In its first Singapore sale in 15 years, Sotheby’s raked in SG$24 million ($17.5 million) on Sunday, beating the pre-sale estimate of SG$18 million ($10 million).
The highly anticipated auction featured modern and contemporary artworks, with a particular focus on modern art by artists from Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. Dealers and collectors from across Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and mainland China flocked to the auction.
Leo Xu, senior director of the David Zwirner Gallery in Hong Kong, had flown in for the auction. Talk with ART newshe observed a positive atmosphere in the room, where he spotted other international gallery representatives present.
“It was surprising to meet a number of collectors from mainland China. From my interactions and observations at the event, I found out that some collectors had recently moved to Singapore and were starting their collections there,” he added.
The movement of families, entrepreneurs and businesses from Hong Kong and mainland China to Singapore due to the easing of Covid restrictions in the city has certainly heightened international interest in the country as a global player in the art market. This makes it a natural choice as a sales location in Asia for Sotheby’s.
However, Jasmine Prasetio, Sotheby’s managing director for Southeast Asia, said the decision to hold the auction in Singapore was not intended to offer the city as an alternative to Hong Kong. Instead, the house wanted to add to its presence in the area.
“Recently, we also held a non-selling exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which was an educational endeavor with the aim of reconnecting the Vietnamese community with its rich heritage,” she said.
Despite strong selling results for all 50 lots on the block yesterday afternoon, only three charts hammered above SG$2 million ($1.43 million). Following intense bidding back and forth from buyers on the phone with Felix Kwok, Director and Head of Modern Art at Sotheby’s, and Prasetio, William Gerard Hofker’s Melis, composition featuring Ni Dablig with Ni Gemblong with a boy behind the genre musical instrument (1939) sold for 2.27 million Singapore dollars ($1.63 million) to client Prasetio, doubling its high pre-sale estimate. Meanwhile, the oil painting of Walter Spies Tierfabel (Animal Fable), 1928, sold for SG$4.03 million ($2.89 million). These two works were painted by European artists while they were in Indonesia.
Works by Southeast Asian artists also impressed. oil painting Boats and Shophouses (1963-1965), is the work of pioneering Singaporean artist Georgette Chen; his sale at this auction for 2.02 million Singapore dollars ($1.44 million) broke the late artist’s previous record. Following enthusiastic bidding, the oil painting went to a buyer on the phone with Prasetio as the auction room erupted in applause.
The only female artist associated with a Singaporean art movement known as the Nanyang School, Chen is experiencing a resurgence in recent times. Last December, Christie’s Hong Kong auctioned Chen’s Still Life, Mid-Autumn Festival (1960s) for SG$1.8 million, more than double its high estimate, setting an auction record for the artist. Sunday’s sale marked the second time Chen’s record was re-set in 12 months.
Sotheby’s Asia Deputy Director Rishika Assomull described Chen as “an integral female artist who carved out a unique identity for herself in the male-dominated arena of 20th-century art”, and her signature work as a “rare, freshly released painting celebrating Singapore’s history as a port of commerce and a convergence of cultures.
The recent landmark sales associated with the late Singaporean artist are perhaps unsurprising, as her paintings have long had international appeal. Some belong to the collections of the Long Museum in China, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan and the Center Pompidou in France, among others.
In a trend that is potentially indicative of new and shifting market appetites, Vietnamese modern art appeared to attract some interest at Sunday’s sale, with 11 paintings fetching prices above their high estimates.
The Pho’s flowers went to an indoor bidder at SG$226,800 ($162,500), more than double its low estimate, and the same artist The washerwomen went for SG$201,600 ($144,500), about two and a half times its high estimate. There were strong bids both online and in the room for Mai Trung Thu’s ink and gouache on silk A gust of wind (1956), which ultimately sold for SG$138,600 ($99,400), almost SG$50,000 above its high estimate.
Le Pho is a familiar artist to some in Southeast Asia and beyond, having studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1920s, and this may explain the success of his works during this auction. But even his influence couldn’t help Vietnamese lady (1938), from a private American collection. The painting fell short of its high estimate of SG$1 million, hammering in SG$781,200 ($560,000).
Nonetheless, the dealers in attendance remained enthusiastic about the sale and the larger regional market. “This auction and the upcoming ART SG in January are definitely positive signals for the Southeast Asian art market, whose energy and synergy have grown in importance, especially during and after the pandemic,” Xu said.