Incheon, South Korea – Kim, 35, did not explicitly object when his wife began investing in art three years ago – but he had his reservations.
“I told her I was fine, as long as you wanted him,” the video game designer told Al Jazeera, who asked to be identified only by his last name.
“But I was secretly thinking, why don’t I just invest that money in stocks or something?”
But over time, Kim began to appreciate how art could offer an escape from the COVID-19 pandemic and the monotony of work. Last year, he joined her in collecting fine arts.
Kim is part of a young generation of art collectors who are rocking the South Korean art market, which has long been dominated by collectors over the age of 60.
The rise of young collectors
Galleries and auction houses saw an increase in art collectors in the 1930s and 1940s 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 prestigious Gangnam district, said more than half of the winners last year were in their 40s or younger.
Thanks to an influx of younger buyers, South Korea’s art market has nearly tripled last year, according to KAMS, reaching an estimated 920 billion won ($ 714 million).
The sudden rise is widely attributed to the cost of revenge after the end of pandemic restrictions, but some young collectors have also found their new hobby to be unexpectedly lucrative.
“One of our close friends made nine to ten times the profit from one work of art,” Kim said, acknowledging that hearing such success stories had contributed to his decision to create his own collection.
“It’s hard to give up collecting after hearing a story like this, even though I started collecting out of love for art.
Kim said that the growing difficulty in buying real estate – traditionally the most popular investment option in South Korea – due to rising prices and strict credit controls also contributed to his newfound interest in art.
Park Jun-su, manager of KIAF Seoul, South Korea’s largest art fair, sees the change of generations as a natural result of the desire to stand out from the crowd in the social media era.
“In the beginning, there was a herd of young people who posted their photos on hot shows on Instagram in 2016 or 2017,” Park told Al Jazeera.
“Then some people started buying artwork and sharing their pictures on the wall of their house.”
Lim Sang-Jin, the operator of an online community of art collectors, said more and more people are turning to art in search of something “cool.”
“Buying a good work of art requires a lot more than having enough money,” Lim told Al Jazeera. “Now people show their taste with art, not luxury.”
Park said the center of gravity of the market began to shift from expensive works by famous names to more affordable works by young and emerging 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 one piece worth 30 million won,” he said.
For some younger collectors, part of the appeal is being able to identify with artists who are their age.
“The works of the masters are really great, but I found that I connect more with the works of artists of my contemporaries,” No Je-mung, a 31-year-old collector, told Al Jazeera.
But working in the education sector is a great example of how the new generation of art collectors differs from those who came before.
“There were already too many experts in conventional modern art,” No said. “I thought it was something like a losing game before the start. So I wanted to be different. ”
Early in his collection of works of art seven years ago, But focused on urban art, which at the time was unknown in the South Korean art market.
“Other collectors often said to me, ‘Why spend so much on these artists?’ You have to buy these artists, “when I first started,” But said.
But But’s determination seems to have paid off. Urban art is now one of the most popular genres on the market, and some items in its collection have increased in value by up to 20 times.
As in other areas of life, the rise of social media has also affected how many young collectors navigate the vast world of art.
“Most young collectors are learning to collect art through Instagram and YouTube,” art teacher Lee So-Yong told Al Jazeera.
Lim, the operator of the online community for art lovers, said young collectors rely less on local galleries to find promising artists and works of art.
“People are learning a lot on their own now,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Some send DM to other collectors, asking where they bought the artwork and how much they paid.”
Young collectors are also seen as more open to accessing galleries abroad due to their greater exposure to Western culture and the English language.
The boom in art collecting at home has boosted South Korea’s position in the global art market.
Last year, South Korea overtook Germany as the fifth-largest auction market for contemporary art, according to the 2022 Art Basel Art Market report.
Seoul is also increasingly vying for the title of the largest art center in Asia, as Hong Kong’s international prestige declines amid political censorship and pandemic travel restrictions that have no end in sight.
World-renowned galleries, including Perrotin and Lehmann Maupin, have opened or expanded galleries in Seoul in the past two years, while the influential Frieze Art Fair will launch its first Asian event in Seoul with KIAF Seoul in September.
Park, the manager of KIAF Seoul, expects the event to be a turning point for Seoul as the new capital of art in Asia.
“South Korea’s art market is expected to grow by more than a trillion won ($ 800 million) this year,” he said.
“If Seoul manages to overshadow Hong Kong as a center with a market size estimated at about four trillion won ($ 3 billion), there will be much more room for future growth.