Incheon, South Korea – Kim, 35, didn’t specifically object when his wife started investing in art three years ago — but he had his reservations.
“I told her I’m fine as long as you want me to,” the video game designer, who asked to be identified by his last name only, told Al Jazeera.
“But I was secretly thinking, why don’t you just put the money in stocks or something?”
But over time, Kim began to appreciate how art can offer a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the monotony of work. Last year he joined her in collecting art.
Kim belongs to a young generation of art collectors who are disrupting the South Korean art market, which has long been dominated by collectors over 60.
Rise of Young Collectors
Galleries and auction houses have seen a surge in 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 the successful bidders last year were in their 40s or younger.
Thanks to an influx of younger buyers, South Korea’s art market nearly tripled last year, reaching an estimated value of 920 billion won ($714 million), according to KAMS.
The sudden growth has been widely attributed to revenge spending following the end of pandemic restrictions, but some young collectors have also found their new hobby unexpectedly lucrative.
“A close friend of ours made a nine to 10 fold profit on a single piece of art,” Kim said, admitting that hearing such success stories contributed to his decision to start his own collection.
“It’s hard to stop collecting after hearing a story like this, although I started collecting for the love of art.”
Kim said the growing difficulty in buying real estate – traditionally the most popular investment option in South Korea – due to rising prices and tight credit controls has also contributed to his newfound interest in art.
Park June-soo, manager of KIAF Seoul, South Korea’s largest art fair, sees generational change as a natural result of a desire to stand out from the crowd in the age of social media.
“In the beginning it was a flock of youngsters posting pictures of themselves at hot shows on Instagram in 2016 or 2017,” Park told Al Jazeera.
“Then some started buying art and displaying the pictures on the wall of their house.”
Lim Sang-jin, who runs an online community of art collectors, said more and more people are turning to art in search of something “noble.”
“It takes a lot more than having enough money to buy a good piece of art,” Lim told Al Jazeera. “Now people show their taste with art rather than luxury.”
Park said the focus of the market shifted from high-priced works by famous names to 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 a single piece for 30 million won,” he said.
For some younger collectors, part of the appeal is being able to relate to artists their own age.
“The works of the masters are indeed great, but I’ve found myself relating more to 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 prime example of how the new generation of art collectors is different from their predecessors.
“There were already too many experts on conventional modern art,” Noh said. “I thought it was kind of a losing game even before it started. So I wanted to be different.”
From the beginning of his art collection seven years ago, Noh focused on urban art, which was unknown on the South Korean art market at the time.
“Other collectors would often say to me, ‘Why pay so much for these artists? They 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 his collection have increased in value by 20 times.
As in other walks of life, the rise of social media is having an impact on how many young collectors navigate the wider world of art.
“Most young collectors learn about collecting art through Instagram and YouTube,” art educator Lee So-young told Al Jazeera.
Lim, who runs the online community for art lovers, said young collectors are relying less on local galleries to find promising artists and artworks.
“Now people learn a lot on their own,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Some send other collectors a direct message asking where they bought the artwork and how much they paid.”
Young collectors are also considered to be more receptive to contact with galleries abroad due to their greater exposure to Western culture and English.
The domestic art collecting boom has boosted South Korea’s position in the global art market.
According to Art Basel’s Art Market 2022 report, South Korea overtook Germany as the fifth-largest contemporary art auction market last year.
Seoul is also increasingly vying for the title of Asia’s premier arts hub as Hong Kong’s international standing dwindles amid political censorship and pandemic-related travel restrictions with no end in sight.
World-renowned galleries such as Perrotin and Lehmann Maupin have opened or expanded galleries in Seoul over the past two years, while the influential Frieze art fair will launch its first Asian event in Seoul in September with KIAF Seoul.
Park, the manager of KIAF Seoul, expects the event to be a turning point for Seoul as Asia’s new arts capital.
“South Korea’s art market is expected to exceed one trillion won ($800 million) this year,” he said.
“If Seoul manages to oust 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.”