Pulse: Q1 2015 Art Auctions

Residents flock supermarkets for sanitary pads and toilet rolls. Customs and police officers scurry about trying to follow orders. Book stores make last minute changes to their accounting software. Auction houses flood the secondary market with unknown artists and insignificant works. All part of the mad rush before the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in Malaysia. Wants are mistaken for needs, or pathetically marketed as such, as auction houses collectively forget its roles as players in the luxury goods market. Four out of five auctions were held in Kuala Lumpur over a span of three weekends, where middling sales and a general down trend expose local auctions for what they are – an exercise in financial speculation.

John Lee Joo For - Untitled (1966)

Paintings by Tajuddin Ismail, Awang Damit, and Yusof Ghani, continue to trade favourably, while works by everyone else hardly generate interest. Masterpiece Malaysia sells three pieces by Tay Mo Leong, last transacted in its 2013 edition for higher prices. A suspicious new Zulkifli Yusoff was hammered down, for three times its high estimates at the KL Lifestyle Art Space (March) edition. Henry Butcher offers a lesser collection of goods, perhaps a consequence of being associated with an art theft report last year. The prevailing bearish sentiment sets the scene for collectors to grab works for prices below market value, including for top-tier names like Latiff Mohidin, Chang Fee Ming, and Ahmad Zakii Anwar. However, those not yet at the top fare less well, as great introspective works by Chong Siew Ying and Kok Yew Puah were bought in.  

Chong Siew Ying - Untitled (2001)

Despite presenting the best holdings among auction houses, and only charging a 10% buyer’s premium, The Edge Auction unperformed again with a 57% sales ratio. A sign that its transactions are probably the most transparent, its straightforward line up also deserves applaud for not attempting to bamboozle. Artists surveyed at the National Visual Arts Gallery in recent times saw mixed success, as large works by Ali Mabuha and Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir were bought in, while its support of Ken Yang backfired when no works by the Paris-based painter sold. 'Four Women on the Beach' went for more than twice its highest estimate, the Cubist-like work by Lee Cheng Yong highlighting this ridiculous season which sees his auction star rise significantly. One wonders - how will GST impact art auction prices indeed?

Zulkifli Yusoff - Ku Pinang Puteri Gunung Ledang (1994)

An Art Economy Conference was held also at Kuala Lumpur in March, its keynote speaker relating state revenue generated by art, to the number of tourists (i.e. museum visitors). This ridiculous notion is supported by our Deputy Prime Minister, who claimed that RM 33 billion of Malaysia's GDP was contributed by the "creative industry", mentioning too that the government granted RM 17 million (a fraction of what Jho Low paid for a Jean-Michel Basquiat at Christie's) over the pass three years to arts-related programs. Who in the visual arts received a portion of this grant? Why did a local gallerist organise this conference? How ethical are consultants that advise private collectors to "buy what they like", while helping governments quantify the Return of Investment for the arts? Can imprudent bureaucrats stop associating art with profit? Or tourism, for that matter?

Kok Yew Puah - Temple Figures (1997)


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