S.E. Asian Art market pays off for mid-range Players
In 1891 French painter Paul Gauguin aged 42 scandalised large sections of French society abandoning his country, his wife and a respectable profession as a stockbroker to live and paint in Tahiti and the Marquesas, where he died in 1903. His colourful and symbolic style influenced many artists of the day, including Picasso, and his writings the imaginations of many writers and artists, dreaming of an unfettered creative life in a far off South Sea island.
Fast forward two decades when this two-dimensional escapist fantasy came into focus, fleshed out with the publication of naturalist and photographer Gregor Krause’s text and photos of Bali, based on his field trips made in the years directly preceding the Great of War of 1914-18. Faithfully describing the culture and natural lifestyle with numerous photos of beautiful bare breasted young women bathing and equally beautiful young males, the effect of this book among many men in a traumatised and sexually repressed post-war Europe was potent . Unknown Bali was now on the map for well-heeled tourists, like men on the make Charlie Chaplin, his brother Sydney and Noel Coward, along with artists Walter Spies and Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur, all of them representing respective aspects of male sexuality and who, in the case of the two artists, finding a home in Bali. They were followed by a dozen or so other European artists, who lived and worked in Bali through the mid-20th century achieving varying degrees of recognition. No need now to go to the South Pacific for your tropical paradise when Bali, at least half a planet nearer, beckons with a lot more to offer.
Whether of not Walter Spies and Le Mayeur were the most accomplished of European artists in Bali and whether or not any of these European artists had any lasting or significant effect on Indonesian art is arguable. What is apparent is that, whatever influence they may or may not have, in terms of success the work of such painters can be a very attractive sub-genre for collectors of SouthEast Asian art.
To wit, take a look at the top ten most expensive Indonesian paintings sold to date:
- “La Chasse au Taureau Sauvage” (1855) by Raden Saleh (1807-80)
Sold: January, 2018, Vannes, France for US$8.8m. Dimensions: 110 x 180 cm
- Soldiers Led by Prince Diponegoro (1979) by Sindudarsono Sudjojono (1914-86)
Sold: April 2014, Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$7.53m. Dimensions: 100 x 199.5 cm
- Bali Life (1974) by Lee Man Fong (1913-88) Sold: November 2013, Christie’s Hong Kong for US$4.64m. Dimensions: 100 x 243 cm
- “Ali Sadikin & the Independence Struggle” (1978) by Hendra Gunawan (1918-83)
Sold: October, 2014, Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$4.29m. Dimensions: 200 x 302 cm
- “A View From The Heights” (1934) by Walter Spies (1895-1942)
Sold: October, 2013, Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$4.06m. Dimensions: 100.5 x 82.5 cm
- “Women Around the Lotus Pond” (1951) by Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès (1880-1958)
Sold: May 30, 2016, Christie’s Hong Kong for US$3.91m. Dimensions: 150 x 200 cm (see picture)
- “The Dice Game from the Mahabharata Epic” (1971) by Hendra Gunawan
Sold: April 2015, Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$3.39m. Dimensions: 202 x 386 cm
- “Borobudur and the Sun” (1984) by Affandi (1907-90) Sold: October 2016, Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$1.26m. Dimensions: 149.5 x 195 cm
- “The Ruins and the Piano” (1956) by Sindudarsono Sudjojono Sold: May 2017, Christie’s Hong Kong for US$1.16m. Dimensions: 126 x 200 cm
- “The Man From Bantul” (2000) by I Nyoman Masriadi (b.1973)
Sold: October, 2008, Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$1m. Dimensions: 250 x 435 cm
It is interesting to note three things from this list. First the presence of the three foreigners: Chinese/Singaporean Lee Man Fong, Walter Spies from Germany and Le Mayeur born in Belgium. Second, the perennial appeal of patriotism as subject matter to Indonesian collectors, and thirdly that only one of these artists making the top ten is Balinese.
Perhaps the most striking fact to emerge from this list is the commercial success of Le Mayeur, an accomplished second tier painter who did solid earlier work in his travels around Europe and the Maghreb but whose work in Bali, where he lived for most of his career, can only be described as deliciously or excessively florid, depending on taste. His “Women around the Lotus Pond” painted in 1951 purchased in that year by an English physician living in then Malaya, lusciously portrays his wife Ni Pollok (centre right), her female friends and relatives doing – I’m not quite sure what, in the blossomy garden of their home on the beach in Sanur. This larger work (150 x 200cm) was sold by Christies in Hong Kong for the princeley sum of US$3,910,000 in May 2016.
The reason I find this interesting is that I was in Hong Kong and present at the Christies auction of Southeast Asian art held in May 2007 when this painting had gone under the hammer for US$2,270,000, well over double the high end of the auctioneer’s estimated selling price. This at a time when contemporary Chinese art of dubious merit, photographically depicting subject matter of a faintly disturbing sub-surreal nature, was all the rage and commanding truly eye-watering prices. That genre seems to have gone South today, but Le Mayeur’s well-executed chocolate box style sails on impervious, its appeal unassailable. In just nine years the value of this painting went up by over 72 percent.
Fact is, if you pick your artist with care you can reasonably expect a 10% per annum appreciation of your asset. Given the vagaries of “owning” property in Indonesia that strikes me as a sound investment. Contemporary Asian art is not like Europe or the US where there’s VAT, sales and capital gains tax. It just keeps going up at a steady 10 percent a year. In other words you get to cover the walls of your bloody great mansion, make a packet of money when you change the wallpaper, and be a cultivated supporter of all things Asian, and quite possibly a patriot, all at the same time.
It is actually quite simple to play this game successfully. Quite obviously, you don’t need an eye for good art. If you do, it may make things more interesting but is just as likely to lead to a bad investment decision as a good one. All you have to do is follow a few simple rules. First you have to have enough money to enter the game, preferably around US$500K mark. As in other areas, size matters. You want it in oil and large, but not institutionally so. The Le Mayeur painting at 150 x 200 cm is good. Pick your artist with care, study form but not obsessively. You want an artist with an established sales record with room to improve. Select works with an existing wide appeal. 19th Century Asian patriotism is good and ‘pretty’ seldom goes wrong. Steer clear of modern or abstract art unless you can afford a higher entry point – or really do know what you’re doing. Don’t muck about, buy and sell with Christies and Sothebys. They know how to play this game and once you’ve paid the ante the other guy pays their bill.
If this sounds pro forma and dull, you’d be right –apart from the money. Collecting art is best treated as a pleasureable hobby reflecting your discernment and taste, which just might come good for you at some later date, just so long as you don’t bank on it.
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