Indonesia: Why the art market needs art history (1997)

Astri Wright offers her thoughts about how the art market can combat against thefts of artwork and forgeries in Indonesia.

Astri Wright
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship

| 1 February 2012
This article was previously posted on the Southeast Asian Art File online in 1997 with the title "Why the art market needs art history; Why it does not pay to steal art".


"Crime does not pay," the old saying goes.

That is a truth, however, that must be qualified. When intelligence, careful planning and control of large networks of loyalty and silence are wedded to wide-ranging resources, such as technology, funds, and information, crime can indeed be successful. At least in the short run and when measured in purely material terms. This is true for crime in general. However, it would appear to be less true in the case of art thefts.

The following discussion has been triggered both by the shocking revelations about the lack of security in Indonesia’s national art collections over the last year, illustrated by the theft of some of the nation’s most valuable art treasures, and the theft, at the beginning of the week (2nd February, 1997), of a large number of important paintings from the home studio-gallery of the late Sudjana Kerton of Bandung. This essay will consider the sociology of crime, the state of the art world in Indonesia, and the profitability of stealing art.

Who commits crime?

In general, in any society, both historically and today, crimes committed by members of the elite “succeed” more often than those committed by less educated, less well connected, less resource-full people. However, due to the way legal institutions operate— police, lawyers, courts of law— more often than not it is the less advantaged criminals that are caught, tried and punished. From such a scenario one can deduce that the saying "crime does not pay" may only be true if you are NOT an upper-class criminal.

Thus, even if crime pays in the short run, to some criminals, in the long run it is questionable if it does. Criminal action twists the soul, handicaps the mind, invites maggots to eat through the heart. If the criminal is Christian or Moslem, he or she knows, at the back of their minds, that they will go to Hell. If the criminal has any respect for their ancestors, they know that they, by their acts, have forfeited any future benefits from their forebears.

If the criminals are Hindu, Buddhist or Kejawen / Kebatinan, they know they are destroying their chances for a good rebirth, dirtying and ruining their karma, which will cause them to suffer for lifetimes to come. Acts which in the short run perhaps filled their pockets, fed them, or satisfied their addictions, will in the long run, from a spiritual perspective, hurt the criminal. Even if the criminal is an atheist, with no belief in any power or truth higher than him or herself, dishonesty leads to a twisting of the soul which usually ends up making him or her unhappy in this lifetime. Indeed, from the long perspective, and from the moral and ethical, psychological and spiritual points of view, it appears to be true that "Crime does not pay."

Why commit crime?

Crime happens for many reasons: for those who are in poverty, struggling, materially, crime tends to happens out of economic desperation and its consequences. A good part of the annual criminal statistics could be prevented if social problems relating to unemployment, poverty, lack of education, proper housing, and so forth, are addressed by the government.

Sociological studies and statistics have demonstrated a clear connection between crime, violence and the unequal distribution of resources in modern and modernizing societies. Hence, in legislation and law enforcement, and particularly in crime prevention, one would ideally need to make a distinction between the crimes committed by society’s victims and crimes committed by people who have access to power and resources.

For criminals who are somewhat well off (not desperately poor), but who were not talented or focussed enough to be able to develop a successful career, crime may result as a failing of the individual’s imagination and intelligence. For criminals from the top echelons of society, however, crime happens because of the activation of some or all of the psychological qualities which can be glossed as “fulfilling selfish desires”, “being easily bored”, “greed for money as an end in itself”, “thirst for power”, and “twisted spirits”. Like addictions to alcohol, drugs, and sex, both power and money can trigger addictive behaviour, which leads to the abandonment of reason and sound moral judgement.

One central question, for this article, is: who steals art— poor people who desperately need money? Or wealthy people who want more wealth? An even more basic question is: why steal art? The answer to this question, however, is related to what it is that constitutes that thing called “art”.

Art versus "art"

Art originates outside of the economically productive sectors of society, in the hidden depths of an individual’s imagination and spirit or in a particular social group’s inherited vocational traditions. Excellent art is produced with little thought for its marketability, price, or the artist’s fame— either because the artist is well supported from a constant, reliable source (such as an enlightened ruler or individual, wealthy patron) or because the artist has the ability to liberate her— or himself— from the thought of money, even while working independently and with no financial guarantees.

