Prices are up but S'pore art is 'still undervalued'

Chen Wen Hsi's oil painting, Sorting The Day's Catch, sold for $170,000 at an auction of Asian and South-east Asian works here in June.
Chen Wen Hsi's oil painting, Sorting The Day's Catch, sold for $170,000 at an auction of Asian and South-east Asian works here in June.PHOTO: 33 AUCTION

While the new National Gallery puts the spotlight on the worth of home-grown art to cultural identity, some might wonder - what about in terms of cold, hard cash?

The term "Singapore art" covers a broad spectrum, experts say.

Historically, that ranges from the pioneer artists at the time of Independence, to today's multi-disciplinary contemporary practitioners.

And in genre, this could be anything from the Nanyang School with Chinese-born Singaporeans marrying Western and Chinese techniques, to abstract oil paintings to Chinese ink paintings.

In earlier decades, pieces of art were under-appreciated in dollar terms, often failing to sell and going for sums like $200 to $300 when they did find buyers.

With Singapore art gaining the attention of international collectors, and with local collectors priced out of the China art market turning their sights back home, prices of Singapore art have gone up. It is no surprise then that even international auction house Christie's has a landmark sale of modern and contemporary Singapore masterpieces that takes place today in Hong Kong.

It is hard to imagine, but watercolour master Ong Kim Seng, 70, whose works now easily go for high five-figure sums and are part of the National Gallery's collection, sold some works for just a few hundred dollars even in the 1980s.

Now, with Singapore art gaining the attention of international collectors, and with local collectors priced out of the China art market turning their sights back home, prices of Singapore art have gone up.

It is no surprise then that even international auction house Christie's has a landmark sale of modern and contemporary Singapore masterpieces that takes place today in Hong Kong.

In recent years, smaller players, such as Auction 33 and Borobudur, have also sprung up to cater to collectors looking for more affordable pieces.

Meanwhile, the number of art fairs has grown, too, from just one in 2009 to nine last year.

So how much is Singapore art really worth?

Looking at auction prices, one would be hard-pressed to tell. In the last few years, there have been works by newer, younger artists which went under the hammer for the low thousands, and those by some other better-known painters who reportedly sold for millions.

Gallery owners and collectors tell Insight, though, that the upper limit of what local art sells for is in the six figures. And rarely do these pieces cross the half-million mark.

In general, it is the older works and those that are more scarce that are more valuable, says gallery owner Di Xiu Juan, 47.

These would be works by first- and second-generation pioneer artists, especially those who are no longer around. Paintings by artists Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen, part of the group that pioneered the Nanyang school of painting, consistently fetched at least $100,000 at auctions and in galleries in the past few years.

At an auction of Asian and South-east Asian works here in June, for example, the top price was a rare oil painting by Chen Wen Hsi, which sold for $170,000.

The piece, which is titled Sorting The Day's Catch, is in a post- Impressionistic style.

Then there are artists like Mr Ong, and second-generation painter Yeo Hoe Koon, 75, whose watercolour pieces typically fetch five-figure sums. In an interview last year, Mr Yeo revealed that his bigger pieces go for about $30,000.

In valuing art, it seems, the age of the artist also matters.

Typically, the works of younger artists here, those in their 40s, sell for thousands.

Ms Di says this is the case in her Hai Hui Art Gallery. A painter herself, she says age matters because it takes time for artists to accumulate experience, hone their skills and develop their own unique style. These are all factors that collectors look for.

The most expensive piece sold at an auction by a living Singapore painter is by Tan Swie Hian, 72. The Cultural Medallion winner's ink-on-rice paper work, Portrait Of Bada Shanren, sold for $4.4 million at the Poly Auction in Beijing last year.

Chen Wen Hsi, who after his death was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, the highest honour for a cultural personality, has also had a painting cross the million-dollar mark: his oil on canvas piece, Pasar, fetched $2.2 million at a Sotheby's Hong Kong auction in 2013.

But industry players, such as gallery owner Cruz Phua, 39, say such sales are "not indicative".

"It's out of the normal curve," says Mr Phua, who runs The Art Fellas gallery, adding that such sales have typically taken place overseas where collectors are used to paying more for art.

While prices of Singapore art have risen in recent years, he says, it is still undervalued compared with art from elsewhere.

Mr Phua believes the National Gallery can only stimulate interest further.

"There's definitely room for the value to grow."

Tham Yuen-C

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Prices are up but S'pore art is 'still undervalued''. Print Edition | Subscribe