Major auction houses highlight Southeast Asian art as hot new investment

The words ‘Southeast Asian art’ have been on the lips of increasing numbers of investors in recent months, with many believing that the genre could be the next big thing for the art market.

The art-form has been rocking the art world’s boat in the last two to three years, enjoying far greater exposure than ever before at art fairs and exhibitions across the globe. Indeed, huge prices have been generated by some pieces, such as the sale of Pasukan Kita Yang Dipimpin Pangeran Diponegoro – translated as Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro – by modern Indonesian artist S. Sudjojono. This piece sold in Hong Kong in 2014 for $7.48 million.

However, while everyone agrees that the genre is clearly making waves in the global art world, there remain differences of opinion as to whether it is a solid and reliable investment. Major auction houses including Sotheby’s and Christie’s report that art produced from the region has seen enormous and constant price increases over the last few years and they believe investors should act now and invest in a hot new commodity.

According to Dexter How, Southeast Asian art specialist at one of auction house Christie’s bases, art in Southeast Asia has enjoyed around “20-30 per cent growth over the last five to ten years but it still depends on factors such as the rarity, provenance, and condition of the piece.”

While traditionally, Southeast Asian art has accounted for about 15-17 per cent of total sales for Christie’s auctions, in 2015, this rose to account for 25 per cent of total sales of Asian art pieces in November.

Mr How added: “The demand is coming from [within] the region, but we’ve also seen demand growth from greater Asia, Europe and US collectors.”

Christie’s confirmed that the highest price that has been paid for one single piece of art from Southeast Asia was ‘Bali Life’ by Singaporean artist Lee Man Fong, which went under the hammer for $3.24 million in 2010.

The head of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian Art at Sotheby’s, Mok Kim Chuan, agrees wholeheartedly with Mr How about the uptick in interest in the art form, saying “prices for Southeast Asian Art are getting stronger and sales are going from strength to strength,” as investors begin to view the art form in a more serious manner, which in turn will assist with its position on the world art stage.

However, despite the positivity from the auction houses, one expert remains unconvinced about the solidity of investing in the art form. Low Sze Wee, director of curatorial and collections at the National Gallery Singapore, which opened to the public in November 2015 and houses one of the biggest collections of modern Southeast Asian art in the world, recently told CNBC that “the appreciation of Southeast Asian art in financial terms is so hard to predict, that you would be assured that you wouldn’t lose too much money only if you buy art at the higher-end”. Indeed, “nobody knows” which form of art will rise in value, if at all, the National Gallery director said.

Sze Wee also suggested that there were geographical factors at play: “Southeast Asia doesn’t generate as much headlines as the Middle East, and there are also far larger countries in Asia, both economically and politically.”

Both Sze Wee and the auction houses agree that the mainstay of the region’s demand comes from Indonesian and Phillippino art, partly because both countries have a further reaching and older art history and a more established practice of art collection.

One thing that may sway potential investors to Southeast Asian art is the price point – it remains relatively low compared to art in other regions, therefore making it a popular entry option for new collectors.

Indeed, Sotheby’s Mok said: “Collectors can get their hands on a quality Southeast Asian art piece by a bluechip artist for a fraction of the price paid for an artwork from the more mature and established categories.”

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