INTERVIEW ART MARKET MALAYSIA ART AUCTIONS
For the last couple of years, the Malaysian art scene has been opening up to visitors. The 4th International Art Expo Malaysia, held at the end of October this year, attracted large numbers of visitors and buyers and the event has been instrumental in encouraging the Malaysian art market. While this expo is perhaps Malaysia’s best known international art event, the real story could be said to begin with Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers.
The Malaysian art market has come so far in recent years due to a growing secondary art market. Before the market started to expand, Malaysian art works were sold through a private market by a select group of dealers. Malaysian contemporary art was notoriously undervalued and it is because of this that the need arose to create greater public awareness of and accessibility to Malaysian contemporary art.
Held in August this year, Henry Butcher’s auction of modern and contemporary art is arguably Malaysia’s largest and first professionally run auction event dedicated exclusively to Malaysian art. With decades of experience in the auctioning of machinery and real estate, Henry Butcher moved into art auctioning with the founding of Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers in 2008. The company held its first art auction in February 2009 in conjunction with a charity event, where it sold the majority of the art works on auction.
In order to find out more about the Malaysian art market from someone close to its roots, we lined up an exclusive Art Radar interview with the president of Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers, Lim Eng Chong.
Can you tell us about your company? How long has Henry Butcher Malaysia been running?
“Basically our company started as a real estate company. Henry Butcher opened its first office in Malaysia about 23 years ago. [We] provided real estate professional services. Since then, the company has grown, expanding our business all over Malaysia.”
When did you realise that you wanted to specialise in art auctions? Why did Henry Butcher start specialising in art auctions?
“Previously we only did auctions of real estate, as well as plant machinery. For some time I have thought of going into art auctions, such as luxurious items and antiquities. I have had an interest in art and a couple of years ago I developed a personal interest in collecting art. When I checked into all of the auctions in other parts of the world, like Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Melbourne, we found that there were very few Malaysian art pieces that were auctioned by the big auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I found that it was not really right. I know Malaysia has a very rich culture and also has very talented artists that were more than ready to be highlighted.
There seemed to be nobody who was representing the Malaysian collectors to share their art pieces and also to help the people to collect through auctions. So that was how the whole idea started.
Having been in the auction business for decades, I felt Henry Butcher could fill the gap in the local art market. In order for that to happen, you have to promote the art market here.”
How long has Henry Butcher been holding art auctions?
“Not [for] very long. We started two years ago. Because it is a new business for us and for the whole market, we took our time surveying the market. In 2009, last year, we helped [with] auctioning for charities. This was very successful and … [we] were encouraged. We took our time to do our homework in order to organise our first auction, which happened in August this year.”
When talking about Henry Butcher Malaysia, who are the experts working there? What are their backgrounds?
“One of the shareholders and directors for Henry Butcher, Mr. Vincent Sim, is a collector as well as a gallery owner. He has been active in this area for a long time, between twenty to thirty years. He is also the founder and organiser of Art Expo Malaysia, the very successful and the only art expo in Malaysia. He has a lot of knowledge of art and also a lot of contacts.
Together with our auction experience, our organisational capacity plus his experience and connections in the arts, I think we form a very good partnership.
We also have a team of consultants and advisers who have been involved in the art world for many years. Each of them have experience in their own area of expertise.”
Based on articles about Henry Butcher’s August 2010 art auction, we believe this was the first of its kind ever to be held in Malaysia. What style of Malaysian art was sought out? Which works by which Malaysian artists proved popular?
“I think we were the first ones to hold a professional auction.
Before the auction, we had 300 works that we narrowed down to 62 works. I think there are two very popular categories here in Malaysia. The number one category is the pioneer artists. These artists generally started the Malaysian art scene; artists such as Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Yong Mun Sen, Datuk Mohd Hoessein Enas and Chia Yu Chien. The second would be the contemporary artists, the younger artists who have become very popular. Among these younger artists are Jalaini Abu Hassan, Zulkifli Yusoff, Pheh It Hao, Yee I-Lann and Kow Leong Kiang.
Was there anything, which surprised you during the August 2010 art auction? For example, were any unexpected sales made?
