Top 12 earners at art auctions

We may not always like to judge paintings by looking at price tags, but the truth is, what connoisseurs are willing to pay does matter, not least to the reputation of the artist. Penang Monthly lists the recent top earners.

Chuah Thean Teng, Lullaby (batik, 90cm x 90cm, c.1970s-1980s).

Once, the honour of top grosser in Malaysian art in auctions was a toss-up between Datuk Ibrahim Hussein and Latiff Mohidin. Three deceased Datuks – Chuah Thean Teng, Syed Ahmad Jamal and Hoessein Enas – consistently breached RM100,000 and above in premium sales, but not often enough to challenge either Ibrahim or Latiff for the Number One spot.

The floodgates have since been thrown wide open with Yusof Ghani, Chang Fee Ming, Khalil Ibrahim, Eng Tay (RM137,500, Kuala Lumpur Lifestyle or KLAS, July 2013), Yeoh Jin Leng (RM154,000, KLAS, September 2012) and Rome-based H.H. Lim (RM121,000, Henry Butcher or HB, November 2013). The only others to hit the top bracket were the Singaporean pioneers, the Indonesian founding fathers and the European artist sojourners of Bali.

Since the HB inaugural auction 2010, KLAS, Masterpiece and the closed/byinvitation- only The Edge Auction have joined the bandwagon. Benchmarks were set for works in terms of series, medium and size, but the price structure is by no means representative or reflective as some “counters” could experience sudden undue activity. Besides expanding the dragnet beyond Malaysian and Asean shores, the auction houses pitched some lesser-knowns or even unknowns, and go for saleability rather than celebrity.

Yusof Ghani, Siri Tari IV (oil on canvas, 122cm x 183cm,1991).

The Big Three – HB, KLAS and Masterpiece – have reeled off some 14 editions, excluding HB’s 11th-hour cancelled single-consigner auction. From these, I have made a selection of the top 12 Hotshot Malaysian artists based on the prices they consistently fetched and the incremental value, the frequency of sales and the quality of the works. This year, KLAS and Masterpiece have already started with auctions in January and March respectively, while KLAS is scheduling another on April 6. HB’s is on April 13 while The Edge advertised its own for May.

This list (all in premium figures) does not take into account two auctions, namely The Edge Auction (because it is not an open public auction) and last year’s Haiyan charity fundraiser. In the Ibrahim-Latiff rivalry, the score line stands at 7-4 in favour of Ibrahim who has three HBs, two KLASs and two Masterpieces; while Latiff topped two HBs and two KLASs.

And the top 12 are:

1. Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (1936-2009) The most iconic, Ibrahim holds the all-time Malaysian auction record with RM797,500 paid for Red, Orange and Core in HB, October 2012. The other high points were RM781,000 (KLAS, April 2013) and RM594,000 (Masterpiece, October 2013).

Ahmad Zakii, Anwar-Kebyar (acrylic on canvas, 120cm x 90cm each panel, diptych 120cm x 180cm, 1997).

2. Latiff Mohidin (b. 1938, official 1941) A titan in paint and print (poetry), Latiff is best known for his strange amalgam of mythical monuments and natural heritage in the 1960s dubbed Pago-Pago. A 1968 Pago-Pago work pegged Latiff’s then record at RM572,000 (HB, 2011) and RM50,600 for paperwork (HB, April 2013, but all his Serangga works on Tibetan paper in last year’s Bank Negara solo were already twice that price apiece). Latiff’s record stands at RM715,000 for Rimba (1995), KLAS, December 2012, and RM605,000 for Samarkhand III (1994), HB, October 2012. Tao Landscape, freshly bought from a Hong Kong auction, sold for RM418,000 in KLAS.

3. Khalil Ibrahim (b. 1934) Khalil, a fulltime artist since 1966, broke into the six-figure price range with his batik works at RM132,000 (KLAS, January 2014) and RM100,000 (KLAS, September 2013). His best for a canvas painting was RM57,800 (HB, 2011), a good buy for Destruction from his London days. A southpaw, he is using more of his right hand to paint nowadays after suffering from a stroke two years ago.

4. Chang Fee Ming (b. 1959) The only South-East Asian artist who can command six-digits for a watercolour, Chang has gone into a stratosphere of his own when his iconic Mandalay (1999) sold for S$103,700 (then RM255,924) at Larasati Singapore in January 2013. It was a banner year in 2013 for him, with his Monsoon Has Gone (HB, November 2013) and At Dusk… Nanyang (HB, April 2013) toting up RM209,000 and RM198,000 respectively.

No other great water-colourist could match him, even selling at higher-priced Hong Kong auctions. These included pioneers Abdullah Ariff (1904-1962, RM83,964), Yong Mun Sen (1896-1962, RM39,708), Singaporean pioneer Lim Cheng Hoe (1912-1979, RM53,000) and the legendary Tan Choon Ghee (1930- 2010, RM26,472). Malaysian auction records were only RM46,200 (Abdullah), RM35,200 (Yong) and RM24,200 (Tan).

