At its first sale Singapore in 15 years, Sotheby’s raked in SG$24 million ($17.5 million) on Sunday, exceeding the auction’s pre-sale estimate of SG$18 million ($10 million).
The highly anticipated auction featured modern and contemporary artworks, with a heavy focus on modern art by artists from Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Dealers and collectors from across Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and mainland China flocked to the auction.
Leo Xu, a senior director at David Zwirner gallery in Hong Kong, had flown in for the auction. Speaking with ARTnews, he observed a positive atmosphere in the room, where he spotted fellow international gallery representatives in attendance.
“It was surprising to meet a number of collectors from mainland China. From my interactions and observations at the event, I found that some collectors had recently relocated to Singapore and were starting their collections there,” he added.
The movement of families, entrepreneurs, and businesses from Hong Kong and mainland China to Singapore due to relaxed Covid restrictions in the city has certainly bolstered international interest in the country as a global art market player. This makes it a natural choice as a sale location in Asia for Sotheby’s.
However, Jasmine Prasetio, Sotheby’s managing director for Southeast Asia, said the decision to host the auction in Singapore was not meant to propose the city as an alternative to Hong Kong. Instead, the house wanted to add to its presence in the region.
“Recently, we also held a non-selling exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that was an educational endeavor with the aim of reconnecting the Vietnamese community with their rich heritage,” she said.
Despite the strong sale results for the 50 lots on the block yesterday afternoon, only three paintings hammered beyond SG$2 million ($1.43 million). Following an intense back and forth of bidding by buyers on the phone with Felix Kwok, Sotheby’s director and head of modern art, and Prasetio, William Gerard Hofker’s Melis, composition featuring Ni Dablig with Ni Gemblong with a boy behind the gender music instrument (1939) sold for SG$2.27 million ($1.63 milion) to Prasetio’s client, doubling its pre-sale high estimate. Meanwhile, Walter Spies’s oil painting Tierfabel (Animal fable), 1928, sold for SG$4.03 million ($2.89 million). Both of those artworks were painted by European artists while they were in Indonesia.
Works by artists from Southeast Asia also impressed. The oil painting Boats And Shophouses (1963–65), is by pioneering Singaporean artist Georgette Chen; its sale at this auction for SG$2.02 million ($1.44 million) broke the late artist’s previous record. Following enthusiastic bidding, the oil painting went to a buyer on the phone with Prasetio as the auction room burst into applause.
The only female artist associated with a Singaporean art movement known as the Nanyang School, Chen has been enjoying a resurgence of late. Last December, Christie’s Hong Kong auctioned Chen’s Still Life, Mid Autumn Festival (1960s) for SG$1.8 million, more than double its high estimate, setting an auction record for the artist. Sunday’s sale marked the second time Chen’s record had been re-set in a 12-month span.
Sotheby’s Asia deputy director Rishika Assomull described Chen as “an integral female artist who carved a unique identity in the male-dominated arena of 20th century art,” and her iconic artwork as a “rare, fresh-to-market painting celebrating Singapore’s history as a trading port and convergence of cultures.”
The recent landmark sales associated with the late Singaporean artist are perhaps not surprising, since her paintings have long held international appeal. Some are owned by collections of the Long Museum in China, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, and the Centre Pompidou in France, among others.
In a trend that’s potentially indicative of new and shifting market appetites, Vietnamese modern art seemed to incite quite a bit of interest during the sale on Sunday, with 11 paintings achieving prices over their high estimates.
Le Pho’s Flowers went to an in-room bidder at SG$226,800 ($162,500), more than double its low estimate, and the same artist’s Les lavandieres went for SG$201,600 ($144,500), around two and a half times its high estimate. There was heavy bidding both online and in the room for Mai Trung Thu’s ink and gouache on silk A Gust of Wind (1956), which finally sold for SG$138,600 ($99,400), nearly SG$50,000 above its high estimate.
Le Pho is a familiar artist to some in Southeast Asia and beyond, since he studied at the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1920s, and that may account for his works’ success during this auction. But even his clout couldn’t help Vietnamese Lady (1938), which came from a private American collection. The painting fell short of its lofty SG$1 million high estimate, hammering at SG$781,200 ($560,000).
Nonetheless, dealers in attendance remained buoyant about the sale and the larger regional market. “This auction and the upcoming ART SG in January are definitely positive signals for the Southeast Asia art market, whose energy and synergy have gained prominence especially during and after the pandemic,” said Xu.