A 1960s painting from renowned Singaporean artist Georgette Chen has sold for $1.8 million, marking the third time her auction record has been broken in the past 10 months.
Chen’s Still Life with Big Durian sold in Christie's 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong on May 28. It is now the most expensive work from the artist, surpassing her Still Life with Rambutans, Mangosteens and Pineapples and Boats and Shophouses paintings, colorful scenes of bucolic settings that set records when they sold for $1.6 million and nearly $1.5 million in November and August respectively.
Chen died in 1993 at age 86, and there has been a recent boom in demand for her artwork. A pioneer of modern Singaporean artwork known for her depictions of tropical fruit and villages, she settled in the city-state after studying in New York and Paris and eventually became the only female artist of the Nanyang art movement, practicing a style that combined depictions of Southeast Asian scenes with Western techniques.
Work from the artist, who was awarded Singapore’s Cultural Medallion in 1982, can be found in global art institutions like France’s Centre Pompidou, Japan’s Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and Singapore’s Long Museum.
Why has Chen’s work risen in value so quickly?
After her death, more than 50 paintings found in Chen’s home were donated to the National Gallery Singapore by her estate. Reawakened interest in the painter is partly attributed to a retrospective of her work, Georgette Chen: At Home in the World, which opened at the museum in 2020.
Christie’s Hong Kong brought in nearly $160 million during its four 20th and 21st Century Art sales in May, demonstrating “Asian collectors’ continued demand for the category,” according to Evelyn Lin, deputy chairman and co-head of the 20th and 21st century art department at Christie’s Asia Pacific.
This demand has been especially prevalent in Singapore, where an influx of wealthy immigrants during the Covid-19 pandemic drove surging growth in its art scene.
In August, Sotheby's held its first auction in Singapore in more than 15 years, noting that Southeast Asia has accounted for nearly a 75 percent increase in its global sales over the past five years. Earlier this year, the city-state launched Art SG, Southeast Asia’s largest-ever art fair.
As Singapore’s artists and cultural events continue to grow in popularity, the region’s collectors are showing an increasing appetite for million-dollar works. The share of Singaporean collectors spending more than $1 million on artwork rose to 25 percent in 2022, compared to just 4 percent in 2019, according to a report from Art Basel and UBS. Their median expenditure on artwork also increased, with $322,000 spent last year compared to $129,000 in 2021 and $93,000 in 2020.
All of Chen’s four highest-selling pieces, all of which sold for more than $1 million, have been auctioned off in the past two years, according to data from Artsy. The value of works like Still Life with Big Durian have increased exponentially in the past few decades, with the painting’s last public sale in 1998 fetching a mere $36,000.