It is often said to me that Thai paintings and Thai contemporary art in particular don’t perform well internationally. There are many ways of measuring success however, and one indicator is the high rate of Thai participation in international biennales, triennales and other international exhibitions. In this respect, Thai art has surely been a success. Another way of measuring it is to consider the financial success of Thai artists abroad—in this respect there is much room for improvement.
Let us look at how Thai art has fared internationally at the auctions. Over the last two decades about forty Thai artists have had works featured and sold at international auctions. Some works were featured, but not sold, and most works were sold close to ‘reserve price’ which is the minimum price accepted by the seller. The current price record is $ (USD) 489,819 as hammer price for the large painting ‘The Harvesters’ by Thawan Duchanee from 1964. Thawan’s best period seems to be in the mid-1960s.
The next two records are for ‘Steamboat Overture’ by Natee Utarit, which sold for $ 180,600, and for an untitled sculpture by Montien Boonma, which sold for $ 141,900. Both of these sold in Hong Kong. The next three records are for art works by Korakrit Arunanondchai ($120,588), Damrong Wong-Uparaj (96,750) and Rirkrit Tiravanija ($75,000). The remaining top ten list includes Tawee Nandakwang, Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Navin Rawanchaikul and Manit Sriwanichpoom.
What is interesting to observe is that some of these artists sold at auctions which were not held in Hong Kong. Korakrit’s and Navin’s works sold at Christie’s in London, and Rirkrit’s work in New York. These locations give an additional impetus to the artists’ standing since it shows they are recognised as truly international artists. Tawee’s work sold at Christie’s in Bangkok in 1999, almost twenty years ago, so he is more local and cannot be considered an international artist in the same league as the others.
All of the above mentioned artists are well known, or ‘famous’, but many will be surprised that Korakrit, a 30-year-old artist who was, until recently, better known abroad than in Thailand, has done so well. It is quite impossible of course, to predict future sales at auctions, but we should be supporting young and upcoming Thai artists internationally. Korakrit has jumped-started his career while most of the other artists have climbed gradually in the auctions. Natee is one example since almost one hundred of his works have sold at auction over a period of twenty years, with prices gradually increasing. Other upcoming Thai artists at auctions include Manit, Vasan Sitthiket, Chatchai Puipia and Jirapat Tatsanasomboon—who was recently included in Thames & Hudson’s book 100 Painters of Tomorrow. One rather shocking surprise is that there is only one female Thai artist whose work has sold at international auctions, Pinaree Sanpitak.
Auctions are art markets that run on supply and demand, and there is no single authority responsible for auction sales. We, the market, can put pressure on the auction houses and tell them what we want to buy, including demanding more works by female artists. Tell them about your other favourite artists as well, and they will hopefully respond by featuring them at auctions. If works are offered, it is important that buyers actually purchase from the auctions so as to not only support the artist, but also by making his/her records public.
As we know, one can buy art works basically in three ways: from the artist’s studio, from the gallery (including art fairs), or from the auction house. There is no rule or experience implying that works are necessarily cheaper at the artist’s studio. But there is a tremendous importance in making transactions and prices public. When buying from a studio, no prices or records are published, and the broader art community does not gain any information from the transaction. Prices in galleries are listed and therefore more visible. At auctions, transactions and prices are fully visible and publicised. This fact is very important when public or official prices for art works are set. Prices at auctions are the baseline prices everyone can relate to, while gallery prices can be used sometimes and studio prices are not applicable.
This has led me to the conclusion that one of the best ways to support Thai artists and make sure they do well internationally is, in fact, to buy from the auction houses. In this way, everyone can see and monitor the price levels and the artists’ works become more visible. I have personally witnessed young collectors from the Philippines attending auctions in Hong Kong where they bid against each other to raise the prices of works by Philippine artists. Most art works selling at auctions sell in the price range of $10-20,000, so are not hugely expensive and may be ‘affordable’ to this buying segment. Young and rich friends used this opportunity to raise the image and prices of Philippine art—and why not? Perhaps Thai collectors could try a similar approach to push start the market for more Thai artists.
Jorn Middelborg is the Bangkok-based CEO of Thavibu Art Advisory.