The true creative process is wedded to deep individual and cultural concerns and are connected only in the remotest possible way, if at all, to ideas of financial survival. The fact is that all artists have to make a living. But the facts also show that the greatest artists of our century, to limit our discussion to the modern period (whether in Indonesia, in China, in France or in the USA), did not in any prominent way bring their material needs into their mental and artistic space when they created their art.

Of course there are people who call themselves “artists” who paint (painting is the most easily saleable art form) for the sake of selling, and who paint for a broad general market. This is not art; it is merely “art”, a product of “clever artistry”. Such “art” will never bring major fame to the “artist” or the nation, nor will it bring high prices on the art market— certainly not in the long run. It never has enough of interest or lasting value to communicate, either form— or content-wise.

Jakarta’s galleries, hotels, and banks are full of such “art”: so are the galleries (etc.) in New York, Santa Fe, Singapore or Venice. In the art historical literature, such objects are referred to as “airport art”, “lobby” art, “schlak” or “kitsch”.

Such works are only interesting for what they say about marketing people’s image of what is the mass audience’s taste, and about how reigning ideas and fashions in the age of mass production and commodification are reduced to mere clichés or shadows for mass consumption. Such “art” mainly tells us about how the lowest common denominator of the culture at hand is marketed visually by entrepreneurs.

And even if entrepreneurs have become the heroes of the international corporate cultures of the late 20th century, for ten thousand years or more, art has celebrated very different kinds of heroes and heroic visions. So far, no art of lasting value that I can think of (please let me know if I have missed something) celebrates society’s money-makers as the kinds of visionaries or creative geniuses that contribute fundamentally to the progress of humankind.

Add to this situation the confusion about procedure that reigns around art market events. In regard to the “how to behave” etiquette in the market place, Indonesian art professionals and public have yet to develop clear contractual habits. Otherwise, how could speculators manage to put “SOLD” tags on as many as thirty paintings at a large, important recent exhibition, without being asked to sign any agreements, or place any deposits?

Then only to withdraw their intention to buy, three weeks later, because the artist’s managers refused to suddenly agree to a 30% reduction in price?? This absurd and unprofessional situation resulted in thirty art works being barred from other interested collectors, who in the end could not purchase their chosen work. Furthermore, the artist’s family lost out on selling thirty works which would have recouped some of their considerable expenses for mounting the exhibition and producing the fancy catalog.

Furthermore, if the rule is that it is illegal to photograph in galleries without formal permission obtained ahead of time from the people in charge, why are people allowed to photograph works and installation conditions freely? The lack of clear rules for curators and gallery managers contributes to the general confusion which allows criminals to plan and carry out their designs.

Clearly, in-depth knowledge about art and general rules governing the art world remains a minority phenomenon. It is still a certain kind of elite pursuit. But one needs not be wealthy to know and understand and be able to evaluate art; what one must have is that special, rare talent of “sight = insight” coupled with a good deal of art experience and aesthetic training, often produced in the pursuit of higher university degrees. Not in marketing or business, but in history, philosophy, aesthetics, formal and cultural analysis.

Indeed it has been documented throughout the history of humankind that an eye and a mind trained by the close study of art and aesthetics, and the characteristics of individual artists, is able to distinguish works of art which originate from an integral creative drive from works of “art” which originate from the desire to sell.

Only half the equation

Here is where the problem lies in Indonesia at present. Unlike older centres for modern art, like those in Europe and America, Indonesia’s art market (galleries, art auctions, art business) is the dominant institution in the art world and operates on a basis which combines artistic ignorance and profit-making desire. How could this be different?

In the “old modern world”, another institution shares the power and the authority with the art market, indeed makes the art market possible: this is the institution of art history / art criticism. Sometimes these two institutions are pitted against each other in controversy, but more often they collaborate, even existing in a very close symbiosis. In fact, even though they have different goals and agendas around art, the “Number Two” generally listens to “Number One”, as will be explained below.