“We did not expect the event to be successful…. Because we had just started and it was very new, for us and for the market, we had to work very fast to get art works from the collectors and galleries. We managed to get about 62 pieces which we thought were good quality. Most of them were works from pioneer artists. We were very surprised [with] the number of people who attended the auction. It exceeded our expectations … I think it was around 300 to 400 visitors. There was standing room only because we were expecting 200 people to come. Eighty percent of the art works that were in the auction were sold, so the amount of pieces that were sold was about 52. The prices of the works were very good. These were a few surprises.
But it shows that there is actually a market for secondary sales, not primary sales. Primary [sales] are from the artists, if you go to the galleries. [The paintings we sell] are from collectors and also from galleries. They have some works that we take care of.”
Within the art market, who do you see as your competitors?
“So far, I think, we are the only home-bred Malaysian company that is doing an art auction in Malaysia. There are no others. There might be small auctions houses which we are not aware of but on a major basis we are the only ones. Of course, after this success, there may be others who want to consider forming auction companies or other big companies from overseas may come in.
It’s good that we have competition because our idea is to create a very healthy market for secondary sales of art works. There is an idea to encourage collecting and to encourage people to [find out] more about Malaysian art.”
What are the main risks and challenges in today’s art market? What is the biggest problem or challenge the Malaysian art market is facing at the moment?
“There are a few problems. One of them is in the area of information. For example, if you have a piece of work that you want to sell then it is very difficult to know what the right price is. Because even if you know that a piece of work is made by Ibrahim Hussein, the most famous artist in Malaysia, and you want to sell it, you have to verify it or think of what price you want to sell it for, because there is no transparent market. Ibrahim Hussein is sold in the market privately. You hear about it but there is no professional information or data that you can get. It is very difficult and if you want to look into an artist’s background, for example, there is some data but not a lot of central data banks.
There’s a lack of good information storage and archives. That is a problem in Malaysia.”
But there are opportunities that you see within the art market?
“Definitely the positive [outlook for] the Malaysian art market is tremendous and because of the cultural influences, it makes it unique. Earlier I said that we lack information, but there is also a lack of an open active secondary market and no auctions. It is not easy for a foreign collector to buy and sell Malaysian art. The collectors … are very serious and they have a lot of time to spend on researching. It would be very difficult for them otherwise.”
Once you have good information and if the secondary market is active, then you will find that there are many local collectors as well as foreign collectors who will look seriously into Malaysian collections.
You see, our artists are very talented, as talented as the Indonesian artists, for example. But Malaysian artists are not so well accepted in the region. First are the Indonesian artists, then [artists from] the Philippines and Vietnam. They are now getting very popular in the region and overseas. Malaysian art has a long way to go, but I see that there are big opportunities.”
What sources do you rely on to keep up with art market information?
“For us to start an auction and to do well we have to go to the galleries. These top galleries specialise in [certain] artists and also certain kinds of art. Then, we have to go to the libraries to learn more about the artists and their works. Afterwards, we have to go to the top individual collectors because every individual collector specialises in a certain kind of artist, but we also have to go to the artists themselves in order to know more. As you can see, it is very time consuming and elaborate.
It is different from the Western world. You just type in a name of an artist and you can get a lot of certain information about [them].”
What makes Malaysian art different or unique from other Asian art?
“It is very simple, but it is a personal opinion. Malaysia is a cultural centre for us. Why? Because it is a mixture, a boiling pot of different and major cultures. Our artists are influenced by many elements of our local culture. We have Chinese culture, we have Malay culture and we have Indian culture. So you can see, the cultures influence each other and they mix together and from it produce interesting art pieces. You have Chinese artists who paint [about] Malay traditional custom and culture. There are also Malay artists who create Indian art. The art of another culture, the interaction and the cultural influences make Malaysian art so interesting and unique.”
Was there any internal interest in Malaysian art before the past few years?
“Malaysian art is very rare and it is very well supported by local collectors. But because local collectors are normally very private, the collection and the trading [of Malaysian art] is very confidential. Most people who are not in the business won’t … be aware of what is happening in the art market.
That is where and why we come in. We want to make it more public and encourage more open information and open exchange.”
Is the Malaysian art scene now receiving greater external interest?
