As coronavirus tightens grip on China, the art world feels the squeeze

Hong Kong art galleries, already hurt by weeks of street protests, are now having to curtail activities because of the coronavirus epidemic.
Hong Kong art galleries, already hurt by weeks of street protests, are now having to curtail activities because of the coronavirus epidemic.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - A single Chinese billionaire, an investor and former taxi driver named Liu Yiqian, has spent at least US$200 million (S$277 million) on art in recent years, including US$170 million for a Modigliani nude in 2015.

With China as the second-largest market for the global movie industry, approval or rejection by the government in Beijing can make or break a movie's bottom line.

Orchestras from around the world plan tours of China years in advance, seeing them as a way to sell tickets, raise their profile and cultivate China's growing wealthy class as donors.

But now, as China struggles to get the coronavirus epidemic under control, the country is essentially closed for business to the global arts economy, exposing the sector to deep financial uncertainty.

Movie releases have been cancelled in China and symphony tours suspended because of quarantines and fears of contagion. A major art fair in Hong Kong was called off, and important spring art auctions half a world away in New York have been postponed because well-heeled Chinese buyers may find it difficult to travel to them.

"It's just not realistic to plan to offer things that are objects we know people want to see in person during a time when they can't get here," said Mr Lark Mason, the founder of iGavel, one of six auction houses that have postponed many of their sales. "It does mean we have to scramble a bit because, OK, we don't have this amount of revenue coming in. What are we going to do to fill the gap?"

The virus has infected more than 60,000 people and killed more than 1,400 in China. As tens of millions of people are sealed off in cities there, new questions are emerging about how the virus is transmitted. Even art dealers who expect business to suffer because of closed borders and mandatory quarantines say they understand that stopping the contagion comes first.

Still, there will be a financial impact. China was the third-biggest art market in the world in 2018, according to last year's Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, accounting for 19 per cent of the US$67 billion spent on art that year. The United States, at 44 per cent, and Britain, at 21 per cent, had the top two spots.

Last week, Art Basel Hong Kong, an annual art fair scheduled for mid-March, was cancelled, depriving dealers and artists of a major opportunity to show works to customers based in China and beyond.

The fair attracts droves of visitors who descend on the region for art shows, cocktail gatherings and yacht parties in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Hanoi and Tokyo before, during and after the fair. Some of these have been postponed or cancelled as well.

Galleries that had planned to exhibit at Art Basel Hong Kong were offered a refund of 75 per cent of their booth fees, which run to US$125,000 for the largest spaces.

Besides forfeited fees and lost sales, galleries are bleeding money in other ways.

 
 

Mr Cliff Vernon, director of the contemporary division of Gander & White, which ships fine art, said that there were two shipping containers currently at sea that had been on their way to Art Basel carrying pieces from five dealers. Now, the galleries will have to pay to ship it back, at a cost of about US$15,000 for the return trip.

China is also critical for the movie business, a US$9 billion annual market second only to North America, according to Mr Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at comScore, a media measurement company.

But with most movie theatres in the country closed, he said, that business is almost entirely on hold. Releases of Jojo Rabbit and Dolittle - a box-office bomb in the United States that desperately needs foreign sales - are among those postponed in China so far.

"There's no question there are going to have to be footnotes as far as the box offices goes this year," Mr Dergarabedian said. "The longer this goes on, the bigger an issue it becomes."

With China's emergence as the fastest-growing market for classical music in recent years, the ripple effects of the virus crisis were quickly felt across that field as well.

Several American ensembles, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, based in Washington, cancelled planned tours of China.

The Juilliard School, which is preparing to open a branch in Tianjin this fall, announced that it was suspending all in-person admissions-related activities in Asia until at least March.

And the ambitious month-long Hong Kong Arts Festival, which would have assembled leading orchestras, opera companies, soloists and dance companies from all over the world, was cancelled.

The economic impact is still being gauged. American orchestra tours are expensive, complicated undertakings that are planned years in advance; fees they earn from foreign hosts generally cover only part of what it costs to ship roughly 100 musicians and their instruments thousands of miles.

 
 

But orchestral tours of China have proved especially attractive to sponsors interested in cultivating relationships there - and whose financial support makes such tours possible.

"You try to break even with sponsorship dollars," said Mr Michael Kaiser, the chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

Even institutions that are far less dependent on Chinese patrons, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Broadway theatres in New York City, say they are watching the situation carefully.

Chinese tour groups have been suspended, and if the virus spreads widely, other travellers themselves may decide to stay home. In Paris, the Louvre said it had not yet seen a drop in visits, but according to the museum's most recent figures, 800,000 of its 10 million visitors in 2018 came from China.

Art galleries are not completely reliant on foot traffic and fairs; thanks to the Internet and her phone, Ms Emerald Mou, a partner at the Hong Kong gallery Mine Project, said that half the current show at her gallery has now sold through e-mail, WhatsApp or WeChat.

Mr Mathieu Borysevicz, a director of the BANK gallery in Shanghai said that he had just sold a painting on WeChat to a collector who was at home, bored, in Beijing.

But Mr Borysevicz also said that a collector in Thailand had cancelled a purchase not long ago, saying it was because of the virus that he could not buy the piece.

Many high-end auction bids are delivered by phone, as was the record-setting Modigliani purchase Mr Liu made at Christie's New York.

 
 

But buyers often like to see what they're bidding on beforehand. And right now, Chinese buyers can't easily visit the marble Sui dynasty Buddha head (estimated to sell for US$500,000 to US$700,000) or the 17th-century incense stand (US$800,000 to US$1,200,000) that Christie's in New York had planned to offer this spring. The auctions held every March at Christie's, Sotheby's and elsewhere in New York City have been postponed until June.

The virus comes at a particularly difficult time because any art that originated in China has been subject to a 15 per cent tariff for months - they will be lowered to 7.5 per cent on Friday (Feb 14) - as a result of President Donald Trump's trade standoff with Beijing, which means it is now harder not only for dealers to sell art, but also to buy it.

"For my exhibition next month, I would say more than half of it was acquired outside the United States, so to bring that in and add 15 per cent, that's what we used to call the profit margin," said Mr James Lally, founder of J.J. Lally & Co in Manhattan, a gallery that specialises in Chinese art.

"It's two unfortunate things on top of each other that affect opposite ends of the market," he added. "It's not a good time."