New life for old masters?


Old can often mean Gold. In any case, there is glitter in the paintings of Malaysian old masters despite the global trend of money being poured into contemporary art.

Abdullah Ariff , “After the storm”, 1956, 38 x 56cm, watercolour.

At the first Henry Butcher (HB) Art Auction Malaysia, the profile of pioneer artists was given a big fillip with spirited bidding for their works. The Malaysian art-only auction held in Petaling Jaya on August 8, 2010, exceeded all expectations with total receipts of RM1.737mil.

For the pioneer artists, most of whom had their base, or at least their early beginnings, in Penang, it set bench-mark prices for their works of specific series and media.

Featured in the auction were works by pioneers Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1912–2008, better known as “Teng”), Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924–1995), Yong Mun Sen (1896–1962), Lee Cheng Yong (1913–1974), Khaw Sia (1913–1984) and Kuo Ju Ping (1908–1966). Only Ju Ping’s works did not sell, partly because of an ill-advised announcement during the bidding.

Four pioneer artists were among the top 10 grossers, including a Teng that was sold just after the auction proper, making a total of RM376,000.

Conspicuously absent from the first HB Auction were two notable pioneers, Abdullah Ariff (1904– 1960) and Datuk Tay Hooi Keat (1910–1989). Either their works were in short supply in the market or “oldmoney” collectors are reluctant to let them go yet.

Also not featured were pioneers such as Lee Kah Yeow (1901–1995), Huang Yao (1915–1988), O Don Peris (1893–1975), Datuk Reverend Zhumo (Chuk Mor, 1913– 2002), Tsai Horng Chong (1915–2003) and Ooi Hwa (1903–1993).

Most of our pioneer artists started being active during the halcyon 1920s–1930s, but it was only in the last three decades that they truly gained traction and market value, especially after the publication of the landmark book, Penang Artists — 1920–1990 (1990, reprint 1992), by collector/entrepreneur/ publisher-author/artist/psychiatrist Datuk Dr Tan Chee Khuan.

Chee Khuan has, through Th e Art Gallery Penang that he owns, sourced many old masters’ works and painstakingly documented them.

Of the auctioned pioneers, four – Ju Ping, Teng, Cheng Yong and Khaw Sia – came over to Malaya from their respective birthplaces in China to eventually sett le in Penang.

Except for Ju Ping, who was from the pioneer student batch at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore, the others had had early art education in China. Cheng Yong and Khaw Sia had their art tutelage at the Sin Hua Art Academy (later Shanghai Academy of Art) and Teng at the Amoy Art Institute (he did not complete).

Mun Sen, who was born in Kuching, Sarawak, was educated in China but was mainly self-taught. He returned to Kuching and after a brief working life in Singapore, made Penang his home.

Datuk Dr Tan at his gallery.

Hoessein, who hailed from Indonesia where he founded an art society that was to be the model of his Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (later Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia), worked briefly in Singapore and Penang before being lured by Frank Sullivan to Kuala Lumpur where he established his fame as a portrait artist in the Mooi Indie tradition of Indonesia’s Basuki Abdullah (1915–1993) and much earlier, Raden Saleh (1807/1811-1880).

Penang-born Abdullah and Tay had contrasting careers. Abdullah, a self-taught artist who was also a Penang executive councillor, is the only artist in the country to have a street named after him. Tay was the first Malaysian to be sent for art studies overseas (to Camberwell School of Art in England).

The artists featured in the “8 Pioneers of Malaysian Art” exhibition held at Art Salon@ SENI in Changkat Duta, Kuala Lumpur from September 25 to October 15, 2010 were Hoessein, Teng, Mun Sen, Abdullah, Khaw Sia, Tay, Cheng Yong and Ju Ping.

Back to the HB Auction. Out of the 15 old masters’ works on offer, Ju Ping’s was the biggest casualty. His two works were incomprehensibly unsold and could not muster enough support, while one oil painting each by Mun Sen (Three Friends) and Cheng Yong (Friends) also had to be bought in after failing to match reserved prices.

Three Mun Sens, all watercolours (A Bridge, A Horse Carriage Malacca and Singapore Waterfront), fetched a total of RM85,800 premium, averaging RM28,600 per painting. Two of the works were from Mun Sen’s widow, Yao Chew Mooi’s collection.

A Cheng Yong watercolour, Seated Model, went for a RM9,350 premium.

The two biggest “winners” at the inaugural auction were Hoessein and Teng.

Hoessein’s oil, Javanese Girl, regurgitated from a Christie’s Singapore March 1996 auction, fetched RM127,600 from its RM68,000 estimate while his Peasant Girl pastel work rallied to an RM44,000 premium (estimate: RM15,000). Hoessein is undoubtedly the most bankable based on the HB Auction results, but Chee Khuan is a bit chary that the prices could be sustained following the death of Hoessein’s wife in August.

“The family might want to sell off the remaining pieces in the family collection, and if they do, this would undoubtedly impact his (Hoessein’s) prices,” says Chee Khuan, who still has many museum-quality works of the artist known for his early Indonesian nationalism struggles.

