In the shadow of Indonesian art

Ong Hock Chuan, Jakarta, 13th February 1997

The theft of 19 paintings by the late Indonesian master painter Sudjana Kerton on February 3 has again focused the spotlight on the traffic in stolen Indonesian art.

Experts say the trade is rising due to a combination of Asia's rising affluence, a nascent art market in the region and lax security in Indonesia.

The Kerton theft follows a much publicized case in Singapore last October when several paintings stolen from the Jakarta National Museum turned up in a brochure for the auction house Christie's.

Indonesian police traced the paintings to a Singapore businessman living in Jakarta, and another 17 stolen paintings were found when police visited his apartment. The works Christie's held were returned.

"Before that incident, there was very little knowledge among the public about the trade in stolen Indonesian works," said Amir Sidharta, curator of Museum Pelita Harapan located outside Jakarta. "Many people are now aware of this activity."

But while general awareness may have been raised, the underreporting of thefts and the lax security at many of Indonesia's museums and galleries means the full extent of the trade in stolen Indonesian paintings is difficult to determine.

Getting a clearer picture is not easy, "since it is a relatively new phenomenon", said Astri Wright, associate professor of South and Southeast Asian Art at the University of Victoria in Canada, and regarded by many in art circles as the foremost authority on Indonesian art.

"The forgery industry, however, has been developing for years, and the theft is just the next development of the 'shadow side' of the art world, the kind of 'shadow side' one always has in economic arenas," she explained. She noted that a rise in forgery and theft reflects a recognition of the money to be made in Indonesian paintings, and said it was "a further commodification of art, which has been going on in Indonesia since the late 1980s".

Few steps have been taken to meet the problem head-on. Many works held by museums are stored away so that thefts are discovered only during infrequent inventories. Security is also not a high priority for either museums or galleries. The Kerton paintings were stolen when thieves broke into a gallery that was not protected by guards or an electronic security system.

Many thefts go unreported because owners doubt the police will be able to help. When thefts are reported, they usually receive little international publicity. And with many Indonesian artists unknown outside the country until recently, there is no ready network for validating the ownership of paintings.

"Unlike in Europe, there is no database to tap into," said Deborah Iskandar, the Indonesian representative of Christie's.

A group of curators and collectors is working to change this, though. "We now have a website where we can post reports of stolen paintings," said Amir. "Eventually we would like to put photographs of these paintings on the website but it is difficult because sometimes the quality of the photographs is not very good."

That will probably change as well. Art experts agree that rising affluence in East Asia has led to an increased interest in Indonesian paintings. Iskandar observed that many new Asian faces have been turning up at Christie's auctions in the region.

Wright said that while it was difficult to say for sure, "apart from China and India, there is a sense that Indonesian modern art is somewhat more popular than the art of other ASEAN countries". This is because Indonesian modern art reached a maturity and a synthesis between Western and Indonesian concerns earlier than modern art in other Southeast Asian countries.

But fighting the illegal trade remains a difficult task. The Kerton theft has received scant international publicity outside Indonesia, although the Indonesian police said they have contacted Interpol.

reproduced w/out permission from ASIA TIMES