The meditative blue, turquoise and green hues of Yeoh Jin Leng’s Melawati series draws me back to simpler times when most of this nation was still covered by an abundance of green. “This is a rare piece,” acknowledges Polenn Sim, director of Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers. He tells me that the almost 90-year-old pioneer abstractionist of Malaysian landscapes had confessed that he rarely used these hues in his subsequent works.
“He learnt that his piece was up for auc¬tion so he paid a visit recently. He stood here for a long time and viewed his work word¬lessly,” adds Sim, a touch of reverential awe obvious in his voice. “His brush strokes are deceptively simple, but there’s so much depth in this painting that you can’t help but be drawn to it.”
As Galeri Prima plays host to some of the finest works that Malaysian and Southeast Asian artists have to offer, Sim has plenty of stories to tell while walking me through the cavernous space. For this edition, he shares that Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers is offering a whopping 181 lots of both contemporary and rare works. Sourced from private collectors, these pieces will fall under the hammer of the auctioneer tonight where art lovers, collectors and investors alike will be given the opportunity to own breath-taking artworks from established pioneers of art, up-and-coming artists as well as emerging artists in the Southeast Asian art scene.
While many collectors buy from gal¬leries throughout the year, those prices remain private. Auctions, says Sim, are therefore the single available public bell¬wether of the art market.
The sales are where you’ll see whether the big spenders are up for spending; whether collectors are parting with their best material; what enables an auction house like Henry Butcher’s to guarantee the starting price of Serangga-28, a painting by one of Southeast Asia’s leading modernists Abdul Latiff Mohidin, at a whopping RM 120,000.
The natural fibrous quality of the Tibetan paper on which Serangga-28 is etched upon is used for full effect, with Latiff’s sombre swirls and shapes that are unlike any insects you’ve ever seen. “It’s beautiful,” I admit and Sim nods enthusiastically with a smile before remarking: “He was inspired to make this series while working on the Malay translation of Faust, a literary mag-num opus by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about a necromancer who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power.”
Still, the auction also consists of a range of pieces at accessible entry prices. “There are many that begin at RM1,000,” explains Sim, adding: “We try and keep the esti¬mates at that threshold to appeal to those who might be looking to decorate a space or start a collection. I think it’s a great sale for new collectors to get a sense of what the auction process is like.”
ART AS AN INVESTMENT
While auction houses like Butcher’s are usually assumed to be the playground for the wealthy, Sim stresses that collecting art is no longer the status symbol for the rich. “My theory is that so many people with money have jumped into this market and raised its status, that it has created a false sense among others who like art but feel that it’s somehow not really for them,” he says candidly. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Art is for everyone.”
And it has never been easier to buy art, he adds. Over the past two decades, a host of online sites selling contemporary art have sprung up — from small, online-only galleries to big auction houses like Butcher’s. “Just be sure to buy your art from reputable galleries and even auction houses,” he advises.
Shows, exhibitions and auctions are great places to pick up an original piece of artwork that you can enjoy looking at, but which — says Sim — could also turn out to be a savvy financial investment. “There’s a saying that goes ‘Appreciate Art Appreci¬ates’,” he quips with a chuckle.
“The worth of a piece lies in the artis¬tic journey of its creator. How many solos has he gotten? Did he participate in group shows just locally or abroad? Has he won any awards? Has any museum collected his pieces? Who are the collectors that go after his pieces in the market? All these factors do affect the pricing,” explains Sim. Some buyers, he reveals, conscientiously do their homework. Scrutinising price lists and comparing them with the catalogue reproductions of major auctions, they try to sound out the hearts and minds of recent buyers.
An example Sim offers is Chang Fee Ming — one of the most successful and highly regarded contemporary water¬colourists in Southeast Asia. “During his first show in 1989, you could buy a 56 cm by 76 cm piece at RM1,500. That’s the gal¬lery price. Now that same piece is worth RM 250,000!” he says. Since 1989, Chang’s acclaimed works have been exhibited and collected throughout the world and have appeared regularly at Christie’s auctions since 1995. “His growth as a reputable art-ist has caused his paintings to increase in value exponentially.”
