Virtual Visionary: How Shanyan Koder Is Taking The Art World Digital
It’s no wonder Shanyan Koder has forged an enviable reputation as a trusted adviser to serious art collectors and institutions—after all, she is the daughter of renowned collector Canning Fok. Now the creative London-based entrepreneur is shaking up the art market with a digital revolution.
She speaks to us about her passion for fine art and how she foresees the online potential in the art world:
In the living room of Shanyan Koder’s London home sits a large, iridescent canvas by Damien Hirst. “It’s the only butterfly work by Damien—and he’s done a lot—that has every single butterfly from his entire series within a single work,” says the Hong Kong-born entrepreneur, an avid art collector. “It’s pretty incredible.”
Her entire personal collection is equally incredible and includes all you’d expect and more, from a Tracey Emin neon to a Degas pastel on paper, from an Antony Gormley figure to a couple of Chris Ofili paintings and photographs by Candida Höfer. It’s a mix of emerging and established, modern and contemporary, Eastern and Western pieces, many of which she lives with and all of which are the result of emotion-driven purchases.
“Be it that I love it or it makes me sad, I have to have a reaction,” says the daughter of Canning Fok (whose role as Li Ka-shing’s right-hand man gave him the wherewithal to build his own extensive art collection and inspire his daughter). “Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically—I might hate it, it might make me angry but I have to react to it, rather than understanding the concept or thinking it’s an investable piece of art.” The importance of her emotional reactions was one of the things she came to understand as a little girl accompanying her mother and father to auctions to bid on Renoirs and Picassos for their collection of Impressionist masters.
Today, Shanyan is the art expert in the family, in charge of managing the collection begun by her father. And although many of her father’s words of wisdom echo in her ears when it comes to buying—such golden rules as “don’t get carried away chasing a work”—she is an expert in her own right at navigating the rapidly changing market, having founded several art-related businesses in London, where she lives with her high-flying banker husband Matthew and their two daughters.
A vision for digital art business
Ten years ago, after gigs at Goldman Sachs and Sotheby’s, Shanyan put her lifelong immersion in the world of art to use by founding Shanyan Koder Fine Art, an advisory business based on one-to-one relationships and trust that helps high-profile collectors obtain masterworks. And there are plenty of reasons for clients to trust her judgment. As well as her own invaluable experience of collecting, she’s a council member of London’s Serpentine Galleries, a member of the New Museum’s Artemis Council, which champions female artists and gender equality at the New York museum, and she sits on the board of Unit London, the influential Mayfair contemporary art gallery.
“I’ve sold many Warhols—Marilyns, flowers, Maos, cats—a Degas ballerina, Picasso, Míro, Damien Hirst,” says Shanyan. “And Chinese artists as well, like Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi. It’s a good little business. As time goes forward, I think part of the story I’d like to tell is how to bring the art world into the digital world. Over the years, I think it’s really been surprising how I sell a lot of these works on social media or on email. I’ve sold a half-million-pound oil-on-canvas Degas on WhatsApp. I sold a US$2 million Warhol over email. And because they trust me, my clients don’t necessarily need to see the work in the flesh.”
As progressive as the art world likes to think it is, with its controversial performance pieces, mind-expanding multimedia installations and the constant onslaught of intellectual one-upmanship, Shanyan says the big open secret is that the art world is painfully old-school when it comes to the selling format. For the most part, the biggest sellers are still pushing gallery previews, art fair booths and studio visits, peddling offline viewing rooms as the ultimate in exclusivity.
She isn’t buying it. Or, to be exact, she has been buying online—and she thinks that’s what collectors want at all levels. “The art world, when it comes to digital, is very much in its infancy. The art market is very old-world, old-fashioned; people very much like to use the bricks-and-mortar gallery space because viewing an artwork is a very key thing. But I sort of saw this trend, where a lot of the time when I’m making sales [such viewing] wasn’t required.”
