Christie’s in Cambodia

March 13, 2012

In what is being hailed as an important step towards Cambodia’s cultural reintegration with the rest of the world, international auction house Christie’s has held its first-ever sale of contemporary Cambodian art in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Works by 20 Cambodian and Cambodia-based artists went under the hammer at the auction, watched by government ministers, members of the royal family and international sponsors.

The Cambodian Minister for Commerce Cham Prasidh told the audience that Christie’s involvement was crucial in helping the country’s nascent art scene gain international recognition.  He promised that if Christie’s came back, the next auction could be held “against the backdrop of Angkor Wat,” The country’s most revered monument.

The quality of the art on sale, which included paintings, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery, was variable, but no lot went unsold. The highlight was Sopheap Pich’s Morning Glory 7, a delicate and sensuous openwork woven rattan sculpture, which sold for $9,000, against estimates of $2,500-3,000. Sopheap is considered one of the country’s foremost artists, and has exhibited several times in New York.

Also notable was Robotang’s The Icon, a sandstone head carved from short geometric planes, which made $1,700, against an estimate of $500. Both pieces seemed to indicate that buyers were interested in traditional Cambodian art media, but with a modern twist.

Observers were unsure as to whether this indicated a path modern Khmer artists should follow. Certainly, other works, such as the acrylics by Peap Tarr and Lisa Mam, struggled to sell, despite being technically accomplished and visually stimulating.

But perhaps the most exciting thing was the sight of Cambodians bidding on their own art. After the astonishingly tough last few decades in this country, the idea that Cambodian artists are allowed to make and sell art that appeals to their fellow countrymen is one that is widely encouraged, both by the government and by the international arts community.

The sale’s proceeds, almost $43,000, goes to Cambodian Living Arts, a well-established charity that aims to transform Cambodia through its arts.

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