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Why the Art Market’s Pivot to Asia Is About More Than Chasing New Wealth (and Other

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Every Wednesday morning, Artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, a reminder that bigger is not always better…

 

THE WAY FORWARD IS EAST

Last week, a trio of high-powered former Sotheby’s execs formed the second important new art-business alliance to openly prioritize Asia over longer-standing havens of collector wealth. However, a broader look at data on wealth accumulation reinforces that more factors are driving this strategy than a simple survey of where money is piling up fastest. An informed insider’s perspective confirms that this is another situation where the art market is evolving by rules that even an informed outsider would never suspect. 

The latest headline-snatching team-up is Art Intelligence Global (AIG), the firm formed by Amy Cappellazzo, ex-chair of Sotheby’s fine art division; Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s former head of contemporary art in Asia; and Adam Chinn, Sotheby’s ex-COO. The troika announced the partnership via a New York Times piece published last Wednesday, maximizing their odds of becoming (however briefly) the talk of VIP day at Frieze London and Frieze Masters. 

AIG’s mission is to be a 360-degree advisory firm with a special focus on serving Asia, according to its three partners. The business will span two locations: one in Hong Kong captained by Terase and featuring “a large exhibition space,” and another manned by Cappellazzo and Chinn in the old Pace/MacGill building on East 57th Street in New York. (Cappellazzo and Chinn, who will manage legal and business affairs while staying on in his role as co-chair of anonymity-privileging online-sales platform LiveArt, are slated to work remotely until the latter space is ready next year.)

This approach chimes with some of what we heard in August, when the Times also served as the public launchpad for LGDR, the nascent consortium of high-flying dealers Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, Amalia Dayan, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn that will officially debut next year. The quartet will provide a full slate of services for the global art market, with each partner leaning into a different area of expertise. However, the most talked-about plank in LGDR’s platform has proven to be its pledge to participate only in art fairs in Asia, “where fairs remain an important gateway to a wider array of young collectors,” in the words of the Times‘s Robin Pogrebin.

I doubt I need to remind you of the justified narrative about East and Southeast Asia’s growing importance to the art trade, particularly the market for living artists. A $185 million sales cycle at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this October stands as only the latest evidence of the region’s ascent, which has been boosted further and further since 2013 by the arrival of Art Basel Hong Kong (though homegrown Asian fairs are doing more than fine, thanks very much) and a seemingly ever-expanding brigade of buzzy blue-chip Western dealers parachuting into permanent spaces across the continent.

In AIG’s case, the driving force for prioritizing Asia seems to be that the partners see the continent’s burgeoning collectors as having substantially higher upside than top Western clients. Cappellazzo told the Times that major U.S. collectors “have so much already that they are only buying to fill in.” In comparison, the rapidly growing population of Asian buyers tends to be much more active “because they’re starting to build something.”   

Based on all this, you might think that global wealth trends point squarely toward Asia being the nucleus of top-end wealth creation both today and tomorrow. But it turns out the data isn’t so one-sided. In fact, at least one recent study by a major financial institution found that the millionaire and billionaire class in Asia is actually growing much more slowly than in North America—and may continue to do so for years to come, seemingly complicating the narrative of unrivaled opportunities in the Eastern market.

Data from Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2021. Visualization by Artnet News.

Data from Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2021. Visualization by Artnet News.

FIGURES OF INTEREST

Released this June, Credit Suisse’s latest Global Wealth Report defied several of my expectations about the rates at which riches are accumulating in different regions. The study estimated that in 2020, North America added about three times as many new “dollar millionaires” (2 million) as Asia (650,000). It also found that the U.S. alone added about 70 percent more new ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWIs) than the top nations in Asia: 21,300 U.S. UHNWI versus about 12,400 Asian UHNWI.

(The report defines “dollar millionaires” as individuals whose financial and non-financial assets, including the value of their homes, add up to a net worth of at least 1 million U.S. dollars, and UHNWI as individuals whose net worth exceeds $50 million by the same considerations.)

Credit Suisse’s outlook for the future tilted in Asia’s favor to some extent, though not decisively. The bank’s quants projected that, by 2025, Asia will increase its dollar-millionaire population more than North America, but only by about 15 percent (8.8 million in Asia versus 7.6 million in North America). Even more surprising to me, the authors estimated that Asia will only add about two-thirds as many new UHNWIs (42,000) as North America (60,000) over the same period. 

In other words, Asia’s populations of millionaires and UHNWIs are increasing at among the fastest rates on earth. It’s just that they are still being left in the dust by their counterparts in North America, especially in the U.S. The projections suggest that this won’t change in the next half-decade, either, at least when it comes to the very highest earners that AIG, LGDR, and their art-market competitors should be most eager to solidify relationships with.

To be clear, none of this is evidence to me that AIG and LGDR are making some kind of mistake by concentrating their resources on Asia in the ways they’ve outlined so far. However, after combining their strategies with the top-line figures in Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, it’s even clearer these heavy-hitters must view budding Asian millionaires and UHNWIs as more valuable on average than budding North American millionaires and UHNWIs, both now and later. Otherwise, what sense would it make to focus their energies anywhere other than what still isand in some sense looks poised to remainthe most target-rich region on the planet (in both senses of the word “rich”)? 

Still, this conclusion seems to contradict basic economic logic if you look only at the raw numbers. And when smart art-market actors with plenty of resources make moves like this, it almost always means there is more to their motivations than quants and outsiders would be able to intuit from the numbers…

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