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Sunday December 9, 2012

Art auction: Some hits but mostly sombre showing

Sure bet: It’s said that if someone were to put up anything Latiff Mohidin, it would be sold — Landscape Rimba was the top grosser at this auction Sure bet: It’s said that if someone were to put up anything Latiff Mohidin, it would be sold — Landscape Rimba was the top grosser at this auction

Record sales for some works, but generally sombre showing at art auction.

FIVE stellar records for artists were set in the Malaysian Modern and Contemporary Art Auction (MMCAA) in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 2. The buoyancy pumped up by the big-ticket items belied an otherwise insipid “under-performing” outing for the lower-rung/bit-player works out of the 108 works on the block.

In the auction proper, 18 works were not sold but more sombre was that 40 works were sold below the low-estimates even after adding premiums and out of these, 33 were sold at opening bid prices!

The biggest casualty was Datuk Hoessein Enas’ Gelora, an unusual landscape for the portrait pioneer. There were no takers even for a RM65,000 opening gambit.

The relative lacklustre scenario was in stark contrast to its inaugural auction, then known as the Malaysian Indonesian Modern and Contemporary Art Auction (MIMCAA), at the same Sheraton Imperial venue on Sept 30, which registered 87% success (with post-sales) for a RM2.76mil turnover.

Still, this auction rallied to a creditable RM2,467,360 turnover in the auction proper. Post-auction sale, however, was 89%. Clearly, this outing was a party for Latiff Mohidin, Yusof Ghani, Abdullah Ariff, Khalil Ibrahim and Ismail Latiff.

Latiff, who is also an Asian-class poet laureate and at 74 the “last one standing” of the Big Three, was the top grosser in the auction. His Landscape Rimba (1995) achieved a remarkable premium of RM715,000, eclipsing his previous record of RM572,000 set at the Henry Butcher (HB) Art Auction 2011. The Latiff frenzy was such that if someone were to put up anything Latiff, it would be sold: his three paper works all did exceptionally well.

Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, one of the Big Three, came in at No 2 when his Untitled (1996) monochrome of fused forms fetched RM308,000 but well below his record of RM797,500 – still the record for the highest price paid for a Malaysian painting at an auction although he is the only Malaysian artist to have sold a piece for more than RM1mil! His latest performance somewhat redeemed a flagging “interest” in the last two (different) auctions.

Yusof Ghani leapfrogged into the Big League when his Siri Tari II (1984-85) done in the United States shinkansen-ed up to RM190,000 (premium: RM209,000) from an RM8,000 overture. It was a new Yusof personal best – less than two months after he sold at RM93,500 premium at the HB October 2012 auction, also for a Siri Tari. His five other works in this auction were also sold.

Batik art pioneer Datuk Chuah Thean Teng was fourth despite his Harvesting (1991) reaping only RM77,000 but another Penang pioneer artist, Abdullah Ariff, breached his record twice with RM44,000 and then RM55,000 for two brilliant watercolours from the family estate.

Khalil Ibrahim’s Abstract went for RM33,000, a record for his batik work. Khalil Ibrahim’s Abstract went for RM33,000, a record for his batik work.

Ismail Latiff, introduced at the first MIMCAA, soared high when his mesmeric, magical canvas Lembah Bayangan Rembulan... Mahligai Kayangan “conjured” a RM52,800 premium. His other work, sold at RM33,000, also breached his previous RM28,600 record.

Khalil Ibrahim, who is recovering from a stroke, also hit the RM52,800 mark but that is still below his painting record of RM57,000 set at HB2011. However, it was a new record for his batik work when his large 1983 batik, Abstract, went for RM33,000 by the same phone bidder who first tested the waters at RM14,000.

The other notable batik artist, Datuk Tay Mo-Leong, known for his innovative double-resist technique, scored RM24,200 for a 1958 work (Padi Farmers) and RM15,400 for his opalescent Stone Flower work. Batik artist Ismail Mat Husin, who has enjoyed a spectacular revival in the last two years, grossed RM11,000 – well below his RM26,400 record set at the HB October 2012. There were highly unusual price movements, however, for two relatively obscure batik artists – Tan Thean Song and Kwan Chin, both in their 60s.

While there was the inevitable “migration” of artists from HB to MMCAA, this auction saw 10 more artists making their debut. They had an uneventful outing except for Melayu Pop artist Haron Mokhtar, whose Muslim Shrine, Penang, fetched a RM8,800 premium – well clear of its RM5,000 low-estimate.

All the nine younger artists, those born 1970 and later, were range-bound in the low-estimates while two did not elicit any interest.

Other artists who managed to sell in the five digits were New York-based duo Eng Tay and Lee Long Looi; Amron Omar; Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal – the third of the Big Three (only paper works); Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir; Rafiee Abdul Ghani; Ahmad Zakii Anwar; Khoo Sui Hoe; Jolly Koh; Ahmad Khalid Yusof; Raphael Scott Ahbeng; Peter Liew; Singaporean pioneers Cheong Soo-Pieng and Chen Wen-Hsi; and the only Indonesian, Jeihan Sukmantoro.

While some saw some of the prices as lukewarm, the bargain-hunters were obviously delighted. Three works were a steal, all coincidentally sold at RM7,150 each: Cheah Yew Saik’s 1963 Cubist oil called Return From The Sea; Lye Yau Fatt’s vintage-1986 drybrush called Edge of Temple; and Peter Liew’s Kampung Scene from his vintage 1996-97 years.

KL Lifestyle Art Space owner Datuk Gary Thanasan, who organised the auction, also conducted the event as in his previous auction. Thanasan said that at that first auction, some 194 paddle-boards were taken up but that only a third were active bidders.

Going by the same yardstick, the uptake was only a third of the numbers in the first auction. While the floor was relatively thinner in actual bidding, the phone bidders truly saved the day albeit clearly with a Latiff bias.

While prices may climb phenomenally in an auction, the 10% seller’s and 10% buyer’s premiums are lower than the 40%/50% hike normally charged by commercial galleries, but which generally hawk more recent works of artists.

There will be finger-pointing at the general lukewarm response: same auction being held just two months of each other, five auctions a year, buyers’ fatigue, undeveloped “market”, holiday season (collectors on annual vacation), the JLo concert ...

But then, RM2.47mil is not something to be scoffed at.

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