Art auctions are the new stock market

loading Haslin Ismail - The Very Extraordinary Voyage (2010-2011), mixed media collage on canvas (305cm x 305cm).

The selling of art works through auctions has been lucrative lately. This is encouraging a clear increase in events where famous and not-so-famous artists, and collectors of course, can make fortunes. Malaysia still needs to build up its infrastructure in this business though.

This is a banner year for art auctions in Malaysia, with a grand total of four held so far. For a country comparatively short on art history and with a long way to go in terms of infrastructure, this is an eyebrow raiser.

On May 6, the Henry Butcher Malaysian Art Auction, the third in as many years, shattered all records with a premium of RM4,007,300. It achieved an unprecedented 100% success for the 86 lots!

So, on the back of this stunning success, the Henry Butcher Auctioneers (HBA) decided to add a “fall” auction, scheduling it for October 28 at the Sime Darby Convention Centre, with a total of 91 works up for grabs.

Besides, the auctioneers find themselves deluged with an avalanche of works clamouring for inclusion each time they open the book.

Also, in between the two “main” auctions, HBA initiated The Young Contempo Auction (TYCA). It was one to promote some of the best emerging artists Malaysia has to offer, but with a difference: all proceeds from the sale of works will go to a special fund to help fledgling artists. The mechanism for this has yet to be revealed.

In its debut auction, the HBA chalked a total premium of RM1,737,910 from sales of 51 out of a total of 62 works. In 2011, the takings raced up to a whopping RM3,173,710, in which 98 out of 104 works were sold.

In all three rounds, the battle for the top plum turned out to be a shootout between two of Malaysia’s greatest artists – the iconic Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (1936-2009) and poet-artist-sculptor Latiff Mohidin. The score up to now is Ibrahim 2, Latiff 1.

Ib, as Datuk Ibrahim is better known, drew first blood when his painting, The Dream, bagged RM500,500 premium to top the 2010 auction. The next year, Latiff struck back with a vengeance when his Pago-Pago Forms set a new record of RM572,000. In May this year, Ib came back with a bang when his Red, Orange and Core romped home with a premium of RM797,500.

So who will take the numero uno spot in the October 28 auction? Will the “crown” go to one of the two anointed challengers, or will a new contender sneak up from behind and claim the mantle for the priciest work?

The equations could change with the entry of a new player, the KL Lifestyle Art Space, which staged the Malaysian & Indonesian Contemporary Art Auction (Micaa), purportedly opening a new flank for the trading of Indonesian art.

Micaa was held at KL Sheraton Imperial on September 30, 2012. While the usual suspects of local artists were represented, the auction also paraded works by Yeoh Jin Leng, Long Thien Shih, Ismail Latiff and the sculptor Multhalib Musa.

Micaa’s trumpcards were Ib’s Fighting Cockerel (1971) and Datuk Hoessein Enas’s Zoebaidah (1958). On the Indonesian side, it had Lee Man Fong (1913-1988), S. Soedjojono (1914-1986), Srihadi Soedarsono (b. 1931), Sunaryo (b. 1943) and the Dutch Indies sojourner Willem Djoijewaard (1892-1980).

It also paraded Khaw Sia, Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chia Yu Chian.

TYCA, one of the highlights of the 6th Art Expo Malaysia (AEM6), was staged at the Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre on September 29. The AEM6 itself was held on September 27-30 – pushed forward from its late October-early November fixture to coincide with the three-month 1MCAT (Malaysian Contemporary Art Tourism) Festival.

Works by 40 emerging artists were put on the TYCA auction block. Apart from its charity motive, it was also a strategic market test to gauge the buying trend and power exclusively for contemporary art. Some of the artists featured were already creating a big buzz in the art scene.

These included names such as Roslisham “Ise” Ismail a.k.a. the “Robot Man”, Haslin Ismail, Ali Nurazamal, Gan Chin Lee, Khairul “Meme” Azmir Shoib, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, Siund Tan, Stephen Menon, Wong Chee Meng, Ali Nurazamal, Latiff Maulan, C.K. Koh, Tang Yeok Khang, Zuraimi Rahim, Najib Ahmad Bamadhaj and Mior Rizzuan Rosli.

Haslin was the winner of the Grand Prize for the In-Print: Contemporary British Art from the Paragon Press in 2006 and the Young Contemporary Award in 2010, while Meme won the Young Contemporaries’ Juror’s Award in 2004 and the Incentive Award by the Shah Alam Gallery in 1999.

Gan was one of the five winners of the first Malaysian Emerging Artists (MEA) Award in 2009; this biennial award was later won by Siund Tan in 2011.

The good thing is that the starting low estimates are all below RM10,000.

In the auction business, not all works submitted for consignment are accepted. There is always the authentication and vetting process and condition report to be done, apart from other factors such as the price asked for, if it is too astronomically absurd.

Also, unless the works are put up by the original artists themselves, the artists don’t get any money or even a percentage from the sales, with the entire proceeds after deducting commissions and other miscellaneous expenses going to the seller, whether an individual or a corporation.

