Will Malaysia’s bullish art market be bearing downwards?

loading Chang Fee Ming – What About Me?

Investing in masterpieces becomes popular in bad times, but fatigue may be setting in.

Will the Malaysian art (auction) market slouch in 2016? New artists’ records may have been set in 2015, but the market did end the year with a comparatively tepid Q4 closing.

The deceleration can be faulted on the GST and a weakening Ringgit (since August) buffeted by a protracted oil price slump. The Ringgit plummeted to a new low of RM4.37 to the USD on November 12, 2015.

Still, it was not a bad year.

Biddings were spirited in the 12 auctions of the four principal art auction hongs – Henry Butcher (HB), Kuala Lumpur Lifestyle Art Space (Klas), Masterpiece KL and The Edge Galerie.

The best performer was Klas, firing a battery of six auctions a year, which topped with the three highest grossers and creamed 11 slots among the Top 20 lots (Table 1)! The Edge and Masterpiece KL, which both started operations in 2013, have one and three auctions per year respectively.

HB, with two auctions a year, was the trailblazer making its debut in October 2010, but regionally, Masterpiece has been around since 2003 – in Jakarta and Singapore.

The auction houses have also side-winded into exhibition sales. But it was requiem for a fifth auction house, the Asian Ace Art Auctions, which died with its sole owner, artist-businessman-investment watchdog Datuk P.H.S. Lim, 75, who passed away a day after the auction’s disastrous debut on August 24.

Since art auctions started in earnest, prices of works by notable artists of various media and styles have congealed into fair estimates, though by no means into benchmarks. Sentiments at home were fuelled by the stratospheric prices shelled out in New York and London, the most recent being the US$170.4mil splurged by China billionaire Liu Yiqian for Modigliani’s Nude at Christie’s NY auction on November 9, 2015. To be sure, the market for Chinese contemporary art as a whole has gone slightly south.

The impetus also came from Singapore and mainly Hong Kong, with their sophisticated state-of-the-art arts infrastructure and array of mega international events. The two hubs are reconfiguring the Asian arts landscape.

While prices of Malaysian artworks in Singapore auctions such as 33, Larasati, Borobudur and Masterpiece have sobered, in Hong Kong – Sotheby’s and Christie’s – the opening of the Malaysian art front is generating higher prices.

With art being increasingly seen as an investment hedge apart from the prestige buff, the pool of collectors in Malaysia has expanded considerably, but the staying power of these newbies is in question. The youngest of the collectors, Joshua Tan, who is in his 20s, has switched from buyer to seller, setting up an art gallery-cum-frame shop in Petaling Jaya.

The “Big Boys” and the powerful Art Friends coterie have been holding on to their cheque books unless some gilt-edged, significant works came up for bidding. Once when an elite collector was on a short buying frenzy at auctions, he just kept raising his paddle without even deigning to look at opposing bids – that was the kind of conceit and quality on show! But on the regional scene, trans-border/cross-cultural collecting for Malaysian art has also not caught on yet.

While The Edge Galerie and HB’s Curate gallery have been running showcases of notable works in individual collectors, the top collectors have opened their own museum showcases – like Tun Daim Zainuddin’s Ilham Gallery and Zain Azahari.

Datuk Chua Thean Teng – Vanity.

Yet, the future of the market lies in the collective wealth of the 11 countries in South-East Asia, with a total population of 618 million! A few Malaysian collectors had even bought Western artworks at Art Basel Hong Kong, while another collector had the inside-track to auctions in New York and Hong Kong.

The home market is not only tempered by external factors. There are signs of “bidding” fatigue. There may have been too many auctions a year in a still fledgling art market of relatively limited buyers.

Top-notch works are also harder to come by, with collectors waiting for the next price frenzy or just feeling uninterested.

It’s no coincidence that no serious work of the iconic Datuk Ibrahim Hussein was among 2015’s top 50 grossers: his rich and loyal collectors are not looking for weekend pocket money. Ib, as the artist is popularly known, once regaled how someone who collected his works during the 1960s proudly told him sometime during the 1980s how the sale of a work about a year earlier had financed a world tour for his family of four. Ib replied that had he sold it then, when they met, his family would have gone around the world twice!

Where it used to be a two-horse race between Latiff Mohidin and Ib, the Six-Digit (ringgit) Club is no longer as exclusive, the 2015 “inductee” being Chia Yu-chian (RM156,800).

The year 2015 also saw the phenomenal rise of Awang Damit Ahmad (ADA), whose prices have escalated since scoring HK$600,000 (RM327,027) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 6, 2014, for his Garis Mega. In 2015, ADA hit the six-digit sales mark four times, with the highest being RM235,200 in Masterpiece (March).

