Bull Market for South-East Asian Art


Appearance (2001, 120 x 180cm, acrylic on canvas) by Ahmad Zakii Anwar (Malaysia).

A taste for art pieces from the region has been growing, driven by a range of different factors.

When Indonesian artist and pioneer Raden Saleh sold Deer Hunt for SG$2.8mil in an auction in 1996, it changed the art landscape in Southeast Asia. It whet the world’s appetite for Indonesian masters and Indo- European sojourners based in Bali, among others.

The momentum started in the inaugural auction in 1994. Raden’s The Eruption of Mt Merapi went for a premium of SG$280,000, some 12 times the sales price set in an auction by Holland’s Glerum in 1990.

The next year, Raden’s Lion Fighting A Snake Outside a Grotto in a Tropical Landscape fetched SG$1.8mil. Like Eugene Delacroix, Raden loved painting horses, and his Lions and Tigers Fight over a Dead Horse went for SG$700,000 in Sotheby’s Singapore.

In 1998, Raden Salen had a major retrospective at the Lindenau Museum in Altenburg, Germany. When the National Gallery Singapore opened in 2015, it paraded Raden’s Forest Fire, pegged at an estimated SG$5mil – adopted by Yong Kong Foundation.

Kretek-smoking Indonesians filled the crowded Singapore auction rooms in the 1990’s – Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonham- Glerum and Raffles. But the auction houses left soon enough with the Asian currency contagion of 1997-1998 and the May 1998 Tragedy in Indonesia targeting ethnic Chinese. Larasati, Borobudur, Masterpiece and Auction 33 filled the vacuum. Christie’s had its debut auction in Bangkok in 1999.

The new millennium saw Hong Kong rebranded as the new Asian art hub with Christie’s and Sotheby’s setting up dedicated Asian auctions in 2005 and 2008 respectively. In 2014 Sotheby’s Hong Kong already boasted a turnover of HK$349mil (RM180.2mil) from its South-East Asian art sector, while Christie’s set several records in its landmark Singapore Art auction in November 2015 – to mark Singapore’s 50th anniversary.

Kemelut (1994, 167 x 129cm, acrylic on canvas) by Yusof Ghani (Malaysia).

Art in the Philippines is driven by robust sales in Salcedo and Leon, while Artcurial and Masterpiece have joined the Hong Kong market. Christie’s also have bases in Beijing and India. The markets to watch (based on last year’s figures) are South Korea (US$75mil), India (US$48.9mil; the top dog is Vasudeo Santu Gaidonde who was given a Guggenheim retrospective in 2014 and whose highest grosser is US$4.4mil) and the Philippines (US$423mil).

This proliferation of auction houses is the impetus driving the market for South-East Asian art. In Malaysia, there are three more auction houses since Henry Butcher’s in 2010 – the Kuala Lumpur Lifestyle Art Space, Masterpiece and The Edge.

Other drivers include:

  • Emergence of world-class art fairs such as Art Stage Singapore, Art Basel Hong Kong and peripheral events like Art Expo Malaysia, Art Singapore, Affordable Art, Art Jogja (since 2008);
  • Art spaces and new institutions such as the West Kowloon Cultural District including M+, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Macan) in Jakarta (2017), the National Gallery Singapore, the Gillmann Barracks (Singapore);
  •  Convergence of Asian satellites of the marque galleries in Hong Kong and Singapore;

Cultural cross-over collections are not necessarily in South-East Asian art alone. Even the “parochial” Indonesian collectors have diversified. Many collectors like Liu Yiqian (buyer of a Modigliani for a record US$170.4mil; Picasso holds the world record of US$179.3mil for Les Femmes d’ Alger) are also making headlines buying dizzily priced Western works. Li and Wang Wei own the Long Museum in Shanghai. There are also others such as Budi Tek, Uli Sigg, Ullens, Haryanto Akikoesoemo, and Oei Hong Djin; and in Malaysia, the bigwigs include Datuk Noor Azman, Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin, Zain Azahari and the 30ArtFriends bloc including Dr Steve Wong.

The Fragrant and the Sublime No 10 (2006, 158 x 170cm, acrylic on canvas) by Natee Utarit (Thailand).

The ripple effect of the contemporary Chinese art boom has been important but started slowing down last year. The Asian record-holders are Qi Baishi (Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, US$65.5mil); Pan Tianshou (Eagle’s Rock & Flora, US$45.99mil); Zeng Fanzhi (Last Supper, US$23.3mil); Takashi Murakami (My Lonesome Cowboy, US$15.1mil). Apart from Qi in the Chinese ink painting market, other top-grossers include Zhang Daqian, Li Keran and Cui Ruzhou, while Franco-Chinese like Zao Wouki, Chu Tehchun, San Yu, Lin Fengmian and Tang Haiwen are also hot items.

