Old Singapore photos on auction

SINGAPORE - One hundred and sixty photographs of Singapore, mostly taken between 1860 and the 1880s, will be going under the hammer at Sotheby's auction house later this month.

The collection will be sold as nine individual lots in London at Sotheby's sale of Travel, Atlases, Maps & History on April 30.

The international auction house says it is the largest in more than two decades to be put under the hammer.

Some images depict snippets of daily life, such as dock workers and tailors going about their work, while others are almost unrecognisable sweeping panoramas of areas such as Fort Canning and Boat Quay.

They are expected to fetch between £110,00 (S$221,220) and £163,000 in total, with the five large panoramas of Fort Canning from 1880 alone estimated at £7,000 to £12,000. The estimates for the pictures were derived from sales at previous auctions.

The majority of the photographs come from the two largest photography businesses operating in Singapore at that time, G.R. Lambert & Co. and Sachtler & Co.

Mr Richard Fattorini, director of printed books, manuscripts and topographical photographs at Sotheby's, says the collection, which was put up for sale by a private European collector, is the biggest he has seen in his two decades at the auction house.

"The collector has focused on quality and condition as well. He has very carefully selected interesting views to get the best possible prints, and the Lamberts, almost without exception, are in very good or excellent condition.

"There are good dark tones in them, and some of those which aren't in good condition are just the best available."

Mr Fattorini forsees strong demand for the images. "The market for photography in general is very strong, especially for photographs of places where few people went to with cameras, such as China, South-east Asia, Australasia and Latin America."

While Singapore's National Heritage Board declined to comment on the photographs, citing "potential impact on the upcoming auction", the sale has been welcomed by historians and heritage enthusiasts here.

Heritage blogger and naval architect Jerome Lim says of G.R. Lambert's pictures: "As one of the first photographers in Singapore, his work provides a visual record of much of Singapore, its people and gives a glimpse of life in those days."

However, he adds that while the original prints are hard to come by, the images themselves are not unusual.

"While good quality prints are rare, many of the photographs had been reproduced by the photographer as pictorial postcards and some are quite common from that perspective," he explains.

Dr Liew Kai Khiun, assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, says that those familiar with photographs of old Singapore will also be familiar with the majority of the pictures, such as the portraits of different ethnic groups or streetscapes.

He singles out a photo of an old shop, Tong Cheong Tailor, as particularly interesting.

"While most earlier photographs have been staged portraitures of individuals posing for the camera, the outdoor scene at Tong Cheong Tailor captured the bustling market place around the shophouses," he says.

"With a mixture of Chinese and Indian men surrounding the shopfront, which had a signboard labelled in both Chinese and English, the photograph suggested evidence of a more dynamic multicultural interaction in the colony that transcended the ethnic zones demarcated by the British authorities."

Dr Kevin Blackburn, associate professor at the humanities & social studies education department of the National Institute of Education, agrees that some of the photos in the collection look quite familiar.

He cites the photo of Tong Cheong Tailor, which has been reproduced in the 2014 edition of the current Secondary 1 textbook, Singapore: The Making of A Nation-State, 1300-1975.

He adds that as creating these images was at that time an expensive undertaking, "those who cast their eyes on these photographs usually did so with an imperial gaze".

"Many travellers who bought them were wealthy colonialists who collected them because they showed the grandeur and the exotic diversity of the British Empire that they travelled to in the Far East.

Both colonial residents and colonial visitors also liked to see images of an expanding wealthy colony with its grand buildings," he says.

Dr Loh Kah Seng, a Singaporean assistant professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at South Korea's Sogang University, also cautions that though the pictures do provide a record of Singapore's history, they have to be viewed critically.

"As a subject, photos also make history - in particular, photos taken by state agencies, for example of a riot or of the poor physical state of kampung housing. State agencies take photos as part of the project of reimposing social order or clearing squatter areas.

In this sense, photos are not neutral and need to be examined with a critical eye."


This article was first published on April 22, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.