Many of those buying high-value art¬works however, argue that the money involved is less important than gaining pos¬session of a unique object of unimpeach¬able beauty or artistic value (and, perhaps, the chance to stand out from the gilded crowd). The idea of art as an investment is a secondary function, if at all. “While it’s not wrong to treat art as an investment of sorts, you’re really supposed to buy art because you like it. It’s a terribly corny phrase, but you do get a ‘dividend of pleasure’,” says Sim, smiling. His advice to would-be art buyers is: “Start with a small piece that you fall in love with. Follow your instinct.”
Does he follow his instincts when buying art himself? “Oh yes!” he replies with a grin, confiding that the first piece of art he purchased was a Peter Harris’ self-portrait. Peter Harris was Malaysia’s first art superintendent and founder of the Wednesday Art Group which groomed and inspired many locally-born artists to become the heavyweights they are now in the local art scene. “My salary back then was only around RM2,800. I saved up for about one and a half years and bought this piece for about RM6,000!” he recalls, laughing.
AN ART PEDIGREE
We stop by Datuk Mohammed Hoessein Enas’ melancholic Self Portrait and it’s clear that this is one of Sim’s favourite pieces in the gallery. “This is a rare glimpse into the man behind the art. It was painted when he was just 46-years-old,” he says softly. The late Indonesian-born Hoessein was consid¬ered to be one of the earliest generations of Malaysian artists and was known for his reputation as one of the best portrait art¬ists in the art scene. He was appointed as a royal portrait painter by the-then Sultan of Selangor in 1990 and is well remembered for his Shell-commissioned paintings called The Malaysians in 1956.
Sim’s knowledge of art is undeniably impressive. The youthful-looking former sales representative reveals earnestly that he grew up surrounded by art pieces because his father was a collector himself. “You can’t help but be influenced by all of that!” he says, chuckling. His father, Vin¬cent Sim, an avid art collector, dealer and gallery owner founded Art Expo Malaysia (Southeast Asia’s longest running art fair) 11 years ago with the aim of promoting the arts as well as local galleries and artists to the masses. “My father started the art fair because he felt Malaysia should have one,” explains Sim simply, before adding: “In order for our country to achieve a full mature art boom, we need a lot of elements including an art expo, an auction house, art institutions, and many more. My father felt the need to fill in the gaps of this growing art ecosystem.”
It wasn’t easy, he admits. “The first couple of years were tough as my family bore the huge deficit which arose from the escalating cost of organising a huge expo. To help my father realise his dream, my brother and I quit our jobs to focus on making the expo work.” Did he mind the sacrifice? “No!” he quickly answers. “We do have a strong passion for the arts too, having grown up with paintings and artworks all around the house!”
Things turned around soon after, and when Lim Eng Chong, director and founding partner of Henry Butcher Malaysia obtained an auction licence, he approached the Sim family to partner in setting up an art auction house in Malaysia — a first of its kind in this nation — they quickly agreed. “After all, that was exactly what a thriving art ecosystem needed and so we filled that gap,” says Sim, shrugging his shoulders. And thus, Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers was born.
Auction houses play an important role in providing a benchmark and reference point for art prices. Henry Butcher opened in 2009, and in the following year, the first proper auction in Malaysia was organised, recording a whopping RM1.7 million in sales. To date, the pioneer auction house has sold about 1,800 pieces of work through auctions. “The rapid growth of the art mar¬ket has since birthed more auction houses and galleries. There’s a growing demand for art in this country,” adds Sim, with pride.
He tells me that the auction house receives around 400 submissions from collectors. “Images are sent to us and our panel, comprising people with different expertise in the art world, selects and shortlists about 180 pieces,” he explains. “Once the pieces are selected, we’d need to go out and visibly see the real paintings to assess their condition and meet the owners. Some of my best moments are derived from the excitement of stepping into a collector’s home to view an art piece for the first time. It’s a veritable treasure hunt,” enthuses Sim.
Eyes shining, he adds: “The joy of being able to recognise and appreciate a master¬piece even when the owners aren’t aware of its worth. now that’s something that can’t be purchased with any amount of money!”
And that, I realise, is the indelible stamp that art has over your heart. It communi¬cates with us on different levels — language and culture are no barriers. “You don’t have to understand the narrative. It’s the voice that’s important. So buy what speaks to you,” concludes Sim, with a smile.