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Historic Moment for Malaysian Art

The country’s first full-fledged Malaysian Modern and Contemporary Art auction by Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers looks to be the start of many successful others, writes RACHEL JENAGARATNAM

THERE are a fair number of people at Henry Butcher’s auction preview of Malaysian Modern and Contemporary Art. They all gaze at the paintings in a contemplative manner and it is like any art gallery or museum, save for the fact that the auction team is busy making last minute preparations for the main event and that these paintings will be going under the hammer and into private collections within 24 hours.

I scan the room. There are old paintings by Yong Mun Sen and Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, as well as contemporary pieces by Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, Yee I-Lann and Kow Leong Kiang. The pièce de résistance, however, is a much-hyped painting by Datuk Ibrahim Hussein titled The Dream (1969). Talk has centred on its time abroad in private collections and how the abstract painting has finally come home to Malaysia.

It has its own private nook in the exhibition space, complete with sofa and table for serious bidders to study their prospective purchase with an estimate of RM300,000 to RM400,000.

Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers (HBAA), a subsidiary of Henry Butcher Malaysia (HBM), is responsible for the country’s first art auction and Lim Eng Chong, one of HBM’s directors, informs me that their parent company based in England are the largest in the world to auction plant machinery.

In Malaysia, HBM’s track record is excellent, too. In 1987, for its first ever auction, it undertook the auction of Atlas Intek Plant & Machinery, gaining RM16 million for its client. This is the company’s first full-fledged art auction, and while industrial machinery is worlds apart from fine art, Lim is enthusiastic about its new venture. “Basically, the (auctioneering) process is the same,” says Lim, who believes his company has the advantage of being able to transfer its expertise to the local art market. Its know-how in the auctioneering business and existing manpower are factors that could contribute to its long-term success.

Lim’s growing interest in art was the catalyst for the company’s move in this direction. Lim began attending auctions in Singapore, Hong Kong, and London, and on these many excursions, noted the dearth of Malaysian artworks.

“Even as close as Singapore, you are hard pressed to find Malaysian pieces. A hundred to 200 pieces will be auctioned over two to three days and you only get about five Malaysian artists,” he states, pointing out that even then, it is only ever the biggest names.

“Of course I could go gallery to gallery,” says Lim, stressing that this endeavour requires research and having to negotiate art world politics. “This is very daunting for someone that’s beginning to collect art.” HBAA was formed in 2008 and Lim roped in Vincent Sim, art collector and founder of Art Expo Malaysia, to share his decades of expertise in art.

Lim explains how they’ve successfully combined Sim’s many forays in the Asian art market with his own observations of Western auction houses. “We think it is a winning combination,” he concludes.
Auctioner Lim at the rostrum

Both men hope that art auctions in Malaysia will create a secondary market and full transparency. Essentially, they hope it will heighten awareness for Malaysian art, boosting interest among the local public, as well as educating collectors and spurring them to attend art auctions elsewhere.

The day of the auction itself, the turnout is surprisingly large. Throngs of people linger in the exhibition space, where serious bidders spent the morning assessing the condition of their probable purchases, and more are registering for the auction at the last minute.

While some have simply come for the experience, others have turned up with a goal.

June Cheong, for instance, who came with her art-collecting family. “Most of the serious Malaysian artists are here,” she says, adding her family was drawn to their first auction by the chance to acquire rare pieces by Ibrahim Hussein, Yusof Ghani, Awang Damit and Khalil Ibrahim. In the auditorium itself, the auctioneer and representatives from HBAA are finalising matters onstage, while those handling telephone bidding are on standby below. Chairs continue to be wheeled in to accommodate the unexpectedly large crowd (over 300 people) that have turned up, including artists, critics, collectors, gallery owners, representatives from the National Art Gallery, as well as other corporate collectors, and even a celebrity.

After a speech by Lim, who apologises to those standing at the back of the auditorium, joking that from his experience, those are the most “astute bidders”, the auction starts.

Lot 1, a painting by Datuk Mohd Hoessein Enas, is first and action begins immediately at the back of the auditorium. Lim was right, the astute bidders had the ball rolling and the price quickly jumps from RM16,000 to the thirty thousands.

