Hong Kong – Art collecting can be seen as art in itself: a meaningful collection cannot be put together without the discerning decisions of the collector and their thoughtful connections with artists at a particular time. It is not merely an act of assembling, but a way to make sense of what the collector sees, and a personal record of their experience and encounters from a particular time. On 28 May, Bonhams Southeast Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale will present a series of fresh-to-market collections from a number of western enthusiasts who became deeply engaged in Southeast Asian art in the 20th century.

The Silverstein Collection of Burmese Modern Art

The sale spotlights a collection of rare Burmese modern paintings from Professor Josef Silverstein and Marilyn Cooper Silverstein. A young academic couple in the mid-1950s, the Silversteins paid their first visit to Rangoon, Burma and began collecting art. They went on to become good friends and supporters of the three leading artists in Myanmar’s modern art movements in the 1960s: Paw Oo Thet (1936-1993), Win Pe (b. 1935), and Aung Khin (1921-1996), who at the time were eager to learn about the West. The friendship allowed them to share their love for the art and music of both cultures, and the Silversteins gradually formed a unique collection of early works by these modern artists, which are now rarely seen on the market.

Highlights include three early works by Win Pe, one of Myanmar’s most celebrated living artists and a forefront figure in the country’s modern art movements. Win Pe famously proposed that Modern art is “neither Cubism nor Impressionism”, but “a concept of thinking, conviction, and ideas.”

Strawberry Seller (estimate: HK$70,000-200,000; left above) is a special scene resonant with the Silversteins, who often explored Burma’s open markets full of food, spices, and handicrafts. The painting was hung in their dining room for over 60 years, and often puzzled visitors as the berries thrive in cool, not tropical, mountain climate. The other painting, Water Festival (estimate: HK$80,000-200,000; right above) was created in 1961 when Win Pe was one of Josef’s students at Mandalay University, and at the same time a cartoonist for People’s Daily. The image was created as a roughly drawn poster for a local event, which Josef saw and admired. Josef went on to ask Win Pe to rework it into a fully thought-out painting and eventually acquired it. Other highlights from the Silverstein Collection include:

• Paw Oo Thet, Pagan, estimate: HK$80,000-120,000.
• Aung Khin, Backstage at a Pwe, estimate: HK$60,000-80,000

The Brouwer Family of Indonesian Art

Robert P. Brouwer had an illustrious career in Asia beginning in 1946, and called Bangkok, Jakarta, Medan and Hong Kong his home in the following decades. Although Robert’s career started in the diplomatic service and moved on to management for some of the largest global corporations, such as Swiss Re, Julius Baer and Harrison & Crossfield, his true passion lay in the arts. These two paintings by Hendra Gunawan, among other artworks, were acquired alongside his career over decades, showing how the beauty of Indonesian culture was imprinted in his personal life.

Born into the nobility of West Java in 1918, Hendra Gunawan was the only son of his family. Against his parents’ expectation, he decided to become an artist, honing his skills by learning from his friends and fellow artists. Like other artists of his time, Gunawan joined the Indonesian struggle for freedom from the Dutch, which threw him into politics. He was incarcerated after the coup in 1965, and remained in jail for 13 years without trial. Despite this, he kept on painting until he died in 1983 in poverty, without a single work in his possession as they had all been pawned.

Kerokan (estimate: HK$1,000,000-2,000,000), circa 1956, depicts the traditional folk remedy in Indonesia, which involves applying oil to a person’s back and scraping the back with a coin to chase bad spirits (colds, etc.) from the body. No other Indonesian artist has depicted this subject. Kerokan remains one of the most important and distinctive themes in the creation of Hendra Gunawan’s paintings.

The Market Woman (estimate: HK$800,000-1,800,000), circa 1960, is completely different perspective from Hendra’s other paintings produced during the same era. Grey, blue, black, and white tones dominate the canvas, unlike the tone for the majority of his works in the 1960s. The brushwork is loose and painterly. It is purposely impressionistic aiming to capture the momentary, fleeting moment when The Market Woman realises she is late.

Professor Paul Mus Collection of Vietnamese Art

An influential scholar, political advisor, and antiwar activist, Professor Paul Mus (1902-1969) grew up in France and Vietnam and served in the Second World War. As a pollical advisor to France’s Indochine Committee, he presented France’s conditions for a ceasefire in Vietnam, which the Viet Minh leader rejected. His passion for Vietnam and Southeast Asia was reflected in his many academic achievements and this collection for sale. Highlights include three works by French artist Joseph Inguimberty: Ba Vi Mountain Range from the Son Tay Rice Fields (estimate: HK$580,000-900,000; left above), Still Life with Magnolia and Fruits (estimate: HK$200,000-350,000; right above), and Marina (estimate: HK$80,000-200,000).

Commenting on the sale, Bernadette Rankine, Bonhams Director of Southeast Asia, said: “Our sale this season is blessed with a number of great private collections with strong provenance, each of them narrating an episode of art history in the 20th century Southeast Asia. These collections have been kept in private for decades before finally coming fresh to the market now, and we therefore are expecting strong interest from our clients.”