Record prices for Singapore artists not the final word on their worth

Christie's sale rings in $6.7million, but it does not mean all Singapore artworks will fetch high prices

With auction records set for nine Singapore artists at a recent Christie's sale, the appetite for Singapore art among collectors is growing.

The sale on Sunday in Hong Kong was dedicated entirely to Singapore art - a first for an international auction house - to mark the country's Golden Jubilee. It rang in a total of HK$36.7 million (S$6.7 million), placing it at almost 97 per cent of the high estimate for the auction.

The painting Balinese Dance (1953) by pioneer Singapore artist Cheong Soo Pieng fetched the highest price of the 41 lots in the sale. It sold for HK$7.72 million, overtaking his last auction record of HK$5.92 million for the painting Making Up (1951), which was set at Christie's Asian 20th-century and contemporary art sale in November last year.

The other eight records were set for artists Chua Ek Kay, Lim Cheng Hoe, Chen Chong Swee, Tay Bak Koi, Teng Nee Cheong, Chia Yu Chian, Lee Hock Moh and Ruben Pang for sums between the range of HK$187,500 and HK$687,500.

Pioneer Singapore artist Cheong Soo Pieng's oil painting, Balinese Dance (1953), sold for HK$7.72 million (S$1.4 million). -- PHOTO: CHRISTIE'S

The records offer a flash assessment of the market's interest in Singapore art and artists, but as with auction prices of any nature, they will not be the final word on the trajectory of prices set at auctions for works by the artists.

In fact, this was borne out in the sale.

Eight of Cheong's works went under the hammer at the recent sale and the other seven pieces sold for amounts between HK$237,500, for the ink and gouache on paper work, Kampong By The River (1961), and HK$1.72 million for the oil painting Sisters (1977). Balinese Dance was the sixth of eight works by Cheong auctioned in the sale.

There were nine other artists whose works sold at the sale but did not best their world auction records.

Singapore artist Tan Swie Hian for example, had a Chinese ink and acrylic on rice paper work, Panda (1993), that sold for HK$1.54 million. The price it fetched was more than double the high estimate for the work, but it did not beat the price for his ink on rice paper work, Portrait Of Bada Shanren (2013), which went for 20.7 million yuan (S$4.4 million at the time) at last year's Poly Auction in Beijing.

Indeed, the auction price of works by an artist varies according to factors such as the quality of the work, its size, which period it belongs to in an artist's career and its rarity in the artist's oeuvre. The overall economic climate also affects the willingness of collectors to up their bids to acquire a work that is in demand.

Similar factors including quality and size will also influence the price of new works by the only two living artists among the nine record-holders - Lee Hock Moh and Ruben Pang - when they first come onto the primary market, which may include sales through galleries.

In that sense, the records set in the secondary auction market may not have a direct impact on the price of new works by the artists.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2015, with the headline 'Records set for local works, but prices will fluctuate'. Print Edition | Subscribe