Historically, the European art market in the "pre-modern world", came into being just a few horse-lengths behind the dawn of art history as a discipline. From the beginning, the two have been closely associated, though the actors in one have often despised the actors and values in the other. This is a strained marriage, similarly to how the symbiosis— the relationship of mutual need— between artists and art historians / critics has been strained.

Strained or not, art historical analysis has laid the foundations for the monetary values placed on art. The art market in the “old modern world” has based its initial prices and marketing activities on the documented art historical facts and analyses of individual artists and their work. This is the only way that art can become an area for investment that carries any guarantees or security. The scholarly and well researched catalogs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s demonstrate this.

This is the partnership that Indonesia is lacking: here, there is no solid tradition of knowledge and practice in art history and art criticism. In Indonesia, the “Number Two” (the art market), which cannot be properly born without its mother, “Number One” (art history / criticism), is ruling the art world alone. And this rule is very problematic because any value attached to art works by people who are mainly businessmen, who do not have the necessary art-related authority and insight, is merely speculative. This serves only to fill the pockets of the sellers of art and does a disservice to collectors who are relying on their advice.

People who invest in art in this kind of climate risk making very bad investments and losing lots of money that could be better used elsewhere. If one is going to spend money in ways which may not yield any return, money which may need to be written off as loss a few years down the road, then donating it to social projects for poverty, health and literacy would have more far-reaching effects. In a climate like the present art market in Indonesia (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia) the best advice one can give to collectors who buy 90% of the art that is up for sale, is “only buy what you like; do not hope or expect that there will be any financial gain from this.”

And if collectors’ face serious investment risks, buying art legally on the market, how much more risk is at hand for thieves of art? As to the question of who they are, some general conclusions can now be drawn on this matter.

Why steal art?

If certain parties are stealing Raden Saleh paintings from Indonesia’s national collections in Jakarta and Bogor, stealing Kartika paintings from the Affandi Museum storage unit in Yogyakarta, and stealing paintings from the private home and gallery of the late Sudjana Kerton in Bandung, clearly they cannot possibly be poor people looking for a way to feed their family and give their children an education.

This is an area of criminal behaviour that requires considerable expertise, familiarity with the modern art world (still an elite and upper middle class arena), and connections. It also requires considerable financial resources and the ability to muster transportation and crews, also of the kind that are willing and able to undertake smuggling across international borders.

In addition to the resources needed to be an art thief, this person or persons unfortunately suffer the misperception that stealing art and reselling it, anonymously, in a different place than where it was stolen, can be a successful and lucrative business in the long run. However, in an age where information traverses the globe instantaneously through fax machines and the internet, where images can be transmitted in a second, and where larger networks of people are communicating than ever before, how do art thieves think that their attempts to resell the works will not be discovered or at least aborted?

Since by now the whole art world, both above ground and underground, knows that nineteen of Sudjana Kerton’s paintings were stolen on the night of February 3rd, from “Sanggar Luhur” (“Illustrious Studio”) on Bukit Dago in Bandung, who is going to risk buying them and displaying them, in their homes or offices, with their original name still showing? On the other hand, if the original name is erased off the canvases, what small worth will they be, without any place in the art historical record, since it is the name of the artist that ensures the financial value of a piece?

Another factor of hope to the violated artist and his family is that these paintings had just been extremely well documented, photographically, in the past year during the preparations for the large retrospective exhibition of Sudjana Kerton’s life’s work that was held in Jakarta at the National Gallery in November and December 1996. It will be no problem at all to verify the identity of the originals when they are recovered somewhere, either in Indonesia, in Singapore, or elsewhere where the modern international art world spreads its tentacles.

But perhaps they have been stolen because the criminal mastermind behind the actual thieves plans to use them as models for the forgery industry which has been developing alongside the art market in the last ten years.

However, also such a forgery venture is doomed to fail after a short period of time, because the choices made by one person attempting to copy the work of another, no matter how skilled he or she is, are always somewhat different than those of the original creator. It may be a matter of a nuance in colour; the brand of paint used; the type of canvas used; the way the canvas was assembled, stretched or framed; the juxtaposition of colours, or forms, ideas in the composition; or any number of other tiny details and features.

