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Auction Fever Grips Southeast Asia (By Jack Teotico -Monday, March 31, 2008)


Monday, March 31, 2008
By Jack Teotico
Auction fever grips Southeast Asia 
AT first there were just two. Two auction houses in Southeast Asia, that is: Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
Sotheby’s, which has been in existence since 1744, is probably the oldest auction house in the world. It first came to Asia in 1973 when it mounted a highly successful auction in Hong Kong. This event helped open up Asian art to a global market. In 1985, Sotheby’s formally opened an office in Singapore where for the next 22 years it hosted a bi-annual auction of Southeast Asian art, until recently held every April and October.
Christie’s, founded by James Christie in 1766, decided to do their auctions in Hong Kong. Although they preview artworks in Singapore, Christie’s auctions are usually held in May and in November in Hong Kong.
Two other auction houses, relatively new players, also hold auctions in Singapore-Borobudur and Larasati. Larasati was established in Indonesia in April of 2000. By 2004, it had expanded with auctions held twice a year in Singapore.
Borobudur, only four years old, also started its auctions in Indonesia and before expanding to Singapore three years ago. Led by shipping magnate John Andreas, its growth has been phenomenal. Last January 14, Time Magazine’s Neel Chowdhury noted that Borobudur’s October 2007 auction held in Singapore for contemporary and modern Southeast Asian art generated $6.89 million—only $200,000 lower than Sotheby’s for the same category. Big changes for 2008
All of these are indicate a healthy market for Southeast Asian art. However, for 2008, there are important changes.
Sotheby’s has decided to move its venue for Southeast Asian art to Hong Kong. Both houses continue to maintain offices and hold previews in Singapore. But from now on, both auction giants will be consolidating sales of Southeast Asian contemporary and modern art in Hong Kong.
Perhaps the reason behind this is that Hong Kong has, thanks to the large sales volume of Chinese paintings, become the all-important venue. But it is not because there is a dearth of collectors in Singapore. According to Quek Chin Yeow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, the reason for the move is because it “fits our corporate strategy more.”
Indonesia-based auction houses view Sotheby’s move to Hong Kong as a welcome business opportunity. And a new Indonesian auction house has entered the market: Masterpiece. Originally based in Indonesia, where it hosts 12 auctions a year, Masterpiece has recently joined the trek to Singapore, holding its first auction there on March 2. Auctioned off were over 418 lots of Southeast Asian and Chinese art. Including buyers’ premiums, it generated total sales of Singaporean $10,668,146.
The next scheduled auction in Singapore: Larasati on April 13 at the Raffles Hotel and Borobudur on May 18 at the Suntec Trade Hall.
What used to sell at auctions
Until recently, at auctions of Southeast Asian art, what sold well were pieces by Indo-European, Indonesian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Malaysian and Thai artists. Indo-European artists are painters of European origin who lived or visited Indonesia during the time of the Dutch colonial period.
If the Philippines were under the Spaniards for several hundred years, the Indonesians had the Dutch as their colonizers. For the Indonesian section, what was popular were paintings by masters such as Affandi, Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan, the Chinese-born Lee Man Fong, Widayat and Sudjana Kerton.
Although most of the revenues for Southeast Asian art generally came from Indo-European and Indonesian paintings, Filipino masters also found their niche in the auction markets. Works by masters such as Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo found their way to the auction, although the most consistent in terms of presence and success were works by National Artist Fernando Cueto Amorsolo. Other National Artists and masters such as Jose Joya, Manansala, Ocampo, Bencab, Arturo Luz, J. Elizalde Navarro and Ang Kiukok were likewise selected and included at auction together with the works of Presidential Medal of Merit awardees Anita Magsaysay Ho, Fernando Zobel, Nena Saguil, Romeo Tabuena and Juvenal Sanso.
On its 20th anniversary in Southeast Asia, Sotheby’s stated in an article about Southeast Asian art: “The Filipino painting has been able to create a stimulating and original balance between traditional themes and new ideas. Colorful, passionate and ostentatious, Filipino painting encompasses the totality of the contemporary experience in the country, from low to high culture.”
Vietnamese painting was in recent years quite actively in demand, particularly works from masters such as Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam, Mai Trung Thu and Le Thu Thu. From Singapore and Malaysia, works from artists such as Cheng Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang and Parisian born Georgette Cheng were the most predominant ones.
All seemed to be going well for the works by masters from different Southeast Asian countries. That is, until a few years ago, when the auction houses saw it fit to include a new category in their activities. This was what they titled “New Contemporary Art.” From that time on, things have never been the same at the auctions.
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