A new international premium fair and Western galleries opening up branches in Seoul are two signs that South Korea’s contemporary art market is booming.
Seoul Auction, Seoul, September 2022
COURTESY KOCIS, PHOTO SEOKYONG LEE / PENTA PRESS
Is the Land of the Morning Calm reshuffling the deck of the global contemporary art market? According to Artprice, auction sales on the segment for fiscal year 2021-2022 in South Korea stood at nearly $66 million, with the capital experiencing an amazing 344% rise. “Not only has Seoul completely recovered from the health crisis,” the report says, “but it now ranks among the world’s new global contemporary art capitals, surpassing Tokyo, despite the latter’s 55% increase in growth.” South Korea ranks fifth in the world, just after France and ahead of Japan, Germany and Poland. On the Asian market, it seems to have checkmated the Land of the Rising Sun, moving into second place after China, where sales revenue has dropped by 33%. These figures can be explained by South Korea’s favorable tax system for artwork purchases, China's ruthless "zero Covid" policy and the rising tide of millennials keen on making lucrative investments.
Even before the pandemic, the South Korean context was conducive to expanding its market. “With its great artists, passionate collectors, numerous museums and private foundations, some of Asia’s most competitive art galleries and strong corporate patronage, South Korea has always had a strong infrastructure,” says the director of the Leeahn Gallery, one of the most prestigious in Seoul. “Its tax-exempt policy on artworks is among the factors that makes it so attractive.” Indeed, there is no tax on imported artworks and, according to Artprice, works by living artists worth less than 60 million won (KRW)—about $50,000—are exempt from sales tax. “It’s the same for estate taxes,” adds Hyun-Hee Kim, senior auctioneer at Seoul Auction. “Works are taxed only if their value exceeds KRW 60, or $50,000, so our market has plenty of room to grow.” All systems are go, in part thanks to China’s inward turn and real estate crisis. “Since China’s Covid lockdown,” says Woo-Jung Woo, director of the emblematic Hakgojae Gallery, which participated in Frieze Seoul’s Masters section, “buyers who looked to Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan have looked to us.” Lastly, the Korea Art Authentication and Appraisal Research Center (KAAARC) says that art presents an alternative to real estate investments, which is subject to red tape and exorbitant prices.