As the ranks of middle-class art buyers in wealthy Singapore grow, galleries representing artists such as Damien Hirst -- best known for works featuring preserved animal corpses that cost millions -- are aiming lower, taking advantage of an art-buying boom.
Around ten pieces by Hirst, all of them prints, will be offered for less than $8,000 along with thousands of other works of art at the Affordable Art Fair Singapore in November.
In line with the art showcase's name, nothing will go for more than S$10,000 ($8,296) -- an effort to lure budding art investors unable to afford the stratospheric prices commanded by pieces in more conventional auction rooms or art events.
Singapore, Asia's private banking hub and home to more millionaires per 1,000 households than any other country, is also a regional base for many banks and multinationals.
A growing number of these relatively well-paid executives who may not be upper class have caught the art bug and are no longer content to just buy pretty paintings and sculptures to decorate their homes, but are seeking out specific themes.
"I like paintings, particularly with women as a subject. It can be mother and child, faces of women or nudes," said Lou Dela Pena, a senior executive in an advertising firm in her late 30s.
She has 10 paintings in her Singapore apartment and several more back in her native Philippines.
At the inaugural Affordable Art Fair in Singapore last year, she bought two paintings for under S$5,000 each, including a stylized ink drawing of a Japanese woman by Australian artist Nanami Cowdroy that had been brought in by an art gallery from Indonesia.
All in, galleries that exhibited at last year's show sold S$1.75 million ($1.46 million) worth of art, making the Singapore event "the most successful first edition we had in any market," said show director Camilla Hewitson.
Hewitson said Affordable Art, a UK firm that currently organizes exhibitions in nine cities around the world, hopes to expand into greater China in 2013 to complement its exhibitions in Singapore and Melbourne, Australia.
Gallery owners say the growing interest in art in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia is due to the region's rapid economic growth, creating a large middle class with extra money to spend.
"The middle class everywhere is interested in quality of life and part of qualify of life is always going to have a cultural element, whether it's watching a concert, attending an exhibition or buying art," said Meg Maggio, a lawyer turned curator and owner of Pekin Fine Arts, a Beijing gallery.
BUDDING COLLECTORS, NOT SUPER-RICH
Information about artists and their works are also more easily available to budding collectors who are not super-rich because of the Internet, unlike in the past when buyers had to depend on consultants and gallery owners, she added.
Two such people are Singaporean lawyers David Chee and wife Joanna Er, both in their mid-30s, who have been buying art for several years and use the Internet to keep track of the artists whose works they have bought.
Their collection includes two pieces by Chinese artist Li Fuyuan, whose brightly colored Chinese brush paintings of animals are now auctioned by Sotheby's and can be found in London art galleries.
Er said the two paintings by Li are probably worth more than when they were first purchased, judging by prices quoted over the Internet, although they have no intention to sell.
"There are some pieces that we buy based on aesthetics that we'll probably never ever sell, and there are others that we hope will also go up in value," her husband Chee said.
Some experts believe the thirst to own art may be even greater than current sales show. Many potential customers feel they lack adequate knowledge and are frightened off by what they see as the difficulties of caring for art in Southeast Asia's hot, humid climate.
Gil Schneider, a former consultant with Sotheby's, recently teamed up with advertising executive Jolyn Pek and others to set up a firm to help novice buyers meet artists and galleries.
"For new collectors, we conduct workshops and provide individual consultancy on possible selections based on their budget and taste," Pek said.
Schneider said collectors should not be overly concerned about deterioration as it takes place over a fairly long period of time and paintings can be repaired.
While photographs and paper do deteriorate faster in Southeast Asia because of the humidity, oils on canvas are easier to maintain as they do not suffer the cracks caused by temperature changes as in Europe, he added.
He does not recommend buying contemporary art purely as an investment, and said buyers must enjoy the work as well since it is difficult to predict how an artist will develop.
"The dividend of art is the enjoyment of looking at it everyday, talking to it and discovering what the artist is trying to say."
(Editing by Elaine Lies)