Pulse: April 2013 Art Auctions

Out of good fun, I tabulated prices from previous auctions and assessed a "true value" to each lot in the April auctions, taking into account factors like significance within an artist's oeuvre, and its aesthetic value. I came out of both auctions in a sombre mood, not because of my wrong estimates, but a deep distaste towards the spectacle these events manufacture, whose aim is to fulfil a gap within the luxury market. It is depressing to realise the underdeveloped state of art consciousness amongst Malaysians, which to many is just a beautiful painting hung on a wall. The prices in these auctions reflect this thought, where fine art is just a display object for the rich.

Going up: Ismail Mat Hussin - Trishaw Stand (2005)

Observant traders will delight in the 56% and 460% returns, for Latiff Mohidin and Abdullah Ariff works bought at Christie's just two years ago. A rising demand was apparent for the works of Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Chia Yu Chian, Ismail Mat Hussin, and Awang Damit Ahmad. The artists whose market value have been going up in previous auctions, but plateaued this April, are Yusof Ghani and Ahmad Khalid Yusoff. I do not yet understand the market for Chinese artists, where the likes of Lim Kim Hai, Eng Tay, and Huang Yao, consistently fetch over-the-top prices. We have some ways to go before abstract works from the younger generation, gain more attention and a larger market share.

Tak laku: Juhari Said - Menarik Kerbau (2005)

At Henry Butcher's, many left the room after the RM 340,000 sale of Latiff's "Gelombang" landscape, the last lot before "young contemporary" works.   Latif Maulan's realist marbles did well in his debut, but the proceeding lots drew hardly any attention from the crowd.  A lack of interest in cerebral works by Zulkifli Yusoff was a surprise, since he is collected by the Singapore Art Museum. Prints in general performed dismally - printmaking maestro Juhari Said and photographer Eric Peris both commanded low prices. My favourite work from the former auction,  Nadiah Bamadhaj's set of 8 photographic collages, did not even sell. This track record reinforces the perception that  local collectors prefer paintings with figurative realism and decorative abstracts, but also implies a lack of an authoritative art fund that collects significant works in the context of Malaysia's short art history. A bright spot is the sale of Ismail Mustam's 'Ribut' four times over the estimate, my favourite piece from the latter auction, and a significant museum-worthy work.

Overpriced?  Lee Cheng Yong - In The Woods (1950s)

Art auctions are executed as a marketing event targeted at the affluent, the arrangement of lots akin to a movie storyline with multiple climaxes.  73% of HB lots sold over the estimates, which suggests poor estimating, or more likely crafty estimations that force a bidding war for certain pieces.  The low estimates are applied mostly to the superstars like Latiff, Ibrahim Hussein, and Chang Fee Ming.  The rich tend to have a big ego, and the auction house does well to capitalise on this trait.  I understand the business agenda, but I do hope KLAS become more discerning in their selections, and HB improves its estimation methodology in the future, to at least help cultivate a professional attitude in our immature art market.

Grossly underestimated: Latiff Mohidin - Pago-Pago (1965)