With the sweet “smell” of money after the success of the 2010 inaugural auction, fakes or works of spurious quality purportedly by top-selling artists have also emerged; and so, the appraisals have to be more stringent.

In the HBA October auction, there are two major works by Ib pitted against two by Latiff. Ib’s double are both called Untitled (one in 1973 and the other in 2001), while the top two Latiffs are New Landscape (1991) and Samarkhand 3 (1994).

The robust prices for works by Latiff have seen more and more of his works coming out from long-time collectors, and for this auction, Latiff has a total of six works, against Ib’s three.

Whether any of them can breach the May 6 record is moot, but giving the two a run for their money will be the two late Datuks – Hoessein Enas’s Morning Mist IV and Chuah Thean Teng’s Bathing Baby. Hoessein’s record was RM198,000 for a Morning Mist work, while Teng’s highest was RM170,500 for the circa 1980s batik, Feeding Durians. Both personal records were set in the 2011 auction.

Also expected to be in the top range of prices is Chang Fee Ming’s Awaiting, the only one among five pieces that are still in the country, the others having been taken out by institutional and individual buyers from Singapore and Germany.

Making their debut in the October auction are works by Wong Hoy Cheong, Joseph Tan Chan Jin (1941-2001), J. Anurendra, Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib, Kelvin Chap Kok Leong, sculptor Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin, Soraya Yusof Talismail, Yeong Seak Ling and Sivarajah Natarajan.

While the auction market is very much a novelty still in Kuala Lumpur, it is not so across the causeway in Singapore, which once had a surfeit of auction houses. But the two major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have packed up their operations in Singapore to concentrate their regional interests in Hong Kong. Christie’s went in 2002, followed by Sotheby’s in 2008.

Apart from these, there were also Bonhams-Glerum and Raffles but now only Larasati, Borobudur and Ziani remain. As the new kid on the block when it debuted in 2009, Ziani splashed out iPhones and Blackberries as lucky draw prizes! In January 2012, a charity art auction was held at the Sovereign Asian Art Prize gala dinner in Singapore.

But Malaysia is no stranger to art auctions, having flirted with such trading informally. The first notable one was that of the collection of Australian-Singaporean-Malaysian Frank Sullivan (1909-1989), to help finance his passage back to Australia, never to return. It was held on May 20, 1978, with 313 museum-quality works up for grabs.

Since then, the other auctions were also one-off affairs – the Singapore-based AFA auction of art and Chinese jadeite jewellery in 1994 and the Metropolitan Fine Art Auction in 1995, organised by the artist-academician Cheng Haw Chien.

Will this new wave of art auction mania hold, especially when Malaysia boasts of a much, much greater pool of artists over the generations to choose from, as compared to Singapore, whose art infrastructure and operations are more sophisticated?

While art auctions may look crassly commercial in terms of the ringgit power, the reality is it boils down to the quality and significance of the works.

Take the 2010 inaugural Henry Butcher auction. The work, The Dream, was from Ib’s vintage 1969-1970 period, and had been out of the country since 1972 following the Dutch diplomat owner all over until it was brought back to Malaysian shores. Similarly for Latiff’s Pago-Pago Forms (1968), which was bought in Bangkok, Thailand, and ended up in an auction in New York before a Malaysian bought it back.

It is also a fallacy that works put up at auctions fetch astronomical prices or at least register sales in its optimum region. Among the good buys so far were a rare watercolour of a rubbish dump by Cheong Soo-Pieng and a rare monochrome by Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Salleh called Dua Bersaudara. Some of the works by the pioneer Yong Mun Sen (1896-1962) were from the celebrated Yao Chew Mooi (Mun Sen’s widow) collection (altogether 148 works) which had been appraised by London’s Spink and Son, which for whatever it is worth, had given the works a “royal” cachet of approval.

In 2010, a special section was devoted to watercolourist legend Tan Choon Ghee (1930-2010) where 10 of his works were put for auction, and when Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal died in 2011, the May 2012 auction was devoted to him in a similar tribute, although his Malam Marang work which topped RM170,500 fell short of his record for the 1985 Cherryvale, which fetched RM187,000 in 2011.

The Henry Butcher auction has helped consolidate the market particularly for pioneer artists as well as set the price benchmarks for their various-media works. In the May Henry Butcher 2012 auction, there were 16 newcomers while a total of 20 new auction records were set for the respective artists.

Apart from Ib, Latiff, Hoessein and Teng, the only other two artists in the Six-Digit-Ringgit Club were Chang Fee Ming (RM132,000 for the work Rezeki) and Lim Kim Hai (RM120,000 for the work Gentle Breeze). But the most phenomenal debut was Huang Yao’s (1917-1987) when both his works in the May 2012 auction jumped 1,220% from their low estimate prices.

How the Malaysian art auction market will play out, whether it can sustain and whether there is still room for new players, will be closely watched. Certainly, the global financial uncertainty has made Art to be seen not only as a safe haven for money, but also a credible and creditable prime investment.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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