Balinese Paintings in the Big Picture of Asian Art

by Michelle Chin, 2002

Art collectors have just completed a whirlwind tour attending the auctions of Southeast Asian paintings in Singapore on 7 April, Jakarta on 20 & 21 April and Hong Kong on 28 April 2002. Paintings by Balinese artists are often included in the art auctions held in March/April and September/October, but it would be more correct to say that the paintings inspired by Bali dominate the sales at Sotheby's Southeast Asian Paintings auction in Singapore, the Larasati-Glerum Pictures of Indonesia auction in Jakarta, and the Christie's Southeast Asian and 20th Century Indian Pictures auction in Hong Kong. Larasati-Glerum have also just inaugurated a new auction titled Harmonie: Treasures of Indonesian Arts auction which they plan to hold once a year.

The art auctions provide an excellent opportunity to view an immense range of art which otherwise could only be seen in museums, galleries or private collections all over the world. At the preview exhibitions held one or two days before each particular auction, you can view the paintings up close. Each auction can include 100 to 250 paintings, and you could easily be quite satisfied by attending the preview exhibition, without even needing to attend the actual auction at which business is the order of the day. In the auction sale room, it is no longer possible to view all of the actual art works: sometimes slides may be projected on a screen, or the paintings may be brought out one by one as each lot is auctioned, but then you will only see the work from a distance.

Apart from seeing a huge number of contemporary works, one often has the chance to see a rare work by Walter Spies, le Mayeur, Raden Saleh, Sudjojono, Trubus or Nashar. Art museums all over the world need to charge fairly high admission prices to their "blockbuster" temporary exhibitions, so in this sense attending an auction preview exhibition is excellent value for money - it's totally free, and you are most likely to be served refreshments!

Nyoman Sukari

As well as the auction previews, art galleries in Singapore, Jakarta and Hong Kong tend to schedule exhibition openings to tie in with the auction weekend, knowing that many collectors and dealers will be in town. In April 2002, Gajah Gallery (Singapore) held a solo exhibition by Made Djirna. Galerie Belvedere (Singapore) in cooperation with Seniwati Gallery of Ubud, Bali held a show of Asian women artists from Indonesia, India, the Philippines and Singapore with four of the 14 artists included being Balinese: Ni Made Suciarmi, Cok Mas Astiti, IGAK Murniasih and Ni Nyoman Sani. Over the weekend of 19-21 April 2002 several Jakarta galleries held group exhibitions which included young Balinese contemporary artists. An exhibition of paintings belonging to 15 art collectors from Magelang in Central Java was held at One Gallery. Balinese artists included in that exhibition were Made Djirna, Nyoman Sukari, Made Sukadana, Putu Wirantawan, Nyoman Gunarsa, Nyoman Masriadi, Agung Mangu Putra and Agung Wiranata. Jogja-based Balinese painter, I Gusti Ngurah Udiantara had a solo exhibition at Nadi Gallery in Jakarta.

The auctions attract art lovers, collectors, dealers, gallerists and artists, so there is the opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new contacts, and exchange the latest gossip. Even during the actual auction, when there is a sequence of less interesting lots, it can be fascinating to go outside to observe what's going on just outside the sale room. Sometimes it seems as if more business is being done outside the sale room than inside. You can see collectors, dealers, gallerists and artists exchange name cards, do deals, make dates, take notes, or set up their next exhibition, sale or purchase.

Art auctions are open to the public and free. You can wander in and out of the sale room as you choose. It is just like a market place where the aim is buying and selling. In this particular market, it is art that is being bought and fought over by the various collectors, who either attend the auction in person, send an absentee bid prior to the actual auction, or bid via telephone against the bidders in the room. It can be very exciting to witness the proceedings, especially when a work achieves a selling price of several hundred thousand dollars, and sometimes even more than a million Singapore or Hong Kong dollars or several billion Indonesian rupiah!

For a newcomer, it can be confusing to keep track of who is bidding for what, and the pace can sometimes move at breakneck speed on a roller-coaster ride heading towards the sale of a highly-priced painting. At other times it can be excruciatingly slow, just like being stuck in a traffic jam, because the auctioneer may drag the proceedings out in an attempt to sell a painting for just a bit more money, even when there may not be a lot of interest amongst the bidders in the room.

Attending an art auction for the first time may seem as strange and unintelligible as it is for a tourist who by chance comes across a Balinese cockfight. The language, the gestures, the currency, the rules, keeping track of who is betting or bidding on what, and who has actually won may all go over your head if you can't keep up with the pace of the dramatic action being played out in the cockfighting ring. The same is true of the auction sale room. It can often seem as if you are in a gambling den, watching a game being played out - the stakes are high, the players are extremely determined, and at the end of the day, many of them walk away having won their bet. Later, others will tell how they lost to a certain friend or enemy or rival. Many battles are fought in the auction room and of course there are both winners and losers.