The experienced eye by someone trained in art history can pick up these signs, read them, like a kind of script. Travelling around Jakarta in 1994, for example, I believe I saw nearly as many fake Hendra Gunawan paintings as real, authentic ones. However, to my eye, which has studied Hendra’s work for ten years now, the fakes were clearly weaker in a number of significant ways not, it seems, apparent to the owners of the works.

In an age where photography has reached such superior levels of sharpness and detail, and where the ouevres of artists are being documented by the artists, their families, or art researchers, and where there are art historians and other connoisseurs who have the trained eye who can verify whether or not an unknown work is a fake or an original, it is a mystery how the art thieves think they will be able to turn over their stolen merchandise successfully.

The problem as well as the advantage of art thieves in Indonesia or Southeast Asia at present is that hardly anyone, whether thieves or proclaimed experts, have good enough art historical training to authenticate art works by artists who have passed away. However, this situation is beginning to change now, in ways that will make it harder for forgers and art thieves to be successful.

How to gain art expertise

In Indonesia, art auctions and galleries began to multiply quickly in the late 1980s before there was any broader understanding of the principles and practice of art history or of art criticism. It is still not possible to get a PhD in art history in Indonesia, and only a few— like the late Sanento Yuliman (ITB), Hildawati Soemantri (IKJ), and Dwi Marianto (ISI)— have pursued PhD degrees in art history abroad. A small number have pursued MA studies in art history, either at Indonesian institutions like IKJ or abroad; but an MA is only the very beginning level of the expertise needed to be able to create the necessary frameworks of knowledge for art markets to develop in reasonable ways.

Furthermore, because there is still little appreciation in Indonesian art circles for the importance of such training, people like those mentioned above do not receive the time, resources and technical support they need to continue their research and writing and to start educating museum people, gallery owners, collectors, and publishers. The few curators and critics in Indonesia, foremost among whom can be mentioned Jim Supangkat, are for the most part former artists with strong intellectual gifts who are self-taught in art history. They work extremely hard with no secure income and without having had the opportunity to immerse themselves in reading and thinking in good libraries for any extended period of time.

And because there are so few of them, they are increasingly overworked by national and international demands. This is especially true in the last six years as modern Asian art in the last seven years has become increasingly popular internationally. Meanwhile, in the midst of all the art exhibition and publishing activity, Indonesia’s art market and artists and collectors continue to suffer.

Independent Research and Consulting Need

If “art historical knowledge” represents the horse that pulls the carriage called the “art market”, then at present, in Indonesia, the carriage has been put in front of the horse, resulting in chaos and no possibility for progress. Things have to be rethought; funding and will to promote the development of "the horse" must be found. If it is not being offered from the government, then it will need to come from the private sector. If all the actors in the art world, particularly the market side of it, were to stop and think for a moment, and think in a more long-term perspective, for a moment, it would become clear that all the different parties concerned— artists, art writers, curators, collectors, and art sellers— stand to gain from art being taken seriously and studied deeply.

No one in the art world benefits from a climate where theft and forgery is possible. Until there are enough trained experts around (people who are driven by disinterested motives rather than the desire to sell their expertise to the highest bidder), the only way to combat this is to enhance communication between all parties and join ranks to ensure that the turnover of stolen art works becomes exceedingly difficult and the chances of being caught are increased.

You have been forewarned; now tell your friends who collect art not to buy any “Raden Salehs” or “Sudjana Kertons” that appear on the market in the next few years. Wait until you can get the necessary advice from a not-for-profit, well-funded research centre in Jakarta, with branches in all of Indonesia’s major regions, staffed by people with the best training available internationally and the resources to undertake the most high-quality research, nationally. Hopefully we will be able to find such a centre listed in Jakarta’s yellow pages very soon.

In addition to their more short-lived fame as successful entrepreneurs and self-made millionaires, the sponsors of such a centre will go down in cultural, national and international history as truly refined and well-rounded human beings.