“There seems to be a growing interest but we have to do more to encourage [overseas collectors]. In fact, we have discovered that a lot of our good works were actually bought by foreigners who have been to Malaysia before. They found that the works were interesting and bought them ten to twenty years ago. These people either worked in Malaysia or the works came from the embassies. These are the people who actually recognise the quality of Malaysian art.
Now, because we had an auction, they actually [give] their work to us in order to sell [it]. If you keep on doing it successfully then more and more foreigners will be encouraged to come here and collect more pieces. Because they know they have a place to sell their art works.”
Can you share with us your views on the art scene in Southeast Asia and any regional differences you have noticed, in particular, between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore?
“I really don’t have any authority, but I have noticed that there is very strong support for Indonesian art from the Indonesians themselves. Collectors are willing to invest more in art in Indonesia recently. Maybe it is because of the success and presence of a good secondary market. In Singapore there are so many auctions, like Borobudur. Most of the time they are selling Indonesian art works, such as from I Nyoman Masriadi, from younger Indonesian artists, but also Chinese art. Some are being auctioned in Singapore and Hong Kong.
In Singapore, there seems to be little support for Singapore artists locally. Maybe because Singapore is a very open country and they are encouraged by top investors. I mean, Singapore itself is very open for investments, but investing in Singapore is very expensive. They invest in London, in China, New York and all around the world. This applies … in art. If they invest in everything, then the appreciation for art could be good. They invest very heavily in Chinese art, they invest heavily in Indonesian art.
Can you name some interesting galleries and non-profit spaces for our readers to explore if they visit Malaysia?
“I think one of the most well-known and most respected galleries in Malaysia is Valentine Willie Fine Arts. They are an authority that have been selling art pieces for many decades. [Valentine Willie] really loves art and is very professional about it. His gallery is a pioneer when it comes to modern and contemporary art.
There are many other galleries, like Annexe Gallery in Central Market. It is a space that frequently showcases up-and-coming young talent and is worth exploring. Other spaces that regularly showcase young talent are HOM (House of Matahati) and Rimbun Dahan in Johor, with new works coming on stream regularly out of their much coveted artist-residency programmes. Galeri Petronas hold regular exhibitions of mainly contemporary art works with an interesting line-up of public programmes to encourage a love of art among Malaysians, including some very interesting art programmes for children. Bank Negara has a well-stocked and well-managed museum showcasing Malaysian art [produced] throughout the history of this nation.
Those in Penang can visit the museum at USM (University Sains Malaysia) which has a sizeable collection. Of course, not forgetting our National Art Gallery that stages exhibitions of their permanent collection and new works all year long.”
Are there any books or websites you would recommend which help people to learn more about Malaysian contemporary art?
“New collectors wondering ‘Where?’ or ‘How do I start?’ may refer to a book called 30 Art Friends. 30 Art Friends is a plausible effort by our local collectors to share their journey in art collection (together with their Singaporean counterparts).
Many of our reputable commercial galleries are also actively publishing books that document their artists’ work and [which] are great tools for those who wish to learn more about Malaysian contemporary art. Arteri is an online art portal that is very much on the pulse of the local contemporary art market and maintains an up-to-date calendar of art happenings around the country (especially [what is happening] in Kuala Lumpur).”
Is there any particular news or advice you would like to share with our readers?
“I think, they should start collecting now, before it gets really popular in the region!”
About Lim Eng Chong
Lim Eng Chong is the President of the Henry Butcher Malaysia Group. He is a registered valuer, an estate agent and a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Together with Long Tian Chek, he founded Henry Butcher Malaysia in 1987. Together they nurtured the company from an office of four staff to a national network of 21 offices with over 300 personnel.
- Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann mixes batik and photography in “Boogeyman” exhibition – October 2010 – includes lots of images of the artist’s work
- Contemporary Malaysian art fairs encourage tourist dollar – September 2010 – on an art fair that showcases Malaysian artists’ works
- 27 contemporary Southeast Asian artists featured in ASEAN-Korea photo exhibition – July 2010 – we list and briefly describe each artist
- Top 14 books on Southeast Asian art by Adeline Ooi – April 2009 – an excellent resource post if you want to learn more about Southeast Asian art and artists
- Art consultants choose Singapore for Asian headquarters – Herald Tribune – September 2008 – some views on the advantages of Singapore as an art business location