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HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - A burgeoning international art fair in Hong Kong aimed at tapping Asia's growing pool of contemporary art collectors, has shown positive signs of shrugging off the global economic downturn.
The event -- the Hong Kong International Art Fair or ART HK 09 -- is seen as Asia's answer to major international art fairs such as Art Basel in Switzerland and Frieze in London.
Hong Kong has been trying to position itself as Asia's cultural capital, and is now the world's third most important auction hub for Asian artwork, behind New York and London.
Spread throughout a cavernous hall in Hong Kong's convention center overlooking the city's sweeping harbor, a slew of big-hitting art dealers have been lured out this year including New York's Gagosian Gallery and London's White Cube.
Sprinkled among the 110 galleries from 24 countries are an array of works including "walking" minimalist LED nude sculptures by Julian Opie; raw, whorled, wood carvings by David Nash; lurid Chinese contemporary oil paintings by the likes of Yang Shaobin, haunting plastic dolls by Korea's Jin Young Yu, and a silver sculpture by Damien Hirst with a price-tag of 1.5 million pounds.
Despite recent signs of weakness in the global art market amid the financial downturn, there were a number of notable sales at ART HK 09 including a large Gilbert & George "Gingko" picture bought by an Asian collector for 325,000 pounds
"We wanted to bring top quality examples by our artists to introduce them in the best possible way to a new market," said Graham Steele, with the White Cube gallery which sold the Gingko piece, along with several works by Damien Hirst.
Steele said he was pleased so far with the gallery's first foray out to Hong Kong, but said the market for Western contemporary art in Asia and China still needed time to mature.
Meanwhile, in another bright spot on the fair's sidelines, Korea's leading "Seoul Auction" house hammered off a Damien Hirst work called "Tranquility" for $1.7 million, that it said was a record for any Hirst work auctioned in Asia.
London's Lisson Gallery meanwhile sold a batch of works by multi-media British artist Julian Opie -- including an LCD screen display of Mt. Fuji for 55,000 pounds and silk-screen portraits.
This year's fair is slightly larger than last year's inaugural event which drew some 20 thousand visitors.
Magnus Renfrew, the fair's organizer, said the number of visitors had exceeded his expectations so far, and included "high rollers, big spenders, culture vultures, VIP's" and other leading figures in the international art world.
For those with more modest budgets, the fair offers works starting from $1,000. ART HK 09 runs in Hong Kong until Sunday.
Other upcoming Asian art fairs include ShContemporary in Shanghai to be held in September, and ArtSingapore in October.
Reporting by James Pomfret