  • Phenomenon of Art Biennales ( Jogja, Jakarta, Singapore, Gwangju and in 2017, KL) and Triennials (Asia-Pacific in Brisbane).
  • Participating of artists in world-class platforms such as the Documenta (Suzy Sulaiman), Venice Biennale (H.H. Lim, Dato Ibrahim Hussein, Wong Hoy Cheong, Zulkifli Yusoff) and spaces such as Palais de Tokyo (Chris Chong). The Philippines returned to the Venice Biennale in 2015 after 51 years, while Singapore has a pavilion showcased again after a one-series hiatus;
  • Curators in strategic positions in the world art ecosystem – Adeline Ooi (director, Art Basel HK) and Khai Hori (Paris), and June Yap (helming the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative);
  • International competitions such as Hugo Boss (Danh Vo, 2012 winner), Prudential Eye Award (top prize: US$50,000), Philip Morris Asean Art Awards (US$50,000), Sovereign Art Prize, Signature Art Prize, Joseph Ballestier Prize (FX Harsono, Lee Wen, US$15,000);
  • START Art Fair at Saatchi Gallery in London and The Roving Eye in Istanbul showcasing South-East Asian artists;
  • Leading big-name gallery showcase – Arndt (Rodeo Tapaya), Tyler Rollins (Ronald Ventura, Manuel Ocampo, Yee I-Lann, Kow Leong Kiang, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Pinaree Sanpitak, Jimmy Ong), Paul Kasmin NY (Nyoman Masriadi), Barbara Green NY (Ahmad Zakii Anwar), Jenkin Johnson San Francisco (Dato Tajuddin Ismail), Tobin Reese California (Lee Man Fong).
  • Participation of Malaysian galleries in leading art fairs overseas – Wei-Ling Fine Art, g13, Galeri Chandan, Artemis Gallery, Core Design; and
  • Plethora of art publications and better and more prominent media coverage; and • Growth of art-orientated/inspired shopping malls such as K11 in Hong Kong (2009) and China (2013) and KL's MAPS Publika (2014).

According to Artprice/Art Market Monitor of Art’s 2015 report, the total art turnover was US$16bil (RM64bil), down 10.31% from 2014 (US$17.9bil), with Christie’s (US$4.96bil) and Sotheby’s (US$4.57bil) taking the lion’s share. Next were China’s Poly International (US$833mil) and China Guardian (US$553mil). The Chinese market contracted a whopping 33% in 2015.

The highest-grossing work for a South-East Asian art piece is Indonesian S. Sudjojono’s Our Soldiers Under Prince Diponegoro (HK$58.36mil, Sotheby’s HK 2014). Lee Man Fong set a record of HK$35.9mil (US$4.7mil) for Balinese Life (there’s a previous 2010 record with the same name) at Sotheby’s HK Nov 2015 sale. Hendra Gunawan set a world record of US$4.3mil for his Ali Sadikin During The Independence Struggle at Sotheby’s HK April 2016 auction, which also saw three other Hendra sold for a total of US$6.82mil.

Tanjung Bungah assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu sweeping the Buddha platform.

Go Ahead, The More It Hurts, The Better (2004, 150 x 145cm, acrylic on canvas) by Agus Suwage (Indonesia).

The Philippines pioneer Juan Luna set a record of P46.72mil at the Salcedo auction in Manila in Sept 2015 although his Parisian Life, sold for P40.36mil, was reportedly resold for P156.5mil (US$3.34mil) outside the Philippines.

The records for Anita Magsaysay-Ho and Fernando Cueto Amorsolo were US$1.24mil (Catching Chickens) and US$433,992 (Washerwomen).

Recent years have seen a huge upsurge in the prices of works of Singapore artists. Tan Swie Hian staved off the pioneers with his Portrait of Bada Shanren which fetched SG$4.4mil at the Poly Beijing Dec 2014. The records of pioneers include Cheong Soopieng HK$7.72mil (SG$1.4mil) for Balinese Dancer (Christie’s HK 2015); Chen Wen-hsi (HK$13.3mil, Pasar), and Georgette Chen (US$980,400, Lotus Symphony).

In contrast, Vietnamese pioneers such as Le Pho (View From Atop A Hill, US$840,000) and Mai Trung Thu are grossly undervalued. The highest priced Thai artist is Thawan Duchanee, for The Harvesters, at Christie’s HK Sept 2014, for HK$4.6mil.

Malaysia has yet to hit the RM1mil mark officially since Latiff Mohidin achieved a then-stellar performance of SG$57,500 for his Red Night at the Christie’s Singapore March 1994 auction. Latiff’s record of RM780,000 (hammer price) was set at the KLAS auction in April 2016, which also saw a new record by Awang Damit Ahmad of RM310,000 (hammer price). The Asian record for a watercolour is still held by Chang Fee Ming for his Mandalay (SG$103,700/ RM255,924) at Larasati Singapore in January 2013.

But the buzzword is the South-East Asian contemporary, like Ronald Ventura’s US$1.1mil for Grayground (Sotheby’s HK April 2016) and Nyoman Masriadi’s US$1mil (The Man From Bantul: Final Round)

Building (2007, 150 x 240cm, acrylic on canvas) by Milenko Prvacki (Singapore).

Other young artists gaining traction are Indonesia’s Rudi Mantofani, Ay Tjoe Christine, the Philippines’s New Painters (born in the 1970s): Ventura, Geraldine Javier, Jose Santos III, Andres Barrioquinto, Gary-Ross Pastrana, Alfredo Esquillo Jnr, apart from Rodel Tapaya, Romula Olazo and Danilo Dalena, while the Singapore Young Brigade include Ruben Pang, Ho Tzu Nyen and Jane Lee.

Whether it’s fashion, speculation or longterm investments, the South-East Asian market bears watching and could prove to be the most resilient.

Note: Equivalent rates in Ringgit Malaysia not given because of the wide disparity in fluctuations.

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