A pro-democracy poster covers a flurry of Chinese flags on a wall in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui district. Photo: AFP / Philip Fong

Protest art towered over Hong Kong at the weekend. On Sunday, the “Lady Liberty” statue could be seen perched on Lion Rock, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.

Overlooking a landscape of crowded skyscrapers, the nearly four-meter figure of a female protester stood proud.

Fitted with a gas mask, protective goggles and an iconic helmet, the white effigy glistened in the sun.

“Lion Rock will be the final resting place of Hong Kong’s Lady Liberty,” demonstrators said in a statement.

By Monday, the statue had been vandalized and dubbed with red paint in a city brimming with culture.

Down on ground zero, the turmoil continued with organizers of the Asia Contemporary Art Show suspending its 2020 spring event.

“Regrettably, there seems little end in sight for the protests in Hong Kong with the knock-on effect on the broader economy accelerating,” Mark Saunderson, the exhibition director and co-founder, said in a statement released to Asia Times. “Our regular exhibitors are apprehensive.”

His comments came after sales and attendance at this month’s show were disrupted by “ongoing” demonstrations “in the city.”

Rallies and marches, which at times have descended into violence and vandalism, dominated the summer.

For the past five months, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has called for greater freedom from what is perceived to be a draconian administration in Beijing.

Business confidence has waned and China’s Special Administrative Region has now slipped into a “technical recession,” Carrie Lam, the head of the city’s local government, confirmed this week.

“On the heels of a number of local galleries shutting up shop, the rest of 2019 is poised to be more challenging in some ways than the global financial crisis,” Saunderson said. “Then there’s the [Donald] Trump factor [and] the Sino-US trade war, impacting buyer sentiment and confidence.”

‘Lady Liberty’ perched on top of the iconic Lion Rock mountain in Hong Kong before it was vandalized. Photo: AFP

At the weekend, President Xi Jinping added to the toxic mix after warning that any attempt to divide China would end in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.” It was a less than subtle threat aimed at Hong Kong during his state visit to Nepal.

As tensions rise, economic shockwaves have rippled across an array of sectors, including the lucrative art industry.

Global sales were estimated to be US$67.4 billion last year, a jump of 6% compared to 2017, the Third Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report highlighted.

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China, including Hong Kong, was the third-largest market, accounting for 19% of sales worth $12.9 billion.

“A very positive finding of the research this year was the dynamism in collecting by global millennials,” Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist and author of the survey, said.

The trend was “particularly prominent in Asia markets.” Up to 39% of Hong Kong collectors surveyed were millennials compared to 46% in Singapore.

Crucial to growth were exhibitions such as the Asia Contemporary Art Show as they continued to “shape the global market” in 2018.

“It was not just auction houses that witnessed growth: art fairs continued to play a central role in the global market, with aggregate sales estimated to have reached $16.5 billion – up 6% year-on-year. The share of the total value of global dealer sales made at art fairs was 46%,” the report stated.

Yoshitomo Nara’s ‘Knife Behind Back’ went for a world record in Hong Kong for the artist’s work. Photo: Courtesy of Sotherby’s

Still, the autumn auction season will be the litmus test as wealthy collectors muse over the acrylics and oils amid the petrol bombs and teargas.

So far, the heart of art has a distinctive golden center, judging by Sotheby’s contemporary art sale in the city earlier this month.

Chaos might have reigned downtown, but the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre echoed to the sound of a world record for Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s “Knife Behind Back,” which sold for $24.9 million.

“A quarter of all buyers [were aged] 40 or younger,” Sotherby’s reported on its website.

Yet you can still cut the atmosphere with an artist’s brush when it comes to future autumn auctions in the city of protests, although gas masks will not be obligatory.

“We will continue to monitor circumstances and have processes in place to ensure business runs as normal,” France Belin, the president of Christie’s, Asia Pacific, told the industry’s bible, The Art Newspaper, when referring to next month’s sales in Hong Kong.

What looks certain is that the protest art of the “Lady Liberty” will not be gazing over the proceedings from her lofty place on Lion Rock safe from the teargas below. But one day, the remnants might just go for seven-figures.

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