Ibrahim Hussein’s Man with Possessions, 1964. Oil on canvas (122 x 122cm).
WHO IS THE No. 1 Artist in Malaysia?
Going by the market record of prices alone, gleaned from four major Malaysian auction houses in 11 years, the competition has been reduced to a battle royale between Latiff Mohidin (b. 1938, officially 1941) and Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (1936-2009). In the Top 10 grossers of Malaysian artists, Ib, as Ibrahim Hussein is popularly known, leads with six lots against Latiff’s four, five if you consider a tie at No. 10 by two Latiff lots at RM572,000 each.
In the Top 100 price-toppers, Latiff amassed a total of RM10,279,788 from 27 lots, while Ib toted up a total of RM9,538,468 from 23 lots. This works up to a difference of RM741,320. But Ib averages RM414,716 per lot, while each Latiff work averages RM380,732.88.
Ib tops the list with RM918,400 for Calama Desert (1991) sold at the August 23, 2020 Henry Butcher Auction, whereas Latiff is at No. 2 with Rimba Puntung (1996), with RM879,216 sold at the Kuala Lumpur Lifestyle Art Space (KLAS) April 24, 2016 auction.
The tabulation includes the KLAS’ 41st auction on September 6, 2020. The surveyed auction houses are Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers (HBAA), KLAS, Masterpiece (KL) and The Edge. A total of 161 Malaysian lots have sold at RM100,000 and upwards.
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HBAA started the ball rolling with its inaugural gambit on August 8, 2010, while KLAS debuted on September 30, 2012, and since 2016, has run six auctions a year except in 2019 and 2020 (only four each). Masterpiece started on June 9, 2013 with varying frequency annually, while The Edge Auction lasted yearly from 2014 (May 10) until 2019 (March 17). HBAA, KLAS and The Edge are the only bona fide players that post results of the auctions on their websites.
Comparison between or among artists of top prices drawn is by no means a fair assessment, as other qualities such as educational background, awards, reputable exhibitions especially international ones, and quality and diversity of works count too.
Art history is replete with sagas of intense rivalry: Pablo Picasso vs Henri Matisse; John Constable vs Joseph MW Turner; Michelangelo vs Leonardo da Vinci (who, according to Vasari, disliked each other); Delacroix vs Ingres; Velasquez vs Manet; Monet vs Degas; Carl Larsson vs Andres Zorn (Sweden). In Singapore pioneers Cheong Soo-pieng and Chen Wen-hsi stoke a lively debate.
So dominant is the Ib-Latiff stranglehold on auctions, that Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929-2011) only manages to squeeze in at No. 14, with his Nur Tenaga (RM490,332), while timing in at No. 15 and No. 25 too.
Yeoh Jin Leng’s Landscape, 1984. Acrylic on canvas (99 x 86cm)..
Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Ronggeng, October 28, 2018.
Ahmad Shukri Mohamed’s Warning! Tapir Crossing, 2007. Mixed media on canvas (152 x 890cm).
Chuah Thean Teng’s Mothers and Children, undated. Batik (85.5 x 87.5cm).
Only three others broke the monopoly in the Top 50 grossers. Awang Damit Ahmad, at No. 30, with his incipient Essence of Culture no less, at RM365,800; while Yusof Ghani grabs the 33rd spot, with RM313,600, NOT with his extremely popular Tari series (two tranches) but his more violent Biring series. At No. 48 is a surprise, the German-trained Noor Mahnun Mohd, whose Am Abend sparked a titanic test of attrition and ego between two top collectors before ending at a premium of RM235,200.
Two pioneers, Khaw Sia (1913-1984) and Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924-1995), took the No. 51 and joint 59th spots with their Offering Preparation In Bali (RM220,000) and Morning Mist 5 (RM198,000) respectively. Chan Kok Hooi, a Bakat Muda Sezaman Minor Award winner, comes in at No. 74, with his Old Photo Series: MSN Messenger, which garnered RM169,000.
Surprisingly, two auction darlings, Khalil Ibrahim (1934- 2018) and “Father of Batik Painting” Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008), could not make it even to the Top 50, with Khalil bracketed at No. 79, with his Untitled (1975) acrylic, a large 140cm x 179cm, at RM165,200; and Teng’s Making Ketupat (1987) corralling RM165,000, for No. 80.
Paris-trained Chia Yu-chian (1936-1991), another auction darling, sits at No. 86 with a large work, Waterfall (1983), at RM156,800; while nonagenarian Yeoh Jin Leng, a Renaissance Man, is at No. 89, with his Landscape (1984), with RM154,000.
At joint 93rd are Khoo Sui-hoe and Dr. Jolly Koh. Suihoe’s One Fine Day (1967/2014), from the same batch as his magnum opus, Children of the Sun, now in the Singapore museum collection, toted RM145,600; while Jolly Koh’s The Red Dreaming made RM145,600 in 2014 but was resold two years later at the same auction at RM110,465.60. At No. 95 is Ahmad Zakii Anwar, with his Legong 6 (1998) at RM143,000; and No. 97 is the New York-based Eng Tay with his 2006 oil on canvas, Companions, sold for RM137,500 but resold in the same auction five years later, for RM130,000.
Chang Fee Ming’s At Dust… Nanyang, 2012. Watercolour on paper (55.5 x 75cm).
So, there you are, the Roll of Honour for the all-time Top 100 Malaysian lots.
At the No. 101 spot is Dzulkifli Buyong (1948-2004) with his Kucing Sakit (1986), at RM134,400; while the joint 112th spot sees a three-way tie at RM123,200, with pioneer Yong Mun Sen (1896-1962, Boats Through The Nets), Zulkifli Yusoff (Martial Art Training, 1997) and Matahati stalwart Ahmad Fuad Osman (Imitating The Woods, 2004).
Rome-based H.H. Lim zooms in at No. 120 with his Flying Image In Blue Project (2011) with RM121,000; while Frenchtrained “Apple King” Lim Kim Hai is at No. 123, with Gentle Breeze for RM120,000; and another Matahati stalwart, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, at joint 138th, with Warning: Tapir Crossing (2007) with RM110,000. Chuah Seow Keng, a scion of batik pioneer Teng, comes in at No. 145, with Vendors In a Kampung Market (2003-2006), which garnered RM104,500, and on joint 151st is Eng Hwee Chu with her Magic Realism Black Moon II (1991), at RM100,800.
HBAA’s best performance is the May 2012 edition, which collected a total of RM4,007,300, that represented 99.4% sold by value and 99.8% sold by lot. KLAS’ inaugural auction on September 30, 2012 bagged RM2.76mil, with 87% of the 118 lots sold. Over the years, HBAA has sold some 2,400 works for a total of more than RM55mil, with 90% of the winning bids being Malaysian artists.
Over time, the reputable auction houses will be a fair barometer of the prices of artists for their varied series of works in various media.
Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.