Hedging the Hendras

Altough a distant second to Chinese contemporary art in terms of price, Marc Almargo finds that Indonesia paintings are able to keep paddle-wielding art buyers on the edge of their seats.

Ahoard of Hendra Gunawan nearly eclipsed the 172 lots offerred at the Larasati auction in October last year. Owned by Jusuf Wanandi, the rarely glimpsed masterpieces that are under the care of Singapore Art Museum were shown toghether for the first time during the auction preview at the Marriott Hotel Singapore. The nine canvases, three of which were about 4m long, drew as much public attention as the pices an auction. "I wanted to educate the public by showing them the variety and excellent quality of Indonesian artworks, especially those that are inaccessible to them," says Daniel Komala, president director of Larasati auctioneers, who handpicked the paintings for the exhibition.

None of the paintings were idllic - although exuberant colours concealed less-than-pretty aspects of Indonesia life in a style that is vintage Gunawan - yet the crowd showed palpable interest. Four days later, with auction results announced, it was clear that Komala may have inched closer to his goal. Contemporary Indonesian art did exceedingly well, beginning with Nyoman Masriadi's Mobster Culture, which pulled in S$177,000 (Rp. 1,145,940,531). Pintor Sirait's Desire, a life-size sculpture of an F1 car, was sold for $112,100 (Rp. 725,762,336). Meanwhile. Gong Lilong's The Duet was the auctions top seller at $212,400 (Rp. 1,375,128,637).

"The growth in the Asian modern and contemporary art market will continue," Komala predicts. "Collectors have started to realise that were are many Southest Asian artists whose works are priced at a fraction of their Chinese counterparts, despite the fact that they are on par in terms of quality."

Elevating Indonesian art is a dream shared by art proffessionals. Gallery owners, auctioneers, art consultants and scholars want to see Indonesian art valued for other reasons, not just its current hammer price at auctions. "In the 1980s, when an econimic boom was fuelling art collecting, museums and galleries were not as actice as they are today. Collectors relied on a book on President Soekarno's art collection, which they considered as thy Bible," recalls Edwin Raharjo, owner of the eponymous Edwin Gallery in Jakarta. "President Soekarno was very close to local artists and the Indonesian art scene. Collectors were driven by the notion that collecting was part of the established society."

Serious collectors can launch an artist's career, just as they can resurrect it. Wanandi, for example, had remained a patron and ally to Gunawan during his incarceration from 1965 to 1978 because of alleged involvement in the Indonesian Communist Party. Altough it did not diminish Gunawan's creative output, it continued to bloom with Wanandi's continued support and friendship. When Gunawan was released from jail, Wanandi even organised his first solo exhibition.

But art patronage can rear its ugly head, Rahardjo cautions. A patron may influence the output of an artist he is supporting; if he is not enlightened, knowledgeable or passionate about cultivating talent, the result can be disastrous.

Collectors who are unsure of what to buy or have little time to find what they want can rely on art consultants. Portrayed as art shoppers to the moneyed, art consultants actually provide more than leads or representation at auctions. They help institutions and individuals make informed purchased. More importantly, they provide an objective take on an artwork's value. "A number of my clients look into expanding their investment portfolio and see potential in collecting art," says art consultant Veronica Howe. "I consider their investment horizon and risk appetite, but the bottom line is always what they like." And what they like, as experience has proven, gets better with information.

"I make sure they understand what they ae buying and why it is important to acquire particular pieces." Howe explains. It is not an easy task. To acquire Rudolf Bonnet's 1954 Two Balinese Men in Front of a Landscape for a client, Howe had to research the piece thoroughly and rely on her international network for leads. "It wasn't easy convincing my client to hand over a quarter of a million Singapore dollars to bid on a piece that neither of us have seen. I had to demonstrate that I knew what I was doing and that the piece would close a gap in his collection." Howe won the bid for about $220,000, and spent the rest of her budget on freight and the $11,000 tax.

Art is often collected and enjoyed first by locals who are familiar with the artists ot the subjects and may have strong personal or social affinity with them. But when they enter the hundred-thousand-dollar sphere, they often become objectified, memorialised for how much they cost rather than what they mean to the public. They also call attention to their potential as investment that can be traded when the market is on an upswing.

Hammer price of Indonesia contemporary art has skyrocketed over the past five year or so. Although serious collection of such works began more than twp decades ago, the emphasis was different: the works were seen as visual history and social commentary rather than a money-spinning commodity. Gallery owners admit that although such prices indicate the current level of interest in Indonesian art, they also attract speculation.

Jasdeep Sandhu, owner of Gajah Gallery, a pioneer in promoting Indonesia art in Singaopre, feels that prices escalating too quickly threaten an artist's career. "When artworks change hands too fast, when they are commoditised, they lose part of their value no matter how much they make in auction or gallery sale," Sandhu points out.

He believes that educating the public on the real value of art is the antidote: "We put in the effort so that art is valued and understood in the proper context. Modern and contemporary Indonesian art have so much soul in them. There's so much meaning that can be read in them. He want to raise public awarness of their values, not necessarily monetary value." If this is archieved, he says, even if the art market craches, the artworks will remain valuable. Sandhu is alarmed by the level of speculation in the market, "Speculators are coming in tenfold, fanning the price war."

But who is to stop them? Rahardjo goes as far as getting buyers to sign an agreement that they would not re-sell what they buy for at least two years. "I want to see collecting as a serious activity. It is not like getting married to someone you don't love and filling for divorce when you want a new one," he jests. And Sandhu has caused the ire of buyers to whom has refused to sell.

"If they are in the market to flip the artwork for a quick profit, they better go somewhere else. They just don't get it." Adds Rahardjo: "I will not sell a piece to a collector if I know that it will allow him to manipulate prices in the market."

Komala, official curator and valuer for the Indonesian Presidential Palace collection, knows that it is not always the market force that is at work during auctions. "It may be a battle egos or a fight between investors. We have to educate them so that hopefully their battles are headed towards the right direction." Like Sindhu and Rahardjo, Komala works with qualified art scholars and reputable curators to put together his auction catalogues. Rahardjo often enlists the aid of Sanento Juliman, eminent Indonesian art critic and Sorbonne University scholar. "We have been doing that long before we knew the meaning of the word curator," he says.

Sandhu, who has put together important exhibitions of modern and contemporary Indonesian art at the National University of Singapore Museum and the Singapore Art Museum, concurs: "Indonesian art will realise their full value if the general public know more about them - not just how much they fetched an the most recent auction, but what they really mean to society."


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