When award-winning artist Tay Bak Chiang held his first solo show in 2003, he was selling each painting for a few hundred dollars.
Recently, at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) graduation show, student Henry Lee, a fine arts diploma graduate, sold a drawing for $6,000.
The four-figure sum may raise eyebrows but, these days, it is no longer uncommon for young Singapore artists, who are still in school or fresh out of school, to price their works for such amounts.
And collectors readily snap up pieces at these prices.
Some in the arts community view the price inflation as a sign of a maturing arts scene that is able to appreciate and recognise the value of art. But there are also others who feel that some young artists have not reached the stage in their career when they can command four-figure sums for their works.
Gallerist Vera Wijaya, 37, of Galerie Sogan & Art in Mohamed Sultan Road, says she has encountered new artists, both students and recent graduates, "who want to charge $1,200 for a sketch, $3,000 for a small, simple painting and $8,000 for a medium- sized painting".
She says: "This is understandable since they are trained to create works, but they are not taught how to sell and market them, so they may not understand concepts such as price competition or sustainability. But when artists overprice their works, seasoned art collectors will complain or simply smirk and shake their heads."
A relative newcomer to the art scene, Eugene Soh, 26, says he initially planned to price his work, The Last Kopitiam, at $30,000 when it was up for sale last year at the now-defunct Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery.
Soh, who recently graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a bachelor's in fine arts (interactive media), says: "When I said $30,000, there was a pause over the phone from the person at the gallery, then 'Wow!'. They said that was the price of an established artist's work and suggested that I sell for less."
His work, a digital print on canvas that measures 1.4m by 2.3m and reimagines Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting The Last Supper, eventually sold for $5,000.
Soh, whose works are now priced between $2,000 and $6,000, says: "I suggested $30,000 at first because I had only one work and it was my best piece. I didn't know I could print more editions so I didn't need to sell one work for so much."
Established artists interviewed declined to be drawn into discussing whether young artists are overpricing their works but Cultural Medallion recipient and renowned Singapore artist Thomas Yeo, 77, cautions against artists overpricing their artworks. He says: "Anyone who goes on this path should know that they are in it for the long haul with no promise of success... and if you run very fast, you might stumble."
The art market is not impervious to fluctuations, he adds, and the prices of artworks are ultimately determined by what people are willing to pay at a point in time. "You can price whatever you like but the question is if anybody will buy the work at the end of the day. If not, you will be its only admirer."
Gallerists say that they avoid representing young artists who stubbornly inflate their prices.
Mr Pwee Keng Hock, 49, managing partner of home-grown gallery Utterly Art, says: "If the artist has unwarranted ambitions on pricing beyond his seniority or what the market can bear, we will point it out. But if the artist persists against advice, then we may elect not to feature the artist."
Lee, 32, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Nafa, says he priced his drawing at $6,000 at his graduation show after careful consideration. "I was careful not to overprice the work but I didn't want to undervalue it as well. Its size was the primary gauge I used to determine the price."
The charcoal and soft pastel drawing measures 7.8m by 1.2m. It depicts a sci-fi version of the urban environment and took two months to complete.
He also consulted his lecturers at Nafa to see if the price was reasonable. Mr Chiew Sien Kuan, 48, deputy head of the department of fine arts at Nafa, says that its students are taught how to market their artwork in a final-year module and its lecturers also advise students on "pricing their artwork based on the level of maturity of their work and their effort, with market prices as a reference point".
Lee says: "I wasn't expecting it to be sold so it was a pleasant surprise."
This appetite for works by young Singapore artists, even though they are priced in the four-figure range, was unmistakable at the recent Spot Art festival at ARTrium@MICA in Hill Street. The inaugural event held earlier this month was dedicated to budding artists aged under 30 from the region, whose works were displayed for sale and priced between $500 and $5,000.
Artist Chen Shitong, 28, who showed four prints priced at $1,400 each at Spot Art, sold out within the first few hours of the event's opening. Chen, who recently graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts with a bachelor's degree in fine arts, did not anticipate the warm response.
He says: "I exhibited some of my works after I graduated with a fine arts diploma from Nafa in 2006 and I priced them in the low hundreds of dollars... but not many sold."
