Price of Fame


Johnni Wong
3 April 2013 - 12:00am

“I am concerned about the way my works are being sold in the art market,” says Chang Fee Ming, the most successful contemporary watercolourist in Southeast Asia.

Casually dressed and sipping a drink at a trendy restaurant in Kuala Lumpur’s Bangsar commercial centre, Chang, 54, laments the appearance of his minor works being sold in local art auctions.

“I feel that auction houses should be more selective of the works consigned for sale,” points out the Kuala Terengganu-based artist.

“Instead of selling any kind of artwork, the auction houses should ensure that only good quality works are offered.

“When we were very young, we tend to do all kinds of work, like studies done for practice or experimentation. And some of these works are not of auction quality. Therefore, they should not be sold at auction as it affects the reputation of the artist.”

The Malaysian art market, observes the savvy artist, is still “young” when compared to the Indonesian market. Therefore, all players concerned, should be careful about how it develops.

Chang is one of the few Malaysian artists whose paintings are also highly sought-after by top art collectors in Indonesia and Singapore. Due to his burgeoning reputation and limited output of about 10 major works a year, the queue of buyers is getting longer and more eager.

Record price

Commenting on the record price set by his 1993 Mandalay painting at an auction in Singapore on Jan 26, which sold for a total of S$103,700 or RM255,924 (see Options, Feb 25-March 3), Chang points out that not all of his works would fetch such a remarkable price.

“I would not have been surprised, if the final bidder was a corporate body but when a private collector was willing to acquire it at this price, I was touched, for believing in the quality of Mandalay. However, this doesn’t mean my market price should immediately follow such a high price set at the auction.”

The current market price for a standard-size Chang Fee Ming painting of 56cm by 76cm should be between RM150,000 to RM180,000, attests the artist.

“The record price is considered the highest for a watercolour in Southeast Asia. But then again, the Mandalay painting is one of my best-known works and well-documented.”

According to Chang, Mandalay was the first painting he did for his Road to Mandalay series. It was highlighted on the cover of the exhibition catalogue and featured in his own publications, The World of Chang Fee Ming (p.69) and The Visible Trail of Chang Fee Ming (p.49). It was also his first major work sold at auction in 1995 by Christie’s Singapore.

“This series was in my solo show at the CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies) in Jakarta, organised by Jusuf Wanandi. The whole exhibition had only 23 works, of which Mandalay, so far, is the only painting that is back on the art market since 1995,” explains Chang.

Jusuf Wanandi is a senior fellow at CSIS and holds the vice chair of the board of trustees of the CSIS Foundation. He is also chairman ofThe Jakarta Post, among the many influential posts he hold in Indonesia.

“Most people,” adds Chang, “think of a watercolour as merely a study or a light-weight work. But if you consider that some of the greatest works of art are Chinese ink paintings – a water-based medium – then we can appreciate that a watercolour is equally worthy of collecting.”

Cashing in

However, Chang is also concerned that collectors are paying too much for prints of his artwork.

“It is ridiculous for people to sell RM2,500 for such works which are not high quality prints, even though it has my signature for a limited edition of 250. When I turned out those prints, my intention was to allow those who love my artwork but can’t own an original painting, to have some images of their favorite pictures to hang on their walls.

“But, of course, this situation now is out of my control. But can you imagine the feeling of those who buy the prints at this price, only to find out later that it is still available at between RM150 to RM250 elsewhere?”

Chang’s watercolour paintings have been auctioned in Bali, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and of late, in Kuala Lumpur. At auctions in the mid-1990s in Singapore, his works initially fetched some S$20,000.

At the latest auction of Southeast Asian artwork in Singapore on March 2, Chang’s watercolour entitled The Promise sold for a total of S$43,920 (about RM109,000) inclusive of the 20% buyer’s premium.