SE Asian art leads recovery in Asian market: auctioneer

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Southeast Asian art is leading a recovery in the Asian market, taking some of the spotlight from China, after the global economic downturn sent art prices plummeting globally, said a leading auctioneer.

“The global financial crisis caused a big plunge in the market, especially at the top end. On the other hand, the market has seen new green shoots in other regions in Asia. Southeast Asia is one,” Daniel Komala, CEO of Larasati Auctioneers, told Reuters ahead of Larasati’s October 25 auction in Singapore.

“Southeast Asian and most Asian contemporary artists had been living in the shadow of Chinese artists. The financial tsunami was a blessing in disguise for them. Only when the financial tsunami came did people say ‘Let’s look elsewhere’.”

Larasati, which held its first auction in Singapore in the middle of the SARS respiratory disease crisis in 2003, has always specialized in Asian art.

For several years, auction rooms in London, New York and Hong Kong had crackled with fierce interest in Asian art, especially Chinese contemporary art, as prices broke record after record.

But then the financial crisis seemed to catch up with this red-hot market, with bidders failing to buy top-flight paintings last year at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong, a twice-yearly barometer of market sentiment among the world’s top collectors.

But all that seems to be changing, with Southeast Asian artists leading the recovery. At a recent Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong, Indonesian artist Lee Man Fong’s “Magnificent Horses,” a grand depiction of seven horses perched on a misty hill top, went under the hammer for HK$8.2 million, three times the top estimate.

On the other hand, a painting by Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Xiaogang reached HK$8.5 million. At the market’s peak last year, buyers offered much more for top lots.

“The contemporary art market is very prone to bubble growth. Consequently, those at the top of the pillar will get hit more hard,” Komala said.

“Chinese artists suffered mostly because they are the top end. But those at the lower end suffered less because price correction kicked in.”

Komala said he expected the Asian market to rebound sooner rather than later.

“I’m confident because a survey showed that close to 30 percent of global wealth is held in Asia-Pacific. The Asia-Pacific is home to 20 percent of the world’s millionaires,” he said.

“Sooner rather than later this will have a positive impact for the overall market ... At the moment, the market has picked Southeast Asia for a jumpstart because Southeast Asia was underestimated.

“Overall, with the exception of a few artists, Southeast Asian modern and contemporary artists have been underrated, and hence their works have been undervalued.”

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith