An Op-ed on KL’s 2013 Monsoon Cycle of Art Auctions 2013 (Pt. 2 of 2)

Note: An attempt to write an op-editorial about art auctions in Malaysia, where such commentaries are not available. . Written in mid-November 2013.

Over the course of a month, the 3 houses together realised RM 8,993,050 for Malaysian and Southeast Asian art sales. The total tally signifies an increased interest in local and regional art, but barely registers a blip when compared to the record-breaking sale of $691,583,000 (RM 2.21 billion) at Christie’s New York. The two-hour Post-war and Contemporary evening sale offered only 69 lots where 63 were sold, including the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, $142,405,000 (RM 456 million) for Francis Bacon’s "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" (1969). This gaudy figure easily obliterated the record previously set by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at $119,922,496 (RM 384 million) at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012. Obviously Malaysia’s art market still has a long way to go, but the more important differentiation factor is that the most expensive works sold at a KL art auction are abstracted forms by Malaysian modern masters. In mature art markets, contemporary art has consistently outperformed older art, evident when you look at the two most expensive works quoted above. Both share the similarity of being colourful and distorted, not befitting any conventional wisdom about beauty, perhaps even depressing or distressing to the viewer. Will any rich Malaysian hang such paintings on their marble walls surrounded by Bali-nesque gardens?

Ibrahim Hussein – Val Bon (1985), sold for RM 594,000 (est. RM 350-500,000) at Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, Lot 96, 13 October 2013

The figures in the previous report are not 100% accurate. That is because Malaysian art auction houses do not publish sales summaries, and objective art writing in Malaysia are non-existent. Beyond the advertisements disguised as news articles, steady sales betray a sore lack of professionalism at these events. One auctioneer does not publish its historical auction results. High estimates are set more than double the low estimates. A set of Chinese scroll paintings are bought at a Hong Kong auction and sold as separate lots across two sales events. Dubious ownership and fakes are sometimes cited. Rumours abound about discrete bidders that represent the auction house itself to drive up prices during bidding. Catalogue notes are either poorly written, or there’s none at all. Interested individuals consistently display a lack of knowledge about art, easily misled by auction house representatives who convince patrons that “this painting will look good on your wall”. Wall hangings are nonchalantly grouped and promoted with the terms “abstract”, “semi-abstract”, and “figurative” – even pillows and mattresses have more categorisations available. Art education for the unfortunate buyer inevitably come from the salesman.

As it is with any luxury market, the values of the object itself – in this case, artwork – is frequently ignored for bragging rights. Ibrahim Hussein’s “Val Bon” sold for RM 594,000 and provided the previous owner a 50% return in 5 months. The dark maroon borders are warm and attractive, but many of the interweaving lines seem like a mistake, and I doubt this work is considered a highlight in Ib’s catalogue raisonné. Art auction summaries also typically focus on the high-priced items, a curious approach that contradicts the idea of art investment (conventional investing strategy is to buy low, sell high). Khaw Sia’s RM 220,000 cover lot is a plain painting of Balinese women that looked like it could have been done by a Karyaneka artist. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and taste is personal. But in this capitalist world, an assigned monetary value can always transform ugly items into coveted masterpieces. Thanks to these auctions, the Malaysian public now has access to the self-contained community of Malaysian art collectors. However, the openness to embrace art beyond a simplistic “nice wall hanging” still look bleak, as the secondary art market capitalise on a marketplace enamoured with idyllic pastoral scenes.

Khoo Sui Hoe – Around the Moon (1972), sold for RM 93,500 (est. RM 18-30,000) at Henry Butcher Malaysian & Southeast Asian Art Auction, Lot 17, 3 November 2013

Did anyone come out on top overall? Henry Butcher’s average of RM 32,024 per lot is a comforting sign that the pioneer auction house still retains its credibility after the MAS fiasco. But really, should these figures matter in art?