After the epidemic, young South Korean investors exchanged stocks for works of art | DayDayNews Art and Culture News

Incheon, South Korea — When his wife started investing in art three years ago, Kim, now 35, made no clear objections — but he had reservations about it.

“I told her that if you want, I can,” the video game designer, who asked to give only his last name, told Al Jazeera.

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

But over time, Kim began to realize how art can escape the COVID-19 pandemic and monotonous work. Last year, he and her collected art together.

Kim is part of a younger generation of art collectors that is shaking up the Korean art market, which has long been dominated by collectors in their 60s and above.

The rise of young collectors

The number of art collectors in their 30s and 40s at galleries and auction houses has surged during the pandemic, according to a report released last year by the Korea Arts Management Corporation (KAMS).

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

South Korea’s art market nearly tripled last year to an estimated value of 920 billion won ($714 million) thanks to an influx of young buyers, according to KAMS.

The sudden increase has been widely attributed to retaliatory spending after pandemic restrictions ended, but some younger collectors have also found their new hobby surprisingly lucrative.

“One of our close friends made nine to 10 times the profit on a piece of art,” Kim said, admitting that hearing success stories like this motivated him to decide to start his own collection.

“It’s hard to give up collecting after hearing stories like this, although I started collecting out of a love of art.”

Kim says Buying real estate is getting harder – traditionally the most popular investment option in South Korea – has also contributed to his newfound interest in art due to soaring prices and tight lending controls.

Park June-soo, manager of KIAF Seoul, South Korea’s largest art fair, believes this generational shift is a natural result of the social media age’s desire to stand out from the crowd.

“In the beginning, in 2016 or 2017, a group of young people posted pictures of themselves in popular exhibitions on Instagram,” Parker told Al Jazeera.

“Then some people started buying art and sharing their pictures on the walls of their homes.”

Lim Sang-jin, who runs an online community for art collectors, said young Koreans are teaching themselves art rather than relying on traditional sources of knowledge such as local galleries [Courtesy of Lim Sang-jin]

Lim Sang-jin, operator of an online community for art collectors, said more and more people were turning to art in search of “elegant” things.

“It takes more than enough money to buy a good piece of art,” Lim told Al Jazeera. “Now people use art to show off their taste, not luxury.”

About three years ago, Parker said, the market’s weight began to shift away from high-priced pieces from well-known names to more affordable pieces from young and up-and-coming artists.

“There’s even a saying that it’s better to buy six pieces of art worth 5 million won each than to buy one piece of art worth 30 million won,” he said.

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

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

Working in the field of education, Noh is a prime example of a new generation of art collectors who are different from previous collectors.

“There are already too many experts in traditional modern art,” Neng said. “I thought it was a losing game even before it started. So I wanted to be different.”

Since he started collecting art seven years ago, Noh has focused on urban art, which was no stranger to the Korean art market at the time.

“Other collectors often tell me, ‘Why spend so much money on these artists? You should buy these artists,’ when I first started,” Noh said.

Noh’s determination seems to have paid off. Urban art is now one of the most popular genres on the market, and some objects in his collection have risen 20-fold in value.

As in other areas of life, the rise of social media has influenced how many young collectors navigate the vast art world.

“Most young collectors learn about art collecting through Instagram and YouTube,” art educator Lee So-young told Al Jazeera.

Lee So-young poses in front of a large painting.
Art educator Lee So-young says young collectors are using Instagram and YouTube to learn about art [Courtesy of Lee So-young]

Young collectors rely less on local galleries to find promising artists and artwork, said Lin, the operator of an online community for art lovers.

“People teach themselves a lot now,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Some people send DMs to other collectors asking where they bought the art and how much they paid for it.”

Younger collectors are also considered to be more open to exposure to overseas galleries, as they are more exposed to Western culture and English.

A boom in domestic art collecting has boosted South Korea’s position in the global art market.

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

Seoul is also increasingly vying for the title of Asia’s premier arts hub, as Hong Kong’s international stature declines with no end in sight for political scrutiny and pandemic-related travel restrictions.

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 host its first Asian event in Seoul in September with KIAF Seoul.

Park, manager of KIAF Seoul, expects the event to be a watershed moment for Seoul as Asia’s new art capital.

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

“If Seoul succeeds in overtaking Hong Kong as a hub, its market size is estimated to be around 4 trillion won ($3 billion), and there will be more room for future growth.”

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