He says that he priced his works higher this time because his artistic style has matured and he felt the amount is comparable to the price of other works selling at the event.
Noting how young Singapore artists are selling for more these days, Mr Pwee of Utterly Art says the trend here follows the growing international demand for contemporary art.
"A certain cachet has developed for young contemporary artists - even auction houses have devoted attention to this group," he says. "So people want to collect artists while they are young, before their prices shoot up to unaffordable levels and this has a positive effect on their prices, particularly if there is buzz about them."
Artist Samantha Lo, 27, for one, received a $9,000 art commission last year after she was involved in a high-profile court case for slogans she spray-painted and pasted on roads and traffic lights.
The commission, a mixed media work on canvas that measures 0.8m by 1.2m, is inspired by her street art stickers and bears the stylised portrait of a man and the word "Limpeh", a Hokkien term meaning "my father". The detailed artwork includes an intricate collage of newspaper reports and public campaign posters.
On the price of the commission, Lo says: "Coming from a street art background where my collectible silk-screen shirts would sell for $50, I couldn't fathom it. But the shirts are meant for youth while the artwork is a signature piece."
Her new series of works, which comes in a set of five paintings, features bottles of cultured milk and pokes fun at art as high culture. It will sell for $8,000 a set at the Affordable Art Fair on Thursday and two of the five sets already have buyers.
Ceramic artist Jason Lim, 47, believes the popular art fair, which debuted here in 2010 and prices each work below $10,000, has helped to redefine what is affordable art and, in turn, made it acceptable for young artists to sell their works for four-figure sums.
Ms Wijaya of Galerie Sogan & Art says the universal appeal of contemporary art also means works by young Singapore artists may attract foreign collectors, who "are willing to shell out high amounts" and, in turn, raise price levels.
For serious art collectors, the price tag is often not the deal-breaker.
Marketing consultant Jean Tsai, who is in her 50s and collects Singapore art, says: "I don't buy a work simply because it is inexpensive or because it matches the furniture at home."
Instead, art collectors tend to be swayed by factors such as the craftsmanship and aesthetic quality of a work and whether the piece fits within their collections.
The sale of works at artist Ruben Pang's recent solo show at Chan Hampe Galleries mirrors this sentiment. Works by the 23-year-old Lasalle graduate, which were priced on the higher end, between $6,000 and $7,000, sold before some less expensive pieces in the show.
That said, collectors here are a savvy bunch so the climb in prices is not unbridled. Gallerist Benjamin Hampe, 32, of Chan Hampe Galleries, says: "I don't think artists will be able to inflate prices because Singapore collectors are much too savvy for that."
According to gallerists interviewed, the price range for works by young Singapore artists tends to be in the lower half of the four-figure range and generally averages between $2,500 and $3,000.
Art collectors that Life! interviewed in fact welcomed the climbing prices as a reasonable and encouraging development.
Ms Tsai says: "Everything in Singapore is becoming more expensive, why not contemporary art?"
Art collector and general manager of a medical device company, Mr Albert Lee, 41, believes the increasing prices will help to grow the scene. "It shows young artists that society cares about art and that they can make a living out of practising it full-time," he says.
And for long-time collectors such as general physician Colin Lim, 48, who are in it for the long haul, the appreciation in value of their investments is much welcomed.
Although there is no formula that explains the rate of inflation of works by young artists, the pricing of their art is not haphazard, gallerists say.
Factors that influence the appraisal of the value of works include the originality and craftsmanship of the work, the cost of materials and the time required to make it. The artist's training and accolades, his exposure to the art world and art market through exhibitions and art fairs, and market demand also play a role.
Additionally, prices are benchmarked against works by artists of the same level and those who are more established.
Artist Tay, 40, whose paintings now sell between $2,000 and $9,000, says: "I can understand why some young artists want to price their works high. They are envious of other artists who can sell their works for a few thousand dollars and they believe they can command similar amounts.
"But I choose to price my works conservatively because I want those who like my works to be able to buy them without hesitating. This sort of ready support from collectors motivates me to create."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 19, 2013
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