First- and second-generation Singapore artists had a strong showing at 33 Auction's spring sale of Asian and South-east Asian works.
Out of more than 140 lots that the regional fine arts auction house put under the hammer at the Grand Hyatt hotel on Sunday afternoon, the work which fetched the highest price was Sorting The Day's Catch, a rare oil painting by pioneer Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi.
Chen is one of those who formulated the Nanyang style combining modern Western painting techniques with tropical subject matter and Asian sensibilities. The undated post-Impressionistic painting of fisherman by the sea sold for $170,000 to a telephone bidder.
Other highlights included A Seated Sarawak Lady (1956) by first-generation Singapore artist Cheong Soo Pieng, which sold for $60,000, and Blissful Joy (2001), an oil painting by second-generation local artist Tay Bak Koi which sold for $38,000, above its estimated value of $26,000 to $36,000.
In general, however, most of the pieces in the auction sold for less than or at the lower end of their estimated value.
Overall, the auction earned approximately $1.8 million. In comparison, the estimated total value of the works was $2 million to $2.7 million.
Mr David Fu, director of modern and contemporary Asian art at 33 Auction, says this is indicative of a weakened arts market.
"The art market is not so strong at the moment and collectors overall have become more selective. They are going for only really, really good pieces - which are hard to bring to auction at the moment - or works they can't find in primary arts markets, such as the early pieces of Singaporean artists who fared well at auction because these pieces are not commonly found in art galleries," he says.
This is the seventh year that 33 Auction has held a sale of modern and contemporary regional art.
Ms Allison Liu, managing director of Bergen Art Investment who was at Sunday's auction, says Singapore's pioneer and second-generation artists are attractive to collectors because of their stable market value.
She notes: "The status of old masters such as Cheong is quite stable and has a solid core value which will not fluctuate as the market goes up and down. The standard of the artists is good and there is room for their value to appreciate in the market."
A collector at the auction, who declined to be named, questioned the authenticity of a few of the local art pieces, particularly those by Chen. Before his death in 1991, the artist had said forgeries of his work were rife in the local art market, and in April, the National Gallery Singapore stopped displaying an oil canvas that might have been falsely attributed to Chen.
33 Auction maintains that the pieces for sale are authentic. Mr Fu says: "We always check the provenance of the painting, looking for strong receipts of sales and authenticity. We also consult in-house and multiple outside curators about each piece, paying attention to the painter's artistic style, identifying brush strokes and signatures."
In addition to Singaporean masters, the auction also featured works by Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Indonesian artists.
The brightly coloured works of Indonesian artists Affandi and Srihadi Soedarsono fared particularly well. Each sold an oil painting for $120,000 a piece.
However, the tawny tones of paintings by Widayat, a pioneer artist in post-independence Indonesia, failed to attract the anticipated attention. All four Widayat paintings sold for a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars less than their estimated value. The most expensive of these, Factory Workers (1976), sold for $55,000, below its estimated value of $60,000 to $90,000.
Bucking the trend was Black Tulips, Black Umbrella (1989). The early work by Yu Hong, a well-known and important female Chinese contemporary artist, ignited an intense telephone bidding war among mainland Chinese collectors.
Estimated at $40,000 to $50,000, the oil painting - a portrait of a woman dressed in black against an understated grey and teal background - eventually went under the hammer for $140,000, triple its estimated value.
It was the biggest surprise of the afternoon and a sale Mr Fu attributed to the artist's current popularity in China and the early provenance of the work.