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Sunday May 1, 2011

Art on the block

A preview of the country’s second art auction shows that quality may be wanting, but the price estimates are attractive.

ART collectors who hope to land a choice painting or two at Art Auction Malaysia 2011 on June 19 in Kuala Lumpur may have slim pickings in terms of quality. But, based on the price estimates, ardent collectors may think they have bargains at hand for the works of major Malaysian artists. .

Redza Piyadasa’s Two Malay Women.

Judging from the public preview of 22 works held in KL on April 18 and 19, the proposed 105 works for auction may not be “iconic” or even “museum-quality” – as stated in the press release.

Off the bat, one would say the previewed works reflected a bias towards certain artists, dead or alive. But on closer inspection, there were at least two major gems on show.

Last August, the reason given for the less-than-iconic works for the inaugural auction, organised by Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers, was that collectors were reluctant to consign their best works for sale, as the event was a new development in the local secondary art market.

Despite that, the total sales chalked up amounted to RM1.6mil, with 51 of the 62 works sold.

This piece from Latiff Mohidin’s 1968 Pago-Pago series was the “star” of the April preview.

Overall, the works on auction were less than extraordinary, although they were by some of the biggest names in the Malaysian art scene. One suspects that the “committee” that chose them did not have much choice in terms of quality.

Then again, Malaysian art has never been known for top quality. Just look at what the works of our pioneer or modernist artists fetch at international auctions. Compare that to works by Indonesia’s Affandi, Hendra Gunawan, Lee Man Fong or Raden Saleh, which consistently fetch world record prices for South-East Asian art. Even contemporary Indonesian artists like I Nyoman Masriadi, Agus Suwage and FX Harsono have surpassed their Malaysian counterparts.

At last month’s preview, the late Datuk Mohd Hoessein Enas’ Silat (1991) and Morning Mist 5 (1992) do not represent his best efforts. Their estimates of RM90,000 to RM130,000 are no doubt based on the record price of RM127,600 that his Javanese Girl (1954) – a much more accomplished work of art – achieved at the Henry Butcher auction last year.

Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s acrylic on canvas entitled Rise Above It (China Collection, 2008) would elicit the response, “We have seen better.” But its reasonable estimate of RM160,000 to RM300,000 may attract committed bidders. A photo in the preview catalogue of the late artist, fondly referred to as Ib by friends, posing with the painting should dispel any doubt as to its authenticity.

Redza Piyadasa’s collage of Two Malay Women (1987) is certainly not “one of the most iconic” of the late artist’s Malaysian series, as stated in the catalogue. At 62cm by 50cm, it can only be considered a minor work. It is estimated to fetch between RM20,000 and RM30,000.

This work strongly resembles the 68cm by 48cm oil on canvas, Wanita Sulawesi, by Indonesian artist Jan Frank Niemantsverdriet (1885-1945), who was born in Kalimaro, Java (Dutch Indies). Wanita Sulawesi now hangs at the Agung Rai Museum of Art in Bali.

Silat by Datuk Mohd Hoessein Enas.

The “star” of the preview was a piece from Latiff Mohidin’s 1968 Pago-Pago series. With the exception of one other painting, this Pago-Pago – one of Latiff’s best from the series – was probably the pick of the whole lot.

The art community of dealers and buyers would have pricked up their ears over its estimate of RM280,00 to RM350,000. At 88cm by 68.8cm, the oil on canvas will certainly fan the dreams of collectors waiting to cash in, if it achieves or exceeds its top estimate.

This writer’s pick for the upcoming auction is Chang Fee Ming’s Rezeki (1996), an excellent 56cm by 76cm watercolour on paper.

Although a master at rendering folds in fabrics and capturing the play of light and shadow, Chang has not always been consistent in depicting the hands and feet of his subjects. And he has always maintained that he is no portrait painter.

Rezeki is probably one of the most successful of his old series which depicts Malay village life through his batik sarung renderings. Ever the astute artist, Chang also maintains that he doesn’t do such works anymore.

With his current price for works of a similar size hovering around RM100,000, the RM65,000 to RM100,000 estimate for Rezeki should attract fierce bidding among his loyal supporters, and perhaps clients from Singapore and Indonesia too.

Rezeki by Chang Fee Ming.

The other works previewed were by Abdullah Ariff, Ahmad Zakii, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chia Yu Chian, Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, Jailani Abu Hassan, Khalil Ibrahim, Khoo Sui Hoe, Liu Kang, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham, Puan Sri Norma Abbas, Peter Harris, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and Tan Choon Ghee.

Many of those who attended the preview sessions might not have noticed that Georgette Chen’s Penang (1973), an oil painting estimated at RM40,000 to RM60,000, has been withdrawn from sale. Its replacement is a minor work by Nik Zainal Abidin, Dua Bersaudara (1964). The 56cm by 15cm mixed media on paper is estimated at between RM13,000 and RM20,000.

One of the advantages of buying at a public auction is that works offered for sale would at least have gone through an authentication process, no matter how rudimentary. It beats buying from shops masquerading as purveyors of fine art, and ending up with a fake.

For this, collectors – novice or otherwise – with more money than experience should be grateful for an outfit like Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers.

Two more previews of Art Auction Malaysia 2011 (www.hbart.com.my) will be held at the a2 Gallery in Penang from May 12-15, and The Luxe Art Museum in Singapore from May 19-22. The entire 105 works can be viewed at White Box, MAP @ Publika, KL, from May 28 to June 18.

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