In its first sale in Singapore in 15 years, Sotheby’s made SG$24 million ($17.5 million) on Sunday, surpassing the auction’s pre-sale estimate of SG$18 million ($10 million).
The highly anticipated auction featured modern and contemporary artworks, with a heavy 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, a senior director at the David Zwirner gallery in Hong Kong, attended the auction. Talking to ARTnewshe noticed a positive atmosphere in the hall, where he noticed other representatives of the international gallery present.
“It was surprising to meet a number of collectors from mainland China. From my interactions and observations at the event, I discovered that several 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 relaxed Covid restrictions in the city has certainly increased international interest in the country as a global art market player. This makes it a natural choice as a sales venue 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 propose the city as an alternative to Hong Kong. Instead, the house wanted to increase its presence in the region.
“Recently, we also held a non-sales exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which was an educational effort aimed at reconnecting the Vietnamese community with their rich heritage,” she said.
Despite strong sales results for the 50 lots in the block yesterday afternoon, only three paintings achieved beyond SG$2 million ($1.43 million). After intense bidding by buyers on the phone with Felix Kwok, Sotheby’s director and head of modern art, and Prasetio, William Gerard Hofker Melis, composition with Ni Dablig with Ni Gemblong with a boy behind the gender musical instrument (1939) sold for SG$2.27 million ($1.63 million) to Prasetio’s client, doubling its pre-sale high estimate. Meanwhile Walter Spies oil painting Tierfabel (Fable of animals), 1928, sold for SG$4.03 million ($2.89 million). Both of these artworks were painted by European artists while in Indonesia.
The works of artists from Southeast Asia also left an impression. Oil painting Boats And Shops (1963–65), is by pioneering Singaporean artist Georgette Chen; its sale at this auction for SG$2.02 million ($1.44 million) broke the late artist’s previous record. After 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 has enjoyed a recent resurgence. Last December, Christie’s Hong Kong auctioned Chen’s Still Life, Mid-Autumn Festival (1960) 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 had been reset in a 12-month period.
Sotheby’s Asia Deputy Director Rishika Assomull described Chen as “an integral female artist who carved a unique identity in the male-dominated arena of 20th-century art” and her iconic artwork as a “rare painting, fresh to market, celebrating Singapore’s history as a trading port and convergence of cultures.”
The recent landmark sales associated with the late Singaporean artist are perhaps unsurprising, as her paintings have long held international appeal. Some are owned by 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 appetites and a changing market, modern Vietnamese art appears to have generated plenty of interest during Sunday’s sale, with 11 paintings achieving prices above their high estimates.
And Pho’s flower went to an in-room bidder at SG$226,800 ($162,500), more than double its low and same-artist estimate washing machines it went for SG$201,600 ($144,500), about two and a half times its high estimate. There was heavy bidding both online and in the room for Mai Trung Thu’s ink and gouache on silk A gust of wind (1956), which eventually sold for SG$138,600 ($99,400), nearly SG$50,000 over its high estimate.
Le Pho is an artist known to some in Southeast Asia and beyond, as he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1920s, and this may account for the success of his works during this auction. But even his power could not help Vietnamese lady (1938), which came from a private American collection. The painting fell short of its SG1 million high estimate, fetching SG$781,200 ($560,000).
However, the traders present remained lively 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 gained importance especially during and after the pandemic,” Xu said.