After three years of Covid hibernation, Hong Kong's champagne-soaked art and luxury shopping scene is roaring back to life.
With the city’s edition of Art Basel just a few weeks away, global auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s are bringing back in-person VIP events. They’re also gearing up for the return of wealthy mainland Chinese patrons, who mostly stayed away during the global health crisis due to travel restrictions.
The annual fair kicks off in the week of March 21, but the gala mood is already palpable. At a soiree of some 90 people on a recent Friday evening in the center of Hong Kong’s financial district, women in white gloves hobnobbed with Sotheby’s executives as they admired Hermes collectibles. A lady in a princess frock slipped off her pink mask to pose for the camera, champagne flute in one hand and a rose-hued Birkin in the other.
“It’s nice to see all my friends at these parties again; feels more exclusive than when it was all online,” said Angel Lai, who attended the Sotheby’s show and owns at least 10 Birkins. “You’re definitely buying more when you show up in person.”
The social gathering of Hong Kong’s well-heeled — one among the many being held in the run-up to the event — is the latest sign of normalcy returning to a city that just a few months ago had some of the strictest quarantine policies and social distancing measures. Lai said her social life has lit up ever since China reopened its borders. She has attended four VIP parties in two weeks, compared with just two in the whole of last quarter.
Despite those three years lost to the pandemic, the former British colony still remains the main Asia transaction center for Sotheby’s and Christie’s. It acts as a gateway for the biggest auction market by sales — China. The country accounted for 33 percent of the global share by value in 2021, according to a joint report by Art Basel and UBS Group AG.
This year’s Art Basel also coincides with the government’s efforts to welcome back tourists and revive a battered economy. Chief Executive John Lee has unveiled a “Hello Hong Kong” charm offensive and this month announced a giveaway of 500,000 free air tickets to visitors. The city will be hosting a series of events in coming months, including the sold-out Clockenflap music festival scheduled for early March.
Sotheby’s, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Asia, will be holding dedicated client receptions with themes ranging from wine masterclasses, guided art tours and panel discussions throughout March, according to Nathan Drahi, managing director for Asia. The auction house will also organize a gala evening, he said.
At Art Basel, invite-only, in-person events have always played a key role in building loyalty among attendees. It isn’t any different for the tech and social media-savvy younger generation, because all that action and excitement is hard to replicate online.
About 69 percent of collectors still prefer to make purchases at a physical exhibition at a gallery or a fair instead of online, according to the Art Basel & UBS report.
“Part of luxury is both the goods and the experience,” said Karla Martin, a managing director who oversees the global luxury sector at Deloitte. “It’s part of being in a club that everybody can’t get into, the champagne, the one-on-one clienteling.”
That’s why Phillips Auctioneers is planning to bring back many more in-person events including exhibitions, auctions and private sales. It plans to boost its Hong Kong headcount by 40 percent to more than 100 in the city by the end of this year.
Christie’s is lining up in-person dinners where it typically brings about 50 VIP clients together as the company prepares for its Spring auction and Art Basel. It also plans to organize activities in Shanghai and Beijing, marking its 10th anniversary of its first sale in China.
Being in person “is a multiplier” of Christie’s expertise and ability to procure art, said Francis Belin, president of Christie’s Asia.
“Now you can decide to talk about it over coffee in the morning or a bottle of wine in the evening,” he said. “You see that drives the relationship in a different way.”
Such events also help with sales of less-known work, furniture, sculptures and Asian classical art, objects people prefer to see up close, Belin added.
There’s still one pandemic-era irritant that could spoil the fun at a party: the mask mandate. While cities like London and New York scrapped the requirement long time ago, Hong Kong just extended the regulation through March 8, with no clarity on when it will end. That raises the question whether the art event will manage to attract enough visitors and pull off sufficient deals to help Hong Kong regain its pre-Covid
While Art Basel is set to stage 177 exhibitors this year in Hong Kong, it’s still short of the pre-pandemic count of 242 in 2019. The years of strict Covid
restrictions have also helped places like Singapore and Seoul to take a bite of the luxury and art market.
But for now, Hong Kong is getting another chance. Christie’s is planning to open a new 50,000-square-feet, four-floor space next year. Phillips is also moving to a new office of about the same size. Sotheby’s will open new spaces totaling 60,000 square feet next year, including an exhibition space in the Central district.
“Collectors really are excited to be able to come back,” said Belin at Christie’s. “Art Basel is probably the first window where they would fly back.”