“Sold at RM40,000 to the bidder in the back,” says the auctioneer, tapping his gavel. Bidder #46 secures the first lot of the day for RM44,000, which includes the buyer’s premium of 10 per cent, and claps erupt. It is a momentous and exciting start.
Bidder No 102, represented by an auction officer, cast his or her offers through the telephone

The atmosphere is thrilling and there’s adrenaline in the air during the early lots. Prices rise faster than you anticipate and it’s fascinating to watch the live bidding reports on the projection screen above the stage. A watercolour of a seated model by Lee Cheng Yong goes for RM9,350, Chang Fee Ming’s Kathmandu Market Scene is sold at RM14,850, and an oil painting of a Parisian street scene by Chia Yu Chian for RM24,200. At Lot 15, there is a revelation: Tan Choon Ghee’s Golf By The Sea fails to meet the reserve price. It is the first of a number of unauctioned lots for the day and the auctioneer informs the highest bidder that HBAA’s representatives will negotiate a possible deal with the owner.

Chang Fee Ming — Drying ‘1984 [56cm x 75cm] watercolor on paper

By the 20s, the energy dips. Failing to fetch their respective reserve prices, two paintings go unsold (an oil painting by Tan Choon Ghee and a watercolour by Lye Yau Fatt), but at Lot 24, the only Jalaini Abu Hassan work available, interest escalates again. Jai’s Lukisan Kertas Chap Reben from 1999 sells for RM26,400 to a telephone bidder. Its lowest estimate was only RM10,000.

Voices start buzzing for Lot 44, Mohd Hoessein Enas’s oil painting, Javanese Girl. Bidding starts at RM70,000, climbs in two-thousands to RM100,000, and the final figure is bidder #26’s RM127,600, demonstrating high interest for the artist’s famed portraits of women.

By now, I glean one obvious strategy for auctions: stay focused on your prize because there may be temptation to bid for the early lots.

This is exactly what the bidders who’ve come for Lot 53 have done. Ibrahim Hussein’s The Dream is next and whispers break out in the auditorium once again. The auctioneer starts the bidding at RM300,000. It ascends in five thousands, and in seconds, it is down to two zealous bidders. They raise their bidding pads alternately in the RM400,000s, and like a fencing match, it is over in minutes. Bidder #84 takes The Dream home for RM500,500
Ibrahim Hussein — The Dream 1969 (121cm x 121cm), acrylic on canvas which was sold for RM500,500

Surprises at the auction include a painting from Yusof Ghani’s Siri Tari, which fails to meet its reserve price, and the withdrawal of Latiff Mohidin’s Gelombang Bumi, which had a reserve price of RM600,000.

With the biggest names out of the way, the crowd dissipates slowly and the day ends with the final lot, a work by Awang Damit Ahmad, aptly going to bidder #1.

Successful bidders flock to the payment desk at the end of the auditorium and it’s here that I speak to Dr Rajaratnam, an art collector, who is elated by the whole experience and pleased to have acquired a work by Peter Harris from 1959 and a batik collage by Khalil Ibrahim. The collector looks forward to consigning works for the next HBAA auction and comments that the crowd did not seem to possess the knowledge that they should. He believes the pastel work by Harris, the founder of the Wednesday Art Group, could’ve gone for much more than the RM3,300 he paid.

Dr Rajaratnam’s statements highlight core problems for Malaysian art: that there presently isn’t a proper yardstick to measure the value of artwork in Malaysia and that there is a severe shortage of documentation on older artists. Auctions like this could be the exact stimulus needed to rectify these setbacks.

As for the audience, there is time to study, as HBAA has scheduled its next art auction for June 2011. Much later after the event, I bump into Sim. There is a big smile on his face. “We made RM1.3 million today. Plus the buyer’s premium, that should come up to RM1.5 million,” he says, genuinely lost for words. The actual figure turns out to be RM1,737,910, more than twice what HBAA expected. Fifty-two out of 62 paintings were sold, 32 works were sold above their estimates, and Malaysia’s first art auction of modern and contemporary paintings looks to be the start of many successful others.

Read more: Art: Historic moment for Malaysian art