As the founder of Hua Gallery
Shanyan founded Hua Gallery in Mayfair a decade ago to introduce the collectors of London to emerging Eastern talent, but she shuttered the physical gallery space a few years ago when she had her children. She relaunched Hua about six months ago, but as an online-only proposition. “We are basically an artist agency for the roster of artists we represent in the emerging Chinese contemporary art world,” she says. “We serve not just collectors; we also work with galleries, institutions, museums and the trade. Interior designers, property agencies, advisories, ateliers... and so it’s a very wide range of clients that we now have.
“It’s a very interesting model because we really are demand-driven—we test the artists’ art through social media and, based on feedback, we give the people what they want. It’s very different to my ‘exclusive’ business, which is bespoke and discreet. This appeals to the masses: it’s emerging, it’s exciting.”
Since its launch online in November, Hua has partnered with galleries on three artist shows: Jacky Tsai at Unit London, Qu Leilei at the Royal Palace in Milan and, this month, the Hua-represented contemporary calligrapher Qin Feng will be shown at Blain|Southern London in dialogue with the late Californian abstract painter Ed Moses.
Shanyan is certainly not the first to sell emerging artists online, but the high-end market has long been fairly impenetrable. Until recently, prominent gallerists such as Gagosian and David Zwirner would sooner trash their canvases than sell them on a website, where it would be impossible to control the making of a market for an artist. Both galleries are now experimenting with pop-up online “viewing rooms” that allow collectors to buy works—at publicly disclosed fixed prices, often undisclosed in the typical offline process—during key periods coinciding with art fairs and exhibitions.
But these are pioneering efforts rather than the norm. According to this year’s UBS Global Art Market Report, online sales accounted for about US$6 billion last year, just 9 per cent of the entire art market (compared to the internet’s 12 per cent share of all retail sales). The report contains other stats that confirm Shanyan’s analysis that the art world isn’t making the most of its online potential. Out of 600 high-net-worth individuals surveyed, only 4 per cent had spent more than a million dollars on a work of art online, but the rising generation is a ripe market, with 93 per cent of millennial high-net-worth collectors reporting they had bought from an online platform. And with 52 per cent of online gallery sales coming from new buyers who’ve never had any physical contact with the space, the artwork or a representative, these are rich untapped waters.
The launch of an exclusive app
Shanyan knows that once the galleries hit on a business model that works, it won’t be long before everyone else catches up. Time is of the essence, and that’s where Global Showcases, her third business, comes in. It’s an invitation-only app set to be launched in September that caters to the ultra-rich and provides access to items for which you’d normally “need a guy.” But instead of calling your art guy, or your watch guy or your boat guy, Global Showcases gives users a personal butler who can get them access to everything, from a one-of-a-kind work by a major artist to an item of high jewellery to an aeroplane to a million-dollar robotic cigar humidor, all of which have been carefully curated by an experienced team with unparalleled access to really cool stuff.
The service is so exclusive that the plan is to launch to a list of just 50 individuals, perhaps partnering with hotels to offer it to presidential suite guests and the like. “If you’re paying £50,000 a night for a suite, you could easily be looking at a £300,000 pink diamond on this app and it’s not out of budget. But it’s a very small market,” says Shanyan.
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Between Hua and Global Showcases, Shanyan is not only seeking to take the art world digital; she wants to disrupt the whole gallery model. As an avid collector, she knows that reliance on art fairs is fast becoming obsolete, and that there are way more collectors beyond those who want to travel the world attending every edition of every global fair.
“With the feeling of art-fair saturation now in the market—there are just so many at the moment—everyone is getting art-fair fatigue,” she says. “People are trying to be a bit more selective of which art fairs to go to, with Frieze now in LA, Tefaf [the European Fine Art Fair] expanding from Maastricht to New York, Basel being all over the world. At some point, people are going to be like, ‘Bring the art fair to me.’ The only way to do that is online, and if you can do virtual-reality walk-throughs of museums and galleries, why shouldn’t there be a digital art fair in the future?
“I want to test the market and be a pioneer in it at both ends,” she continues. “It’s the art world, so we love our paintings on our walls, we love cataloguing; there’s something quite beautiful about flipping through a hardcover book, going to a gallery and seeing a show in the flesh, and a lot of people are still making that transition [to buying digitally]. But when they do, they’ll do it very quickly.”
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