During the 20th Century Art day sale – part of Christie’s Hong Kong Spring Auction – 11 out of the 15 new sale records were set by South-East Asian modern masters, while the remainder were by Chinese artists. This robust response to regional artists who were born at the turn of this century (particularly those who are deceased) is a phenomenon which has been growing over the last few years.
Last November, Christie’s set a world auction record for a Vietnamese artist with the sale of Le Pho’s View from the Hilltop for US$844,697 ($1.2 million), while Making Up by Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng was sold for US$766,964. Cheong’s works have been consistently setting new records in recent auctions. In another May auction, Bonhams sold Cheong’s Squirrels, a painting on silk, for five times its estimate. As junior specialist of Christie’s Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Department in Singapore, Teo Hui Min confirms, the fact that both these artists were positioned as prime estate in Lots 1 and 2 of the auction reflects the auction house’s confidence in South-East Asian art. To collectors, it’s also a sign of its emergence from the shadow of Chinese contemporary art which has seen stratospheric growth.
This positive picture is a far cry from 2008, when prices of South-East Asian art fell by 20 per cent in a November auction by Christie’s (though in perspective, the results of the auction showed an average 55-per-cent plunge in other art genres). The recent strength of the South-East Asian art market is also testified to by the fact that auction house Bonhams opened its first Singapore office last year (though it has been in Hong Kong since 2006) specifically to deal in this genre.
Shift from North to South-East
Experts argue that the South-East Asian market has always been a different kettle of fish from other markets as the sentiments behind buying have always been largely driven by patriotic or cultural reasons – the majority of these buyers are from the same countries as the artists. Having said this, buyers from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are showing an increased interest in artists from this region. Cheong’s works have also been doing very well in Shanghai auctions. His By the River II sold for US$561,000 in a 2013 auction in the city, setting a new record for his paintings at that time.
While auction houses have always shied away from divulging the nationality of buyers, apart from saying if they are Asian or European, industry observers share that a large proportion of South-East Asian art buyers have been high-net-worth Indonesians and Filipinos who collect works based on similar cultural values they share with the artists. In fact, with the encouraging results at recent auctions where more A++ works are coming out of private collections to go under the hammer, Christie’s senior specialist of South-East Asian art, Wang Zineng, shared during a preview of the Hong Kong Spring auction in Singapore that it’s possible the market hasn’t seen the peak of sales values yet.
The 2014 Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index shows a 15 per cent rise in collectible art against an overall 10 per cent in the whole index. Therefore, against other passion investment categories such as fine wines and jewellery, art seems to be delivering better returns. It’s also seen as a musthave by some in asset allocation for its safe haven characteristics and not-so-direct correlation with traditional investment classes. As emerging markets in Asia grow more sophisticated, the desire of the wealthy to leave a legacy has resulted in more purchases of pieces with provenance value. This trend can also be seen in a spurt of private foundations and museums opening across Asia to house these art collections.
For the newly affluent in their 30s to 40s who are just getting their feet wet in art investment, South-East Asian pieces are still relatively affordable compared to Chinese art, which they feel priced out of. While appreciation in the latter has waned, some perspective should be maintained in assessing relative values. Though Zhang Fanzhi’s Mask Series may have sold toward the lower end of estimates of US$2 million to US$3.2 million, it still fetched US$2.3 million in Christie’s auction last November.
How to Buy
Most experts would advise buying for passion as the number one rule to follow when buying art. “Choose something that speaks to you since it’ll be living with you, in your home," says Teo from Christies. Perhaps this is to prevent disappointment if your investment turns out to be less than promising years later.
When pressed for an insider’s take on the artists to look out for, Teo shares that while 20th-century artists remain the top bet, mid-career contemporary artists born in the 1970s, such as Ronald Ventura (the Philippines), Natee Utarit (Thailand) and Nyoman Masriadi (Indonesia) are worth keeping an eye out for. Bernadette Rankine, Bonhams director for South-East Asia, singles out young artists such as Filipino Raffy Napay and Singaporean Zen Teh, as having the potential to produce works which could become popular.
On the subject of Singapore art, it seems that the money right now is on artists who were born at the turn of the 20th century and ex-alumni of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts like Wen-Hsi Chen and Cheong.