Bidding for Art

Published on 28 March 2016

Local art is sparking robust bidding activity at auction houses in Singapore.


As the visual arts scene in Singapore blossoms, art auctions here have also been getting more attention. While such auctions have been taking place in Singapore for over 20 years, a few record sales in recent times have caused quite a stir. For example, in 2013, local art auction house 33 Auction sold Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong’s ‘Willow Tree’ at S$642,200 — around five times its estimated value.


How does an art auction house differ from an art gallery? While both are involved in the selling of art, an art auction house gets its art from private collectors, while galleries have a more direct role in promoting artists with the art coming directly from the artists. As David Fu, director of 33 Auction, explains, things are also a little more of a gamble with auction biddings — as opposed to fixed prices at an art gallery exhibition.

“In general, auction houses sell art that is perceived as being ‘hot’ but are not available for sale in the primary art market,” he explains. “However, putting established art up for auction does not necessarily guarantee a profitable sale. Sometimes, I may even price an artwork below perceived market value so as to attract people to come down for an auction.” Fu’s best bet in figuring out what art to put on auction is to meet collectors regularly to get a pulse on what the current market situation and trends are.

The other challenging part of his job is to persuade collectors to part with their art. “For some, especially the older ones, their art collection has been something they have built over the years because they genuinely love these works and have a strong personal attachment to them. As such, my job satisfaction comes from curating an auction catalogue that generates strong interest among art lovers, and getting good prices for my art-collector clients.”

OBJECT OF BEAUTY Cai Zhisong’s ‘Custom to Motherland No 4’ (2008) was auctioned in Singapore for S$357,000 — the second-highest price ever achieved in an auction for the Chinese sculptor’s work.  PHOTO 33 Auction Pte Ltd


Fu has seen many ups and downs in the art auction business these past few years, and has come to accept the dynamism of this industry. “When I first started in 2009, Southeast Asian and Chinese contemporary art were popular. However, for the past three to four years, I notice the growing popularity of Singapore artists and see potential in this particular market.”

During 33 Auction’s most-recent auction this January, there was once again a strong response for local art, with Cultural Medallion recipient Ng Eng Teng’s ‘Dreaming’ sculpture going for a record price of S$26,400 when it was only estimated to range between S$8,000 and S$12,000.

Fu also notices that there are younger art collectors attending his auctions, and that these new generation of buyers are more strategic in terms of choosing art with potentially good investment value in the future. As such, he believes that enhancing his own art-education journey is an ongoing process.

“Besides having the knowledge about the artworks and artists, I have to be very aware of the historical context behind each piece of art I sell. At the same time, I have to keep training my eye by seeing as much art as possible. Over time, I get a better sense of what is good art and bad art.”

SUPER SCULPTURE Singapore artist Ng Eng Teng’s ‘Dreaming’ (1992) was auctioned off at S$26,400, more than three times its low estimate price. PHOTOS 33 Auction Pte Ltd

It’s Hammer Time!

Enter the exclusive world of art auctions with our did-you-know trivia list.

  • The most expensive piece sold at an auction by a living Singapore painter is the ‘Portrait of Bada Shanren’ by Cultural Medallion winner Tan Swie Hian. In 2014, this ink-on-rice-paper work was sold for S$4.4 million at the Poly Auction in Beijing.
  • The most expensive piece of art ever sold is Pablo Picasso’s ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ — it went for £66m in 2010. It was created on a single day in 1932, and is considered one of Picasso’s seminal works.
  • Internationally-renowned auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s used to hold auctions in Singapore a few years ago. They still have trade offices here, but have since shifted their Asian auction operations to Hong Kong, which is typically seen as having the most dynamic art scene in the region. Today, many of the art auction houses in Singapore are Indonesian-owned as many Indonesian art collectors like to buy art from here.
  • Art auctions are fast-paced events. Around 40 to 80 items can be sold within an hour, so potential buyers should come prepared and register for a numbered paddle before the auction begins. Usually, you can preview the actual artworks a few days before at the auction house or through a printed or online catalogue. If you would like to bid for something at an art auction but are unable to be physically present, you can submit a written bid before the auction based on your budget, or make arrangements to bid on the telephone via one of the auction staff.
  • Not anyone can lead an auction. Auctioneers need to be licensed according to Singapore law. At 33 Auction, which holds auctions three times a year, Fu prefers to engage auctioneers who are lively and humorous so they can engage and excite the crowd.
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