Southeast Asian art rides new popularity at auction

A painting depicting a 1940s village scene of Indonesia under Dutch rule will be a star attraction at an auction where prices are expected to reflect growing interest in Southeast Asian art, experts say.

The piece, "Stand Guard For Our Motherland", painted by Indonesian artist S. Sudjojono in 1965, is tipped to beat its estimate of up to $385,000 at the Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong on April 4, a spokesman for the auctioneers said.

Sudjojono's "picture of patriotism" and 144 other contemporary and modern pieces by Southeast Asian artists are expected to rake in a total of more than $4.6 million.

"The Sudjojono piece is fresh to the market, has historical significance, artistic merits and great provenance," Sotheby's Southeast Asian Paintings department head Mok Kim-Chuan said.

"That is why we are optimistic about his potential of fetching good prices."

Prices of Indonesian artworks have been rising since the mid-2000s. They can be sold for millions of dollars at auctions now, compared to "only $8,000 maximum" in 1999, Mok told AFP during the auction's preview in Jakarta.

"It's well established in the region in terms of art collecting or artists who are producing artworks. To the rest of the world, Indonesia's art is now considered as an emerging market," he added

"Bali Life" by Indonesian modern artist Lee Man Fong went for $3.24 million at Sotheby's sale last year, making it the most expensive Southeast Asian artwork ever sold at auction.

Another piece "The Man From Bantul" by Indonesian contemporary artist I Nyoman Masriadi was sold for $1 million at a 2008 auction - five times more than the organisers had expected.

The 2008 global financial crisis hit the pockets of art collectors hard so they turned to Indonesia for cheaper but high-quality artwork, Mok said.

"The price range was still very much affordable. It was high, it was rising but it wasn't like crazy high as Chinese contemporary," he said.

Indonesia's unique and diverse cultures, vibrant heritage and rich history have inspired the country's talents to produce quality pieces, a leading Indonesian art collector Oei Hon Djien said.

They are sold at a fraction of the price commanded by Chinese artists, considered to be among the biggest players in the global art market, he said.

Twenty-nine-year-old businessman Daniel Joseph, said he buys artworks for "investment and personal enjoyment".

"Art will be a good investment as long as you buy top artworks," he said, adding he has bought more than 50 paintings at foreign or domestic auctions.

Joseph, who has been going to art galleries since he was nine, said he admires the work of late Indonesian artists such as S. Sudjojono, Affandi and Hendra Gunawan.

"There's a certain charisma about their works. You can see the artists' passion," he said.

Interest has spread to Europe and the US, Mok said.

"Looking at where it is going, I think very soon Southeast Asian artworks will be on the map," he said, pointing to six Indonesian art exhibitions in European museums this year, notably in the Asian art Guimet museum in Paris.

"In the past, there was only one show in Europe maximum," Mok said.

Collector Djien said the art industry in Indonesia could be making bigger strides if the government provided necessary art infrastructure and supported local talents with funding.

"We have no decent fine art museum here to speak of. Unlike in India and China, the Indonesian government doesn't give any funding to local artists," he said.

"Our successful artists are all lone fighters. Can you imagine if they receive some government support, they will shine much more brightly."

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