The Art of the Deal: South Korean Millennials Trade Stock for Art | News Arts and Culture


Incheon, South Korea – Kim, 35, didn’t explicitly object when his wife started investing in art three years ago – but he had his reservations.

“I told him it’s okay as long as you want,” the video game designer, who asked to be identified only by his last name, told Al Jazeera.

“But I was secretly thinking, why not just invest that money in stocks or something?”

But over time, Kim began to appreciate how art could provide an escape from the COVID-19 pandemic and the monotony of work. Last year, he joined her in the art collection.

Kim is part of a young generation of art collectors who are shaking up the South Korean art market, which has long been dominated by collectors over the age of 60.

Rise of young collectors

Galleries and auction houses have seen an increase in the number of art collectors in their 30s and 40s during the pandemic, according to a report released last year by the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS).

K-Auction, an auction house in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district, reported that more than half of successful bidders last year were in their 40s or younger.

Thanks to the influx of young buyers, the South Korean art market nearly tripled last year, according to KAMS, reaching an estimated value of 920 billion won ($714 million).

The sudden growth has largely been attributed to revenge spending after pandemic restrictions end, but some young collectors have also found their new hobby to be surprisingly lucrative.

“A close friend of ours made a nine to ten times profit on a single piece of art,” Kim said, admitting that hearing such success stories helped her decide to start her own collection. .

“It’s hard to stop collecting after hearing this kind of story, even though I started collecting for the love of art.”

Kim said the growing difficulty of buying real estate – traditionally the most popular investment option in South Korea – due to soaring prices and tight lending controls also contributed to his newfound interest in art.

Park June-soo, director of KIAF Seoul, South Korea’s largest art fair, sees the generational shift as a natural result of wanting to stand out from the crowd in the age of social media.

“At first it was a group of young people posting photos of themselves in hot shows on Instagram in 2016 or 2017,” Park told Al Jazeera.

“Then some started buying art and sharing the pictures of it on the wall of their house.”

Lim Sang-jin, who runs an online community of art collectors, says young South Koreans are learning about art instead of relying on traditional sources of knowledge such as local galleries. [Courtesy of Lim Sang-jin]

Lim Sang-jin, the operator of an online community of art collectors, said more and more people are turning to art in search of something “classic”.

“Buying a good piece of art takes a lot more than having enough money,” Lim told Al Jazeera. “Now people show their taste with art, rather than luxury.”

Park said the market’s center of gravity began to shift away from high-priced works by famous names towards more affordable pieces by young and up-and-coming artists about three years ago.

“There is even a saying that it is better to buy six works of art worth five million won each than one piece worth 30 million won,” he said.

For some younger collectors, part of the appeal is being able to identify with artists around their own age.

“The works of the masters are really great, but I found that I identified more with the works of the artists of my contemporaries,” Noh Jae-myung, a 31-year-old collector, told Al Jazeera.

Noh, who works in the education sector, is a great example of how the new generation of art collectors differs from those who came before.

“There were already too many experts in conventional modern art,” Noh said. “I thought it was kind of a losing game before it even started. So I wanted to be different. »

From the start of his art collection seven years ago, Noh focused on urban art, which was unfamiliar in the South Korean art market at the time.

“Other collectors would often say to me, ‘Why spend so much on these artists? You should buy these artists, ‘when I started,’ Noh said.

Noh’s determination seems to have paid off. Urban art is one of the most popular genres on the market today, and some items in its collection have seen their value increase by up to 20 times.

As in other areas of life, the rise of social media has also affected the number of young collectors navigating the vast world of art.

“Most young collectors study art collecting through Instagram and YouTube,” art teacher Lee So-young told Al Jazeera.

Lee So-young posing in front of large paintings.
Art teacher Lee So-young says young collectors use Instagram and YouTube to learn about art [Courtesy of Lee So-young]

Lim, the operator of the online community for art lovers, said young collectors rely less on local galleries to find promising artists and artworks.

“Now people study a lot on their own,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Some DM other collectors, asking where they bought the works and how much they paid.”

Younger collectors are also seen as more open to galleries abroad due to their greater exposure to Western culture and English.

The boom in art collecting in the country has boosted South Korea’s position in the global art market.

Last year, South Korea overtook Germany as the fifth-largest auction market for contemporary art, according to Art Basel‘s Art Market 2022 report.

Seoul is also increasingly in contention for the title of Asia’s premier arts hub, as Hong Kong’s international stature wanes amid political censorship and pandemic-related travel restrictions that have no impact. end in sight.

World-renowned galleries, including Perrotin and Lehmann Maupin, have opened or expanded galleries in Seoul over the past two years, while influential art fair Frieze will launch its first Asian event in Seoul with KIAF Seoul in September.

Park, the director of KIAF Seoul, expects the event to be a defining moment for Seoul as the new artistic capital of Asia.

“The size of the art market in South Korea is expected to exceed one trillion won ($800 million) this year,” he said.

“If Seoul manages to eclipse Hong Kong as a hub, whose market size is estimated at around four trillion won ($3 billion), there will be much more room for future growth.”

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