Fanning the flames of the Asian art market

By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop (The New York Times)

 

29 June 2008  

 

SINGAPORE -- Daniel Komala had just returned from Art Basel, the world's largest fair of modern and contemporary art, and he was not too enthused by what he saw.

 

"Some interesting pieces, but surprisingly a lot of bad art and a fair bit of junk, really," said Komala, the president and co-founder of Larasati Auctioneers, an auction house with headquarters in Singapore. "Art Basel is relying too much on the well-established names; it should be showing more younger, unknown artists."

 

With his boutique auction house, Komala has built a solid reputation in Asia for discovering and supporting young talent. His inaugural auction, in 2000, included works by Ivan Sagito, Agus Suwage and I Nyoman Masriadi - at the time a virtually unknown young painter who is now one of the hottest names in Southeast Asian art.

 

He was also one of the first auctioneers to recognize the talents of Yu Minjun, one of China's hottest contemporary artists, selling one of his works in 2003.

 

This month in Amsterdam, Larasati held the first European auction of Asian art by an Asian auction house.

 

In an auction world dominated by the international auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's, Larasati is trying to find a niche by introducing collectors to the "icons of tomorrow," Komala explained. "This is my campaign."

 

Even in Southeast Asia, Larasati is facing competition not only from the "big boys," but also from several other Indonesian auction houses, like Borobudur Auction and Masterpiece Fine Art Auction.

 

"Daniel is passionate about art and is very determined to take on the big boys," said Ahmad Zakii Anwar, a Malaysian painter who has known Komala for five years. "He feels that Southeast Asian art is not given the right prominence and that a homegrown outfit like Larasati can do better. Right or wrong, I admire his spirit and seriousness."

 

Komala and two friends set up Larasati in Jakarta in 2000 with about $100,000 in savings. Its first auction generated $470,590 in sales. Since then business has been steadily growing. In 2007, Larasati generated sales of 9.6 million Singapore dollars, or about $7 million, up 17 percent from 2006. This year Komala expects growth of 30 percent. By comparison, Christie's sales in Asia were $473 million in 2007, up 33 percent.

 

Paradoxically, Larasati finds it can no longer sell the Chinese contemporary artists at its Jakarta and Singapore auctions because consumers have become more sophisticated. "You can't sell a diamond in a gold market," he said. "Well, you can, but you won't get the best price for it. These people have outgrown Singapore, they go to Hong Kong and New York."

 

The current frenzy for Chinese artists is proving a bonanza for auctioneers, who make their money on the 20 percent to 25 percent commission they charge every buyer on the top of the price of the work sold. So it is no surprise that Larasati is now preparing to enter the Hong Kong market.

 

On June 29, it will test the waters by helping organize a benefit art auction, the 2008 Gala Dinner for the new contemporary art museum in Hong Kong. Komala is planning to open a salesroom in Hong Kong in November and to hold his first Hong Kong auction in 2009. Plans are also afoot for the auction house to expand to Australia, opening a salesroom in Melbourne in 2009.

 

Komala never studied art or art history - his degree from University College London is in statistics, computer science and economics, and he worked for several years in manufacturing - but the art business was all around him. His father, a trader, was a "serious collector" of modern Indonesian art painting. At the age of 8, Komala posed with his brother for the Indonesian master S. Sudjojono. "He kept on asking us to fight a little later, after he finished his painting, after he was done with his work," Komala said with a laugh.

 

He started collecting art in his 20s, first buying a decorative painting by an unknown painter from Bali, which to this day remains one of his sentimental favorites. "It's not worth a lot more today than then, but it was a pivotal moment for me," he said.

 

Though he continues to collect - he bought a work by a young American painter at Art Basel - he makes a distinction between that and his current job.

 

"It's a different ball game when I buy pieces I love and when I select pieces for my auctions," he said. "You have to discipline yourself. The challenge for people that love and collect art is not to be selfish, and not to take advantage of your position."

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