Pulse: January – April 2016 Art Auctions

~74% of 630+ artworks were hammered down in five auctions across four months in hotel ballrooms, as the majority of artists’ prices decrease slightly this season. Auction houses vary their selling strategies, which include a lowered buyer’s premium, and absorbing GST. The Edge Auction and Henry Butcher do well to introduce more artists into the secondary market, as compared to the other two auctioneers who focus on peddling selected artists only. 'Subdued Auction Sales' reads the hilariously-naïve title of The Edge’s event summary, although that can even be an over-statement for its 45% sales rate, and non-sale of its high-priced holdings. Its erratic estimates likely contribute to the dismal performance. 

Chuah Thean Teng - Mother and Child

For example, Chang Fee Ming’s ‘Rumah Kuning, Pulau Duyong’ appeared on the market in 2012 and 2014, yet its estimate is now 100% higher; inflated estimates apply too for works by Fauzul Yusri and Syed Thajudeen which last sold in 2012. Solo retrospectives and landmark exhibitions have a lagging effect, as compared to more developed markets. Batik works generate little enthusiasm, despite an ongoing art-historical show about batik painting. However, works by Choong Kam Kow are finally being snapped up, and a tiny Ismail Hashim photograph sold for five figures. At Henry Butcher’s, a Lee Cheng Yong that sold for RM 10,080 was last offered in 2014 with an estimates of RM 12 – 16,000, while a Kow Leong Kiang that last sold in 2010 for RM 7,500 went to a successful bidder at RM 14,560.

Choong Kam Kow - Rockscape VIII (1987)

KL Lifestyle Art Space makes headlines via proclamations that its Latiff Mohidin will be the first Malaysian artwork to fetch RM 1 million at auction. The large painting was hammered down at RM 780,000 (before buyer’s premium & tax), which fits the norm when comparing historical prices for smaller pieces from the “Rimba” series. Another striking work by Latiff commanded more than half a million ringgit, a convenient sale that pre-cursors the upcoming “Pago-Pago” exhibition at the auctioneer’s gallery. This self-perpetuating strategy cannot be accused as ineffective, since all nine Khalil Ibrahim lots on offer sold for high prices. Rolling my eyes at a RM 30k Lye Yau Fatt and a RM 350k Awang Damit Ahmad, the organiser seems intent to make a statement (and hopeful windfall) with this one particular auction, as it continues to pitch art as investment

Latiff Mohidin - Debris (1968)

A Jolly Koh painting from Syed Ahmad Jamal’s collection barely sold over its low estimates, while the provenance of a dubious-looking Chen Wen Hsi ‘Abstract’ is laughably reinforced via stating the previous works offered by the same consignor. Apart from art speculators and auction houses, art buyers should wise up and reject this circulation of works by in-vogue blue chip artists (Awang Damit, Khalil, Yusof Ghani, Tajuddin Ismail, and now Rafiee Ghani). With supply exceeding demand, the secondary art market needs to stay healthy via support for other artists (i.e. the majority). If the market gets its way, Malaysian art will be defined only as a bunch of abstract forms and expressionist brush strokes. Which describes well the psyche of Malaysians in powerful positions today – a spectacular display of pure rhetoric.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Seated Figures in A Room (1955)