This introduction was published with the inaugural issue of "Collectors' Guide to the Southeast Asian art market", C-Arts, June 2010. The article was published as a 4-page essay, complete with charts and illustration.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of the Collectors’ Guide to the Southeast Asian art market.
This column is a result of a number of years of data collation and research, and work is still continuing. It is inspired by my interactions with very passionate collectors, and specifically those who were in the audience during the C8-Art Talk on “The Global Economic Crisis and the Southeast Asian art market” held in Jakarta last year.
What does this column intend to do? After all, much of what happens in the art trade takes place behind closed doors. While a simple column cannot eliminate all the blind spots, I hope that it can provide some illumination on the state of the Southeast Asian art market, so as to advance new ways of understanding the market and facilitate the trading of artworks in ways that are beneficial to its long-term growth. The language and presentation are deliberately kept simple and factual for easy reference, giving collectors quick snapshots of the market.
With a database comprising thousands of transactions with innumerable possibilities of reading the market, the challenge really lies in selecting the most advantageous vantage points that provide the best views. Of course, as events change, so must the vantage points. For the inaugural issue, I have chosen of three of these ‘windows’.
Much has been said about how Southeast Asian art will rise to become the next ‘tiger’ after the China and India. Where exactly is the Southeast Asian art market in relation to its Asian counterpart today? Within Southeast Asia, what is the state of modern and contemporary art markets at this current juncture? What about artists and their markets ? How does Masriadi’s art market look like post 2009? Why Masriadi, you may ask. Price wise, Masriadi is, by far, the only contemporary artist that has shared the top 10 chart, alongside established artists like Affandi, Le Mayeur and Lee Man Fong since 2008. Rightly or wrongly, prices of Masriadi’s artworks are increasingly being seen as barometers of the health of the market. Hence, this seems like a meaningful place to start.
However, as with every investigative study, there are limitations and the study of art and business is no exception. Here the primary compromise lies with limitations of the tools, traditionally employed for the study of financial markets, for, in this case, the investigation of the art market. Unlike equities and commodities, artworks are non- homogenous. One artwork, finished by the same artist in the same year, even with similar thematic treatments, is different from another. In applying simple averages to distinctly different artworks, one is in effect neutralising the uniqueness that makes art in the first place—for the sake of arriving at an ‘equalising’ platform that makes comparison feasible. This is the inevitable outcome of finding a middle ground so that the qualitative can be measured quantitatively.
While the scope has to do with what is generally known as the Southeast Asian art market, most of the attention will focus on its biggest segment, namely, the Indonesian. Indonesian collectors and artworks continue to be the prime movers. Empirical auction data is derived from Southeast Asian art auctions in Singapore and Hong Kong, from 6 auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Borobudur, Masterpiece, Larasati and 33Auction. The auction houses have come behind in support of this column, I am appreciative of the free rein given to me on matters of editorial judgment.
Even as I pen this, I am reminded of what Nora Taylor wrote in her monograph, “ Writing Contemporary Southeast Asian Art History”1, on the role of auctions in influencing the discourse of art history in Southeast Asia.
“Auctions of contemporary Southeast Asian art in Singapore at Sotheby’s and Christie’s since 1996 are interesting illustrations of how the art market controls information, discourse, art historical practices in relation to contemporary art in Southeast Asia as opposed to how artists view the issue.”
In many ways, I continue to observe such reality reflected in the art market today. In reference to that, much as this discourse is about the market and unapologetically statistical, the figures are never meant to overshadow the art and the artists that it represent.
On the contrary, I hope the reverse would be true—that through this, guess work can be taken out of the buying and the selling, so that something more important can take centre-stage : the scholarship of the art itself and deeper reflections of the voices of artists of our time.