Over the years, several artists have also sold in the six digits (ringgit): Yusof Ghani, Chang Fee Ming, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Khalil Ibrahim, Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, Khaw Sia, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Yong Mun Sen, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Datuk Hoessein Enas and Yee I-Lann (HK Christie’s, May 2008). For Yusof Ghani, Chang Fee Ming (Larasati Singapore, S$103,700 or RM255,924 for Mandalay, January 26, 2013) and Khaw Sia (Masterpiece, RM220,000, October 2013), the first digit is no longer “1”.

Yusof lists No. 3 in the 2015 auction chart with a new record of RM313,600 paid for, surprise, a Biring (series) – most had expected his Tari Series – in January at Klas! Yusof had also six other works breaching the RM100,000 mark, compared to ADA, in ninth placing with RM235,200, with only three other works in the six digits.

There were fewer lots with estimations upwards of RM100,000 in the second half of last year. The auction houses’ gambit was to go for saleability and quantity, with many more “new” artists being tested out. In terms of numbers, Masterpiece had even hit a marathon of 227 lots.

The year belonged to Latiff Mohidin, who snared five rungs out of the 10 top grossers. But the Malaysian auction record, of RM797,500, for Red, Orange and Core (1984) at HB in May 2012 is still held by Ib, who is also the only “Million Ringgit Man” (in private sale).

Abdul Latiff Mohiddin – Shiraz III.

Latiff’s top five were Rimba Landscape (RM601,800, Klas), Shiraz III (RM283,200,HB), Gelombang (RM275,000, HB), Rimba Green Landscape (RM268,800, HB) and Rimba Blue Landscape (RM257,600, Klas).

Several artists also saw upward momentum in their prices: Chong Siew Ying (RM72,800), Zulkifli Yusof (RM62,750; Klas), Ismail Mat Hussin (RM69,440; Klas), Cheong Lai-tong (RM61,600), Cheng Haw Chien (RM33,600), Lim Khoon Hock “Toya” (RM39,600), Ali Rahamad (RM33,000), Antonie Chong (RM20,160), Hoe Say Yong (RM47,040), Suzlee Ibrahim (RM33,600), Ng Bee (RM17,920), Raduan Man (RM16,800), Datuk Tajuddin Ismail (RM51,920) and Khoo Sui-hoe (RM78,400).

Pioneer artists from Penang, the cradle of Malaysian art, have continued a steady price increase from last year, with Khaw Sia fetching RM100,800 and Lee Cheng Yong, RM80,640. Khaw Sia’s record is RM220,000, set at the Masterpiece October 2013 auction.

Some lots from Larasati were also sold under the HB banner.

An interesting watch was the gradual price rise of ailing Dutch-born Balibased artist Arie Smit (b. 1916) from RM11,200 to RM44,800 (Masterpiece3). Four other Indonesian artists doing well were Srihadi Soedarsono (RM313,600), Affandi (RM302,400), Hendra Gunawan (RM190,400) and Widayat (RM112,000).

More galleries like Wei Ling Galleries, Chandan and G13 are pushing Malaysian art overseas.

Apart from art auctions, several other main drivers in the art industry were the International Art Expo Malaysia (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year as the longest-running uninterrupted fair in South-East Asia), the 1MCAT (1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism) festival since 2010, Sasaran Art Festival and the George Town Festival (since 2010) while the KL Biennale slated for 2017 will pitchfork KL into the global network of contemporary art practices.

Notable local artists who died in 2015: Hamidah Suhaimi (b. 1935), Patrick Lazak (b. 1962), Ismail Mat Hussin (b. 1938), Roslan Ahmad (b. 1963), Patrick H.S. Lim (b. 1939) and Yuen Chee Ling (b. 1950).

Notable foreign artists who died in 2015: Charlie Hebdo cartoonists – Charb, Cabu, Philippe Honore, Tignous and Georges Wolinski (France); Chung Kyung-ja (b. 1924, South Korea), Ernst Fuchs (b. 1930, Austria), Judy Cassab (b. 1920, Australia), Sally Cabori (b. 1924, Australia), Bruce Mozert (b. 1916, US), Shamshad Hussain (b. 1946, son of M.F. Hussain, India), Hema Upadhyay (b. 1972, India) and Shigeru Mizuki (b. 1922, Japan, manga).

Ooi Kok Chuen has written 88 books and catalogues on art. He is a recipient of the Australian Cultural Award 1991 and Goethe-Institut Fellowship 1989, and a twotime National Art Gallery Art-Writer of the Year (2003, 2008).

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