The three major auction houses feature Indo-European paintings which are works by foreign artists who lived and worked in Indonesia. Balinese-inspired paintings by Walter Spies, Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres, Rudolf Bonnet, Willem Gerard Hofker, Antonio Blanco and Arie Smit are highly sought after and almost always achieve high hammer prices at the auctions. Works by Bali-based artists Richard Winkler and Paul Husner have recently been included in some of the auctions.

Sotheby’s auction of Southeast Asian Paintings in Singapore on 7 April 2002, fetched a total sum of just over SIN$5.65 million. The "star" of the auction was a painting by Walter Spies, Heimkehrende Javaner (Javanese Returning Home) which changed hands for SIN$967,000 (approximately Ro 4.95 billion) after competitive bidding in the packed sale room.

A recent addition in the Sotheby's auction is the 'Indonesian New Contemporary' category. In April 2002, paintings by Balinese artists Made Djirna, Pande Ketut Taman, Nyoman Erawan and Anak Agung Oka Sudarsana were included. Sotheby's are proud of the success achieved by the works in this category and that they are doing something for the younger artists. Mr. Mok Kim Chuan says, "We see pretty good growth in that category of younger artists. At the moment 95% of this category is selling, which is a good sign for young Indonesian contemporary artists, and the figures show from various countries in the Southeast Asian region that the majority of Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean collectors are buying new contemporary."

Dewa Putu Mokoh
Larasati-Glerum Pictures of Indonesia Fine Art Auction is held twice a year in Jakarta. In April 2002, Larasati-Glerum offered 143 Indo-European, modern and new contemporary Indonesian paintings and sculptures for sale. They were very pleased to have sold 92% of the lots with a sales total of just over Rp 13.2 billion (approximately US$1.5 million). Larasati-Glerum also featured a new auction called Harmonie: Treasures of Indonesian Arts showcasing paintings, prints, jewellery, textiles, masks, antiques, wood carvings and accessories. In April 2002, Larasati-Glerum offered 104 lots in their Harmonie auction: 88% of the total lots were sold for a sales total of just under Rp 1.2 billion.

Work by Balinese artists at the Larasati sale included a painting by Anak Agung Sobrat, Life in Bali (oil on canvas, 64 x 93 cm) which sold for Rp 260 million, more than twice the estimated price of Rp 90-120 million. Paintings by Dewa Putu Mokoh and Ketut Regig achieved good prices. In the Harmonie auction there were works by Gusti Ketut Kobot, Ida Bagus Made, Ida Bagus Made Togog, Dewa Nyoman Jati, and Ida Bagus Made Nadera. Reflecting a general lack of interest on the part of collectors for traditional Balinese paintings, the works by these artists were sold for "bargain basement" prices. Four paintings by Ida Bagus Made Togog (Batuan, 1913-1986), offered with estimates ranging between Rp 4-8 million, were sold for prices ranging between Rp 6.5 to Rp 15 million. An exquisite work on paper by Gusti Ketut Kobot (Sita with Rawana, 1937, watercolour on paper, 25 x 37 cm) sold for Rp 22 million. Ida Bagus Made's A Mythological Scene (pen and brush in grey, 45 x 36 cm) sold for Rp 20 million.

It is now an excellent time for buyers but not sellers of traditional Balinese paintings. Although these paintings were major objects of desire during the Indonesian art boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is no longer the case that they are still highly sought. The new generation of young Indonesian collectors are more interested in contemporary art. Foreign collectors also seem to have lost interest in the traditional Balinese paintings. Even if they were not able to attend the actual auction in person, they could have made their presence felt with telephone bids or absentee bids, but obviously they were not sufficiently interested in the works which were offered. This could result in a general phasing out of traditional Balinese paintings at the auctions, with the exception perhaps of works Ida Bagus Made, Anak Agung Sobrat and I Gusti Nyoman Lempad.

The results of the Larasati-Glerum art auctions and general art market trends show that the majority of Indonesian and foreign art collectors are now much more interested in the works of contemporary artists, and the high prices realised at the auction reflect this trend. Many of the works by young, contemporary Balinese artists sold for higher prices than the paintings by traditional Balinese artists such as IB Made Togog, Gusti Ketut Kobot, IB Made Nadera and Ida Bagus Made.

Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai

Ida Bagus Ketut Panda

Collectors are very keen to acquire works by Nyoman Sukari, Nyoman Masriadi, Pande Ketut Taman, and Made Djirna. Agung Mangu Putra's painting Imajinasi Bawah Laut (1994, oil on canvas, 100 x 175 cm) was offered with a pre-auction estimate of Rp 25-30 million and it eventually sold for the amazing price of Rp 100 million. Other contemporary Balinese artists represented at the Larasati-Glerum April auctions included Nyoman Sukari, Nyoman Masriadi, Pande Ketut Taman, Bawa Antara, Made Duatmika, Nyoman Gunarsa, Made Gunawan, Made Hantaguna, Nyoman Nuarta, Wayan Sadu, Putu Sudiana and Made Wiradana.

Prices achieved at auctions show us whose work is in demand. An art auction is not a curated exhibition nor do the auctions claim to present only works of the best quality. The selection of works offered for sale at any art auction depends greatly on what is available at the time and what is in demand. The auction houses all have their own "wish-lists" of works by certain artists which they know they can sell.

In many ways the auction houses are matchmakers. Their aim is to create a happy marriage between their clients or buyers (art collectors) and their vendors. An art work will not be included in any particular auction unless there are several potential "spouses". The two parties involved - the auction house as selling agent for the vendor, and the buyers who are the clients of the auction houses - are looking for a "perfect mate".

Auction houses, however, have worked out a better system than the matchmakers of old in that they make their money from both the bride and the bridegroom, the buyer and the seller. True love - in this case, possessing a work of art - has its price, plus a premium of 10-18%. "Divorce", or relieving oneself of a work of art, requires paying a seller's commission to the auction house.

Christie's auction in Hong Kong on 28 April 2002 offered 108 lots for sale. Christie's did not include any works by Balinese artists in their auction, but almost 20% of the lots offered in the sale of Southeast Asian and 20th Century Indian paintings were inspired by the "idea of Bali". These included 18 paintings by Indo-European artists such as Willem Gerard Hofker, Rudolf Bonnet, le Mayeur, Arie Smit, Antonio Blanco and Roland Strasser, all of which sold for rocket-high prices. Subject matter inspired by Bali was also present in works by Indonesian artists Abdul Aziz, Affandi and Rusli. In their selection of Indonesian art, Christie's have for the moment abandoned works by traditional Balinese artists, preferring to focus on the Indo-European and modern Indonesian painters. Perhaps Christie's have come to the conclusion that the "idea of Bali" is more sellable and therefore more profitable than art by actual Balinese artists.

Sotheby's and Larasati-Glerum continue to include work by Balinese artists. While Sotheby's places the more traditional paintings in a category called 'Balinese Paintings', neither auction house places work by the Balinese contemporary artists in a sub-category of 'Balinese Contemporary'. Their work is to be found in the category of 'Indonesian New Contemporary' in the Sotheby's auctions, and in the Larasati auction they are to be found amongst the all-encompassing 'Pictures of Indonesia' description of the auction. In the Sotheby's and Christie's Southeast Asian Paintings auctions, and in the Larasati 'Pictures of Indonesia' auction, the Balinese artists are labelled as Indonesian. It is no longer important to emphasise their Balinese origins. As part of the 'big picture' of contemporary Asian art, their work gains important international exposure at the auctions in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta.

Works created by Indo-European and modern Indonesian painters greatly outnumber the works by young, contemporary artists in all three auctions. For the time being, the auction houses will stick to their formula because there is still a great demand for works by the Indo-European artists and modern painters such as Affandi, Hendra Gunawan, Sudjojono, Srihadi Soedarsono, Popo Iskandar, Djoko Pekik and Widayat in the case of Indonesia. Needless to add, due to their higher prices, these paintings also earn a lot more money for the auction houses.

Eventually, the situation will change. The auction houses acknowledge that works by the Indo-European artists and some of the modern Indonesian masters are becoming harder to source. This is only natural because there is a limited, finite number of these paintings. Supply cannot keep up with demand, and in the case of some artists, demand is dwindling to a handful of collectors who can afford to pay the sometimes exorbitant prices of paintings by Walter Spies, le Mayeur or Willem Hofker. In any case, the auction houses have noted that most of the new, young collectors and some of the established, senior collectors are more interested in contemporary art. Fortunately for the auction houses, these are much easier to source as there is an infinite number of work available, and provenance is more easily verified when dealing with living artists.

Michelle Chin is a writer, translator and art consultant based in Jogjakarta. She has been living in Indonesia for most of the past twenty years.

[published in Bali Echo, June-July 2002]