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National Spotlight: State of the Art Scene in South Korea

In a multi-part series, various prominent art market players talk to Art+Auction about recent developments in their respective regions. Here, we spotlight Youn-Seok Chey, managing director of Seoul Auction.


Youn-Seok Chey, managing director of Seoul Auction, has spent more than a decade with the house, which launched in 1998. The debut of its Hong Kong branch in 2008 was instrumental in expanding the overseas market for Korean art.


The Local Market


The Korean art market enjoyed a boom in 2007, when there was a sudden and dramatic expansion, but fell into decline in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Since then, it has been rebounding at a fairly steady rate.


This past year, we saw a number of positive developments as a result of an increasing international interest in Dansaekhwa, or monochrome painting, which embodies a profound and modern examination of the identity and unique character of Korean art. Among the leading practitioners of the genre is Lee Ufan, whose work has been exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and at Versailles. Today he and others, including Chung Sang-Hwa and Park Seobo, are major pillars of the Korean art market, as are younger artists such as Do Ho Suh, Lee Bul, and Choe U-Ram.


The Korean art market can be divided into three major categories: ancient art, modern and contemporary art, and foreign art, accounting for 20 percent, 50 percent, and 30 percent of the market, respectively. The modern and contemporary category is dominated by modern art, especially the works of artists such as Kim Whan-ki, Park Soo Keun, and Lee Jung-seop. Of these artists, demand for works by Kim has increased significantly in Korea and other countries. Last year, his 19-VII-71 #209 sold at auction for $HK31 million ($4 million), the highest price ever paid for a domestic work of art.


The 2015 auction sales total in Korea was krw188 billion ($156 million), nearly double that of 2014. Seoul Auction and K Auction were responsible for 93 percent of that total, bringing in krw107.1 billion ($89 million) and krw67.8 billion ($56 million), respectively.


The Collectors


Korean collectors fall into two categories: corporate and private. Corporations purchase artwork for their own museums while also providing financial support to artists for marketing purposes. In the case of Samsung, its art collection, which has been passed down from one generation to the next, has grown to include many artworks that are also national treasures. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art is one of the top art institutions in Korea.


Over the past five years, younger art collectors, those in their 30s and 40s, have become more active. While previous generations of collectors were focused on ancient and modern Korean artists, younger collectors are more interested in contemporary art. They also tend to view art as an investment.


Public Support


In September 2014, the Korean government unveiled its “mid- to long-term plan for the advancement of the arts,” which involves increasing financial support for artists, strategically cultivating the domestic art market, and fostering interest in art and culture among the general public, with the goal of expanding the size of the Korean art market to krw630 billion ($523 million) by 2018. Many of the government’s market revitalization policies are based on the establishment of an online information system for art transactions (a Korean version of Artprice) in order to give the public greater access to sales data.


There are also plans to create more venues through which artists may display and sell their work, to provide funding for galleries to participate in overseas art fairs, and to finance experimental and nonprofit exhibitions connected to art fairs.


Reading the Tea Leaves


If the current market trends continue, we expect overseas demand for Korean artists to increase, which will lead to growth in overseas sales by domestic auction houses. In the case of Seoul Auction, 2015 was the first year that profits from our Hong Kong sales exceeded those from our domestic auctions. Some 65 percent of that sales total—krw101.8 billion ($84 million)—was generated in Hong Kong. This year, we are doubling the sales there from two to four, so we expect that percentage to increase to roughly 70 percent over the next five years.