This past Sunday afternoon, while the rest of Phnom Penh's residents hid from the sweltering heat, a steady stream of cars and motos made their way down a long accces road, flanked by green lawn and tennis courts.
Alighting at the Sofitel Phokeetra on the Tonle Bassac river, an assortment of artists, art collectors and the curious gathered for a Cambodian first: the sale of works by the country’s pre-eminent artists, conducted by the 250 year-old British auction house Christie’s.
Surrounding the 350 guests seated in the luxury hotel’s grand ballroom were 40 pieces by more than 20 Cambodian artists, with everything from papier mache sculptures of Buddhist iconography to acrylic and metal renderings of colonial-era architecture donated for the auction.
Christie’s did not take a fee for conducting the day’s proceedings; proceeds of the art sales will be used to fund future projects organised by the NGO Cambodian Living Arts.
Within an hour of the auctioneer’s ascent to the podium, all 40 lots had been scooped up by a handful of bidders, notwithstanding some slight technical difficulties.
More than $40,000 was raised for Cambodian Living Arts in the process.
The biggest sale of the afternoon belonged to 41 year-old artist Sopheap Pich, who studied his craft in America and France before resettling in Cambodia ten years ago.
Sopheap’s two-metre tall rattan palm vine was subject to a frenzied round of bidding before the gavel fell at US$9000, three times the auction house’s estimate, to rapturous applause from the audience.
Other luminaries of Cambodia’s art scene also saw their years of effort vindicated at the auction.
Kampoung Thom native Phe Sophon’s Spoon, a faintly menacing seat built from matte black metal and furnished with a silk cushion and a scorpion’s tail, sold for $950 after heated competition from three bidders.
Four assorted works by Em Riem – two sculptures, an oil painting of a smiling elderly man, and an acrylic and jute memoriam to the victims of the Khmer Rouge-era prison, S-21 – grossed nearly $4500 in less than five minutes.
Cham Prasidh, the Minister for Trade and Commerce, addressed the attendees before the bidding.
Emphasising his pride at the traditional artistic heritage to be found in the works, the Minister was pleased that Christie’s had helped to lift the profile of his country’s artists.
“These works are designed in a real Cambodian way,” said the Minister.
“The people here have a market to the world now, which I hope will encourage our artists to create more.”
Cham Prasidh added that the next focus for Cambodia’s artists should be the strengthening of copyright law, in order to protect the income they receive from their endeavours.
Prim Phloeum, director of Cambodian Living Arts, also addressed the crowd, thanking Christie’s for their involvement in the auction and stressing the CLA’s fourteen year long commitment to preserving and reinvigorating the country’s artistic community.