Interest, prices for Southeast Asian art soar: Sotheby's

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - When “Bathing in the Shower” by the late Indonesian artist Hendra Gunawan went under the hammer at Sotheby’s autumn auction in Hong Kong in October this year, the oil painting of three female bathers was sold for HK$9.7 million ($1.3 million).

A security guard walks past "Pasukan Kita Yang Dipimpin Pangeran Diponegoro" (Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro) by Indonesian artist S. Sudjojono during a preview ahead of Sotheby's Spring Sales in Hong Kong in this April 2, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/Files

That price was more than five times higher than the most expensive Southeast Asian painting sold at Sotheby’s first auction of the region’s work in 1996 in Singapore.

At the 1996 auction, Sotheby’s achieved S$3.77 million ($2.69 million) of sales - but prices for Southeast Asian art and sales volumes have since soared, Sotheby’s says.

With its Southeast Asian auctions now anchored in Hong Kong, the world’s biggest art market, Sotheby’s says its sales have improved sharply: last year it sold HK$350 million ($45.16 million) of art by the region’s artists.

Rival auctioneers Christie’s says that in November 2011 it sold six Singapore art works for a shade over HK$2.7 million, while at an auction in May of this year it sold 30 works for HK$19.8 million.

“Southeast Asian art is increasingly becoming an internationalised category and sees increased buying from other parts of Asia as well as from the West,” Kim Chuan Mok, head of Southeast Asian Paintings at Sotheby’s, said in an interview.

Many of the collectors are from the region, and the rise of Southeast Asian art correlates with increased affluence, namely in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, Mok said.

He declined to give specific information on clients’ profiles but said many of them are drawn to works because of their diversity.

“You give Southeast Asian artists one theme and they all would come up with different things because of diverse influences,” Mok said. “Which is unlike, for example, Chinese artists who have similar backgrounds and experiences.”

Koh Seow Chuan, an architect and avid art collector based in Singapore, said he has been acquiring Southeast Asian artworks for the last 50 years because of their unique attributes.

“They reflect the convergence of the great cultures of the world over the past 200 years”, he said.

Ryan Su, a Singapore trainee lawyer and art collector who owns the largest collection of Andy Warhol Polaroids in Asia, said collecting Southeast Asian art is a way to go back to one’s roots and can be a celebration of heritage.

“I started my art collecting by collecting Western contemporary art. This was only natural for me as I was living in the West. Upon returning to Singapore, I feel that the type of SEA Art that resonates the best with me are works by the Nanyang School artists,” he said.

Southeast Asian art, compared to art in other regions, is also relatively affordable, making it a popular entry point for new collectors, Mok said.

“Collectors can get their hands on a quality Southeast Asian art piece by a bluechip artist for a fraction of the price paid for an artwork from the more mature and established categories,” Mok said.

It is important for artists in the region to be seen as a cohesive Southeast Asian brand to garner more international attention, he added.

Singapore is riding on this need for a collective Southeast Asian identity by investing heavily in art development with the intent of becoming the region’s art market hub. The island-city opened the National Gallery Singapore last week, featuring the largest public collection of Southeast Asian art.

While Indonesia dominates the region’s art market with a 54 percent market share based on total auction sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Singapore provides the necessary infrastructure for an art market to flourish, Mok said.

The late S. Sudjojono’s “Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro” held the record for Southeast Asian artists. The painting by the Indonesian artist fetched HK$58.36 million ($7.53 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014.

(This version of the story corrects second paragraph to state the price of the artwork was more than five times higher, not almost 30 times)

Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Michael Roddy and Richard Balmforth