looks like it’s headed for a reversal. Not only is there enough supply of top-flight works for them to be sprinkled across the spring (rather than hoarded for the big sales in May), but there also appears to be strong enough demand to greet them, pushing prices up.



–Keep your eye on the top end of the market, folks. There may be some fireworks in store. 

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The UK Has Officially Exited the EU With a Trade Deal. So What Exactly Does It Mean for the Art Business?

People across the globe are eager to leave behind a tough 2020. But for those in the UK, the new year means more difficulties than before, brought on by the finally arrived-upon deal for Britain to exit the European Union.

Experts and stakeholders have spent the past week picking over the fine print in the deal, officially dubbed the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020, which passed in the House of Commons on December 30. After more than four years of speculation, still not everything is clear—but the changes are likely set in stone.

“So much of the art world has been shattered by COVID, by the temporary closure of public institutions and the laying off, particularly of younger staff, that it now feels totally gratuitous to have inflicted a further battery of disasters on ourselves,” Charles Saumarez-Smith, the former head of the Royal Academy, tells Midnight Publishing Group News.

The symbolic implications of the UK leaving the European Union has hit the art world hard. But the deal will also have a concrete impact on the way the art world does business.

Here are a few ways it will change the game.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures after signing the Brexit Trade Deal with the EU in 10 Downing Street in London, United Kingdom on December 30, 2020. Photo: Pippa Fowles/No10 Downing Street/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures after signing the Brexit Trade Deal with the EU on December 30, 2020. Photo: Pippa Fowles/No10 Downing Street/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

1. More Red Tape When Transporting Art

“The good news is that we now know what the playing field looks like,” says Simon Sheffield of the London logistics company Martinspeed. In sum, he says, a post-Brexit UK means that “free circulation no longer exists—you can no longer take a truck from London to Paris directly to the gallery.”

This outcome, which was more or less expected, means a lot more paperwork. Import duties will now be due on goods arriving to the UK from the EU, adding a series of new to-dos, including pro-forma invoices, customs entries, and commodity codes. Sheffield points out that, on the brightish side, most players already have the necessary infrastructure in place for shipping to the US or Switzerland.

Some dealers are concerned about the increasingly complicated bureaucracy, but are adapting their business strategies accordingly. “More customs red tape will mean it will take longer to get works to clients from the UK to the EU and vice versa, which may result in delays and could affect deals materializing,” says Joe Kennedy, director of Unit London. “Thanks to the power of our online business and social media, less than 20 percent of our clients in 2020 were EU-based, so we’re hopeful the impact on us will be minimal.”

The deal offers one small reprieve for those buried under paperwork: the value threshold for works that require export licenses to leave the UK has increased. For paintings, the number increased from £132,000 to £180,000; for other works, including drawings and sculptures, it is now £65,000.

Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy, co-founders of Unit London.

Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy, co-founders of Unit London.

2. The UK Loses a Key Competitive Advantage 

Until the stroke of midnight on January 1, the UK’s art business had a key advantage over the EU’s: its value-added sales taxes were among the lowest in Europe—and, in many cases, not applied at all. “The UK was always a good vehicle to bring works to and sell onwards to EU in free circulation,” says Kennedy from Unit London.

An art dealer sending a painting to a client in Switzerland, where the VAT is eight percent, for example, could save a little money by shipping it via the UK, where the VAT is only five percent. Now, since the UK is no longer part of the EU, the buyer or seller would be forced to pay the additional 8 percent VAT upon its arrival in Switzerland.

This change could negatively impact the robust auction and fair sectors and make places like France—which has one of the next lowest VAT rates, at 5.5 percent—a more appealing for business than the UK.

There are a few caveats to soften the blow, however. VAT will not be applied if items are returned to the UK within three years (a similar stipulation exists between the UK and the US).

Plus, the tax rate has been standardizing across Europe within recent years, meaning that “any advantages in terms of import and exporting through the UK… into the EU have been leveling out anyway,” says Mark Westgarth, director of the centre for the study of the art and antiques market at Leeds University. He adds, however, that he thinks there will be an increased use of freeports in the EU as a result of the new changes.

Edward Dolman, CEO of Phillips, says that the auction sector “will have to wait and see what the long-term effects of the trade agreement” will be. He adds that the house is “keen to ensure that the UK government recognizes that the London art market occupies a position of significant importance in Europe and globally, and should therefore do all it can to mitigate any negative impacts of Brexit on the London art market in the months and years to come.”

Kennedy adds that this could include lowering VAT for the art market. “We are waiting to see,” he says.

Frieze London 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

Frieze London 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

3. E-Commerce May Not Be Spared

While physical art sales will be most dramatically reshaped by Brexit, virtual sales will feel the impact as well—although the extent of that impact remains unclear. Before Brexit, e-commerce providers based in the UK only had to adhere to UK rules, regardless of the nationality of the consumer. The trade deal has opened the door to changing that (although it hasn’t changed yet). Moving forward, a UK company doing business with a French or Swiss customer might need to adhere to French or Swiss rules with respect to privacy, data collection, return policies, or disclosures.

Until we know how other countries will respond, “there is no way of knowing whether this will become a huge issue or not,” says lawyer Till Vere-Hodge, senior associate at Constantine Cannon LLP, which specializes in art law. “This added ‘friction’ could increase over time as regulations potentially diverge. The devil will be in the details.”

4. International Collaboration Becomes More Difficult

Luís Raposo, the European president of ICOM, says that while the international museum organization has no official position on Brexit, he personally believes that it might make collaboration among museums more difficult. This could have an impact on hot-button issues like restitution, equity, and shared discourse—but most obviously, it will make it more challenging to transport artworks across the border. “We are afraid that itinerant exhibitions will be more expensive due to increasing costs in assurances,” Raposo says.

As a result, for better or worse, museums will be forced to turn inward toward their own collections. “Brexit, as with COVID-19, may both contribute to refocusing museums on their own distinctiveness,” he says.

Auctioneer Henry Highly taking bids in the London studio. Photo courtesy Phillips)

5. Less Free Movement for Cultural Producers

Whereas artists could previously hop on a plane or train to travel across the English Channel for long-term travel, they will now need to secure a visa first. This will make it more difficult for artists hoping to travel for residencies and education. “There will no doubt be increased costs involved in organizing international exchanges in the arts world,” says Lone Britt Christensen, cultural attaché to the UK at the Danish Embassy.

Saumarez-Smith adds that it will be “much harder, if not impossible, to recruit staff from Europe,” including museum directors, curators, and other expert employees.

While few in the art industry are optimistic about what the UK and the EU’s trade deal means for the various sectors of the art world, it has not turned out quite as badly as many feared. The true impact on the nation’s arts sector will only become clear in time.

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