SINGAPORE (Oct 8): In the book’s foreword, The Edge Media Group publisher and CEO Ho Kay Tat points out that the idea for this 596-page publication came from group chairman Tong Kooi Ong, who suggested that some form of price benchmarks for Southeast Asian art should be available for collectors to refer to.

“The concept was for a listing that we are happy with and which we could publish and stand by,” says Tong.

The list of records would become a reference, thereby making the local art industry more transparent.

The challenge is to track figures that are reflective of the market.

Ho says, “The Edge is well positioned to undertake such a task. Credibility and integrity are cornerstones in The Edge’s reputation as Malaysia’s leading and trusted financial publication.”

Indonesian pioneer artist Raden Saleh’s 1842 oil on canvas painting, In Ietzer Not (above), sold for a mere US$2.8 million at auction in 2011 compared with his 1855 painting, La Chasse au taureau sauvage (Banteng), which charted over US$11 million, including premium, in January this year

So, the main objective of this publication is to compile a list of auction benchmarks that offers a credible source of reference for Southeast Asian art. The records relate to works created by artists from Southeast Asia or foreign-born artists associated with the region.

The second aspect of this book is a series of interviews with some 40 personalities who are active in the Southeast Asian art market for their views on such records and market developments in their own locality.

The respondents include artists, collectors, consultants, dealers, gallerists, auction house operators, those involved in art fairs as well as people who track and study the market.

In fact, in the chapter on Malaysia, one of the respondents, Zurich-based Christopher H Tung, has allowed his research data, including pie charts and tables that relate to the local art market, to be reproduced. The research was done for Tung’s thesis for his Executive Masters in Art Market Studies programme at the University of Zurich last year.

Myanmar: Sai Myoe Myat, Shan Belle, 2005, Oil on canvas,102cm x 76cm. Auction record: US$5,598 (with premium)

Statistical reporting

The book aims to include diverse opinions on the subject for readers to have an idea of the difficulties and obstacles in tracking data in any financial or statistical reporting, especially in the art market.

The art market relates to the buying and selling of art, whether in the primary market handled mainly by galleries, artists and art fairs or the secondary market dominated by auction houses and other wheeler-dealers.

This is by no means an academic study. Rather it is a guide to help those involved in the art market in Southeast Asia — especially those new to the scene — to gain a deeper insight into what is going on behind the scenes. For example, one perennial question is, how reliable, valid or even believable are auction or art fair figures?

In dissecting a subject such as the “Southeast Asian art market”, one needs to call upon the very people who are involved in it either as a business or a serious hobby.

For the purpose of this publication, the focus was on countries with an established art market, namely Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Artprice.com

Principally, the auction data comes from Artprice.com and the most significant records were set at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions in Hong Kong, particularly for prominent artists of Southeast Asia.

The book also include records established at auctions held in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Singapore and Manila. But only records that are generally perceived to be reliable and valid are tracked. Therefore, only price records of selected auction houses are included, but they are enough to present a credible overview of the market.

Respondents

The respondents were selected based on recommendations by collectors, consultants and other professionals. They were selected from eight cities — Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, Yangon, Manila, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

This book project was actually undertaken by The Edge Galerie, a commercial entity that operates a gallery and an annual auction known as The Edge Auction, both established in 2013.

Interviewers

The main advantage is that the two interviewers in this project are directly related to the gallery and auction house’s operations. The project was led by The Edge Galerie general manager Johnni Wong and assistant manager Sarah Abu Bakar.

Anomalies

The focus is on auction benchmarks of the top-selling artists in the region, basically due to the availability of such records. But we are also mindful that there are occasional statistical anomalies and certain market players who can “influence” auction figures by direct or indirect intervention.

Knowing the local market scene is crucial to understand whether such data is valid or even reliable. This is of particular concern to us, especially when it comes to any artist who does not have a discernible track record on the sale of his work in his home market, let alone in an international auction. The old saying, “one swallow doesn’t make a summer”, comes to mind.

In short, auction benchmarks are generally reliable; it is just that you have to look out for the occasional blips on the radar of records. In order to do that, you have to be aware of local market situations — where the artist comes from and his career trajectory and accomplishments. Auction records do not happen in a vacuum or on a whim. There are certain factors that lead to one being established. And our respondents have plenty to say about such factors.

Market reports

When one talks about the art market and art transactions, it would necessarily encompass the whole ecosystem involving art galleries, private deals, auctions and fairs.

But the only readily available and trackable data comes from auctions. Such figures are supplied by online data providers that specialise in compiling and disseminating such statistics for a fee. But the drawback of such data is that the compilation relies heavily on the respective auction houses voluntarily sending in their latest results.

There is no verification of the validity or transparency of such figures. It is almost impossible for the data compiler to be able to discern the veracity of each record, owing to the sheer volume of such data coming in on a worldwide scale. On the other hand, there is also a significant number of auction houses that do not submit their auction results simply because they do not have the manpower or the inclination to contribute resources to an outside party that benefits commercially.

Another difficulty in tracking benchmarks is the need to be constantly vigilant in compiling new records, especially during the auction season, which is mainly twice a year.

Exaggeration

When it comes to art market reports commissioned by fair organisers, such reporting would obviously focus on bright market conditions that highlight the growing number of collectors, mushrooming private museums and the latest sparks in the art world, be they gifted artists or clever curators.

Also, the total sales figures posted by art fair promoters are notoriously difficult to verify because they are only estimates and often exaggerated.

When it comes to Southeast Asian art — often described as the last frontier of the art world — there are those who would have you believe that it is a relatively untapped market waiting to be harnessed.

Fragmented

Although a useful reference, the term “Southeast Asian art market” is actually a misnomer as the people who are actually in the local art trade do not quite see a unified market. In fact, the market in Southeast Asia is quite parochialistic and fragmented. The majority of collectors in each Southeast Asian nation, by and large, prefer to collect the works of their own country.

Therefore, auction benchmarks — or a lack of them — are useful indicators of market movements.

Johnni Wong is Arts and Culture general manager of The Edge Media Group. He is involved in promoting Asian, particularly Malaysian, works of art. Southeast Asian Art, Auction Benchmarks & Market Insights is available from The Edge Galerie at RM38 a copy. Email: [email protected]