As the auction market has evolved over the last few decades, increasing proportions of salerooms’ turnovers have been coming from so-called ‘new’ markets.
Areas such as Asian ceramics have seen exponential growth thanks to the wealth creation and booming demand in the Far East and, in many cases, regional UK auction houses now rely heavily on the revenue from what has become a reliable flow of goods in this sector.
The equally high returns available in the Post-war and Contemporary art market, another sector that witnessed a major expansion in prices in the last 20 years, have also trickled down from the major global players to the smaller houses – but perhaps not quite as much.
However, evidence of that trickle-down effect has been a bit more noticeable over the course of 2021. Hockney drawings and Banksy prints, for example, have generated high sums at auctions in London and beyond, while a few appearances of intriguing works by Post-war artists from further afield also impressed.
One such international artist becoming more familiar to UK regional salerooms after some notable recent prices is the Singaporean painter Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-83). The artist is recognised as a pioneer of the Nanyang art style, a movement associated with migrant Chinese painters who combined Western techniques with Eastern ink traditions.
He is also considered to be one of the key exponents of Modernism in Singapore.
Cheong was born in China and studied at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Art before his education was cut short with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (the school was destroyed by invading Japanese forces in 1938).
In 1945 he left for Hong Kong and relocated to Singapore in 1946, where he became a lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for the next 20 years and also produced numerous figurative works depicting south-east Asian indigenous people as well as Abstract oils, watercolours and Chinese ink and wash paintings.
His abundant works appear frequently at auction in Malaysia, Singapore and, especially, Hong Kong and prices have reached six-figure sums on over 50 occasions.
However, it was not really until 2017 when a group of seven works sold at Hampshire auction house Andrew Smith & Son for multi-estimate prices (led by a £12,500 depiction of a kampong fishing village) that the artist was put on the map in terms of UK sales.
Since then, more works have begun to emerge in this country. In January 2019, Taunton saleroom Greenslade Taylor Hunt sold an Abstract oil on board from 1961, Drying Salted Fish, for £19,000. That equalled the highest price for the artist at auction in the UK, matching an untitled work sold at Christie’s in 2011 (source: Artprice by Artmarket). This was followed just over a month later when Derbyshire saleroom Hansons sold another Abstract picture from the same year for £15,500.
Hansons (25% buyer’s premium) offered another picture earlier this year. Signed and dated 1960, the 19¾in x 2ft 4in (50 x 70cm) oil on board was discovered in a school in the Midlands.
Representatives from the auction house found the colourful Abstract composition tucked away in storage at Ashby School in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire. It had been given to the school as a gift many decades ago but, having been lying on floorboards in storage for many years, it had some flaking paintwork but was nevertheless in good underlying condition.
The picture was pitched at £1000-1500 at the July 1 sale.
Owner of Hansons, Charles Hanson, said: “Cheong is an artist celebrated for the part he played in developing Modern art in Asia. As soon as our auction catalogue went live, interest was strong from the Far East. Even so, the ensuing auction battle exceeded expectations.”
On the day, three phones and a number of online bidders competed for the work. The hammer finally fell at £25,000 to a phone bidder from the Far East – another new high in terms of works by the artist sold at a UK auction.
“Yet again, this sale demonstrates the strong demand for quality Oriental works by respected artists,” said Hanson.
Meanwhile on the same day in St Peter Port, Guernsey, Martel Maides (17.5% buyer’s premium) offered one of Cheong’s Chinese ink and watercolour works on paper.
Titled Harbour Scene, the 3ft x 17in (92 x 44cm) picture pointed more to the artist’s meticulous Modernist style as opposed to purer Abstraction. While some of his figurative works can make significantly more money, these kaleidoscopic compositions are much admired for their vibrant patterns and for capturing the sense of bustling Eastern ports.
Apart from some water mark staining, some faint foxing to the sky and the paper being very slightly cockled, the picture was in good condition. The catalogue suggested that a small white paint drip to the centre of the watercolour, just above the boats, may have been a mistake by the artist as there appears to be a black line across it added as a correction.
Either way, bidders did not baulk at the £6000- 8000 estimate and good interest emerged here again. The lot was knocked down at £16,000, another good sum and showing how a decent market is developing for the artist not only in the UK, but outside London.
As well as Far Eastern pictures, the Guernsey auction showed how Post-war and Contemporary prints have become a keenly contested sector for auction houses outside the capital too.
The Martel Maides sale offered prints by artists such as Tracey Emin (b.1963), Bridget Riley (b.1931) and Sir Peter Blake (b.1932), all of which generated demand and sold either on or above top estimate.
Emin’s More of you lithograph from 2014 came from a signed edition of 100 which were printed in two colours on Somerset wove paper and published by Counter Editions, London.
Prints by the artist appear regularly on the market, ranging in price from a few hundred pounds to £30,000 depending on the individual image, condition and rarity. More of you is a relatively sought-after subject, with the highest auction price being £10,000 for an example sold at Phillips in January this year (source: Artprice by Artmarket).
Here the 2ft 11in x 2ft 3in (89 x 69cm) impression was in good condition with no visible faults although it had not been examined out of frame. Estimated at £5000-7000, it sold at the higher end of expectations – the £7000 sum not reaching the heights of the copy at Phillips but exceeding the £5200 for another one sold at Forum Auctions also in July.
Even stronger demand at Martel Maides came for a trademark screenprint by Riley from 1998 which overshot a £3500-4500 pitch and sold at £6500, a record for the edition.
Echo was a 20¾ x 22¼in (53 x 57cm) signed and dated print from an edition of 75 (plus 10 artist’s proofs). A classic but relatively late piece of Op Art, examples have not emerged as commonly as many other prints by the artist – under 10 are recorded as having sold at auction in the last decade, with the previous highest price being £5000.
Another Contemporary print setting an auction record for an individual edition was a silkscreen by Blake.
Some of the Sources of Pop Art 3 from 2006 was part of a series of seven printed collages with images from popular culture: magazine cuttings, characters from comics and clipped adverts. This example of the third print in the series was part of an edition of 175 signed copies and measured 20 x 20in (51 x 51cm).
When it was originally issued, it could be acquired for a few hundred pounds.
Given it was released not so long ago, few copies have emerged at auction before, although one did make £1900 at Bonhams in July 2014. Here, estimated at £2000-3000, it took £4500 – another price showing the strong returns possible in this sector.
Along with the other above-mentioned prints by well-known living British artists, it underlined how Contemporary prints are making a more noticeable contribution to saleroom totals.