As for Teng’s batik paintings, the buyers seemed to prefer the safe and iconic, as they chased his work of the eponymous theme, Mother With Children, up to RM114,400 (estimate: RM80,000). However, Teng’s unusual work of two cockerels and a hen, pegged at a RM90,000 estimate, was sold only after the auction, at the same price.

Says Chee Khuan, “Teng deserves to be collected in a big way. There are not many collectors of Malaysian old masters. My main buyers are from Singapore, and it will be a shame if our art treasures all head overseas. But I think there is now more interest in the old masters after the HB auction.”

Apart from collecting Hoessein’s works, Chee Khuan has amassed some 70 works of Cheng Yong, most of them directly from the family, besides a substantial holding of Khaw Sia and Ju Ping’s works.

He acknowledges that at least half of his collection is of old masters, despite having donated many such works to the Penang State Art Gallery.

In the old masters collecting game, mention must also be made of Dr Tan Chong Guan, known for his shrewd collection. His profile is notoriously low except when he exposed his fine collection of Teng when he curated the Chuah Thean Teng Retrospective at the Penang State Art Gallery in 1994.

He has been consistently buying paintings of old masters since his return from studies overseas in 1974, and is reputed to have one of the largest single individual collections of Tengs and Mun Sens. His only rival in the collection of Mun Sens is someone from Kedah who is reputed to have nearly 100 works.

Chong Guan had said that when he started collecting, there was little competition and the prices were reasonable. But what impressed him most was the high standard of the works of the old masters.

He is particularly bowled over by batik paintings and found Teng’s works nonpareil. He has the same high regard for Mun Sen’s watercolours, which he found “so different from the others.”

“I found their paintings irresistible and bought up what I could afford,” he says. He also has a fine collection of works by Tay, Khaw Sia and Cheng Yong.

Bafflingly, works of Mun Sen have never fared well in auctions overseas when compared to other Malaysian artists but the HB sale has jumpstarted interest in this icon who is also known to have been an art activist in both Malaysia and Singapore. However, it is still too early to tell for certain because the HB acquisitions were more of a family buyback or repossession.

Datuk Tay Hooi Keat, “Weld Quay, Penang”, 1968-80, 60 x 90 cm, oil on canvas.

Chee Khuan notes that the response for Khaw Sia’s works was encouraging although the range was limited only to his orchids. Khaw Sia is another pioneer with a colourful history, having been trained by Sir William Russell Flint (1880–1969) in London in 1937 and awarded the prestigious Le Salon Paris in 1956.

But he laments that Cheng Yong’s oil, which he described as “strong” was not sold. “Cheng Yong’s appeal seems to be limited to his watercolours.”

Khaw Sia fetched RM6,600 for one work, while his twin tablet-form orchids fetched RM13,200 and RM17,050 respectively.

Although dealing in old masters, Chee Khuan says there are some that he would not part with. They include two Mun Sens, Conversation (1939) and Ronggeng (1949); a Teng batik, Behind the Stage; Hoessein’s Kampung Girl (1971) and Morning Mist (1992); Cheng Yong’s Still Life with Fruits and Boating and Hooi Keat’s Weld Quay 1968–80 (1968– 80). All these images are featured in his book, Treasury of Malaysian and International Art (1999).

In recent years, Chee Khuan has reined in his collecting fervour (“What am I going to do with more than 2,000 artworks?” he would ask rhetorically). But he would splurge if works by Abdullah Ariff turn up. He has even sourced Abdullah from overseas auctions as well as from collectors in Charlotte, the US where Abdullah held two solo exhibitions in 1954.

Chee Khuan is unfazed that works of some contemporary artists have even outstripped those of the old masters in recent years, as is the global trend.

“The old masters will always be relevant. Without them, there will be no art today. Good art is often based on improving on what was done in the past,” he says.

“Works of old masters are still relatively under-priced, compared to the contemporary art. So, the potential for appreciation is high.”

But he qualifies his statement with the fact that property investments would be a relatively sure-fire bet in terms of price appreciation.

“But (then) I will not have the quality of life I have, enjoying my art collection and documenting them in my publications,” he says.

One bullfrog’s croak does not mean that it is mating season. It will take at least four or five more Malaysian art dedicated auctions for a more consistent picture and pattern to emerge. What the HB auction established is that there are collectors of old masters and that more would jump onto the bandwagon once their pedigree and history get better known.

The lack of documentation in the early years has been the greatest setback to the market of old masters despite their redoubtable quality.

Says Chong Guan, “Our old masters are excellent artists. But compared to their counterparts in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Taiwan, their works are undervalued.”

He, however, cautions and rues that “more and more poor works attributed to these master artists” have surfaced.

Authentication is difficult because of scarce records in the early days.

Chee Khuan puts it simply. “Since I invest so much of my money on the old masters, I make it a point to be familiar with their works; otherwise, I will end up with fakes. The lack of recognised authority and scholarship is a major setback to the collection of old masters, although I like to delude myself that I am somewhat of an authority. But I put my money where my mouth is.”

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

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