Awang Damit Ahmad, Iraga Halaman Yang Hilang (mixed media on canvas, 94cm x 91cm, 2006).

5. Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008) Teng, as he is popularly known, led the charge of batik-art and is the acknowledged founder and doyen of the genre, commanding six figures for his works extolling old values and simple rural life. His record was RM176,000 (HB, October 2012) while Masterpiece (October 2013) mustered RM165,000 for his work, Making Ketupat.

6. Ahmad Zakii Anwar (b. 1955) Zakii had his biggest break with his Smoking Man and has become known for his dark, social commentaries on life on the fringe. His highest among the three auctions was RM99,000 for Blue Kebyar(HB, May 2012). In the March 2014 auction, Masterpiece resold his Balinese Twins (RM55,000, HB, April 2013) for RM66,000.

7. Jalaini Abu Hassan (b. 1963) A respected academician with a double Masters, Jai has created an opus with evocative paeans of Malay folklore and culture with autobiographical references. His highest was for RM74,800 (HB, April 2013).

8. Khoo Sui Hoe (b. 1939) Accorded a Retrospective by the Penang State Art Gallery in 2007, Khoo has been a pioneering fulltime artist ever since he graduated from Nanyang Academy of Art in Singapore in 1961. Based between the US and Penang, he is a perennial favourite, forging from RM28,600 in the inaugural HB auction in 2010 to a peak of RM93,500 (HB, November 2013). In April 2013, he scored RM37,400 twice in HB and KLAS.

By Hoessein Enas.

9. Ismail Mat Hussin (b.1938) Ismail, one of the early batik-artists, experienced a great revival in his career with his pristine condition batik paintings, now commanding RM44,000 (KLAS, April 2013) and RM39,600 (Masterpiece, March 2014). The highest paid for his oil was RM33,000 and RM9,900 for his watercolour. Ismail is recovering from major surgery.

10. Dzulkifli Buyong (1948-2004) Self-taught Dzulkifli, who made his mark with the Wednesday Art Group, was infectiously charming, with his childlike humour of children at play or being exposed to fear and danger. His highest price was RM93,500 for his Tidurlah Anakku (HB, May 2012), while the record with Masterpiece (March 2014) was RM88,000.

11. Chia Yu Chian (1936-1991) Pipe-smoking Chia was the epitome Parisian artist with his Fauvist strokes and colours. After hitting a high of RM77,000 (HB, October 2012), his works have barely sold for half that amount.

12. Yusof Ghani (b. 1950) After two false starts, Yusof is like a runaway train with his prices spiralling up to a peak of RM209,000 (KLAS, December 2012). His two Siri Tari series are hotly pursued – RM176,000 (KLAS, January 2014) and RM93,500 each (HB, May 2012, and HB, April 2013).

By Chuah Thean Teng.

Both Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924-1995) and Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929- 2011) have also seen spirited bidding. Hoessein’s highest was RM198,000 paid for his Morning Mist V (HB, 2011), while Syed Ahmad Jamal peaked with RM187,000 for Gunung Ledang (HB, May 2011).

Among the other deceased artists, the high points are RM44,000 (HB, May 2012) for Ahmad Khalid Yusof (1934- 1977), RM77,000 (HB, November 2013) for Tew Nai Tong (1936-2013) and RM79,200 (HB, May 2013) for the great Huang “Niu Bizi” Yao (1917-1987).

Unheralded Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (b. 1948) is one who enjoys consistent sales with her modestly priced works, with the highest being RM48,400 (HB, 2010), while Awang Damit Ahmad (b. 1956) has steadily risen to RM39,600 (KLAS, January 2014) and RM33,000 (Masterpiece, March 2014). Also consistent is Jolly Koh, with his highest being RM52,800 (KLAS, September 2013).

Of the Matahati pioneering art cooperative, Bayu Utomo Radjikin leads the pack with RM60,500, followed by Hamir Soib @ Mohamed with RM57,200, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed with RM33,000 and Ahmad Fuad Osman with RM30,800. All were born in 1969.

The Penang pioneers have also picked up in value of late, with Sir Russel Flinttrained Khaw Sia (1913-1984) making a phenomenal leap to RM220,000 (Masterpiece, October 2013). The others were RM49,500 for Lee Cheng Yong (1913-1974) and RM30,800 for Kuo Ju Ping (1908-1966).

In photography, Ismail Hashim (1940- 2013) still holds the record of RM24,200 (HB, May 2012).

Other more popular artists included Chuah Seow Keng (RM52,800), Chong Siew Ying (RM44,000), Raphael Scott Ahbeng (RM25,300), Zulkifli Yusoff (RM14,300), Suzlee Ibrahim (RM46,200) and Datuk Tay Mo-Leong RM28,000).

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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