The long-sluggish Korean art market got a boost on Wednesday after dynamic sales of the seized art collection of the family of former President Chun Doo-hwan, setting the stage for the next round of auctions of the Chun collection next week.
All items being auctioned were sold off, raking in some 2.5 billion won (S$3 million), about nine times K Auction's original estimate.
The Korean government commissioned K Auction and Seoul Auction, two major auction houses in Korea, to sell all 235 confiscated pieces. Wednesday's auction offered 80 artworks from the collection.
The auction unexpectedly attracted strong bidding for the traditional Korean paintings and calligraphy by former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Chun Doo-hwan. The calligraphy piece by Kim was the most fiercely sought-after item, selling for 23 million won, 12 times the lowest estimate, to a bidder over the phone. Another calligraphy piece by Chun was sold for 11 million won, 11 times the 1 million won lowest estimate.
Kim Whanki's 1965 oil painting "24-VIII-65 South East," considered the highlight of the auction, was sold for 550 million won to an anonymous phone bidder. The estimate for the painting was between 450 million won and 800 million won.
The success of the first sale came as a surprise to the two auction houses, which had been concerned about further damaging the image of the Korean art market that is already blamed for being the source of money laundering and slush funds for Korean conglomerates and high-ranking government officials.
K Auction said it was "lucky" in fetching more than the original estimates when the auction itself could have been seen in a negative light.
"The auction was a big success. It's hard to sell 100 per cent of the works unless it's a charity event. The number of bidders and observers in the salesroom was five times higher than at our regular sales. It was almost like seeing the sales in 2008 when the art market was at its peak," said Lee Sang-kyu, CEO of K Auction.
Lee Hak-joon, Seoul Auction CEO, also said the interest in the Chun collection was positive, although he hadn't initially been sure whether people would find it positive or negative.