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Lizard

Artblog by Taw Naen

One evening, a friend who had a similar taste in antique works dropped me a line inviting me to see a painting done by Thawan Duchanee he’d just bid from abroad. The painting looked so strange that he wasn’t sure whether it was fraud or not. Without reluctance, I went straight to his place as I was afraid that my late arrival could hurt his feeling. As soon as I touched the ground of his place, he proudly showed me five to six paintings with several techniques: watercolor, oil, and printing paintings that featured pictures of owls, a lady holding an umbrella, a horse, a man wearing a Khone mask for Thai traditional drama, or a beachfront scenic view. Although they were modern-style paintings, the color paint didn’t go together as it seemed. The paint was cracked leaving dry spots sprawling on the flat surface with the depleted yellowish adhesive sticking tape at the back of the frame. From the aged frame and its style, it could be assumed that those paintings were completed more than ten years which was definitely older than I was. Although they were painted by Thai artists, I could not figure out who were the painters from the signatures at the corner of the frames as they were unfamiliar. 

Assorted paintings were scattered around the room, but one of them looked so mysterious. It leaned against the wall facing backward with a golden teak frame blending itself into the parquet floor. After turning it to the light, I found an oil painting on a wooden panel with a size of 4 * 2 feet. It was a tremendous oranged-green lizard laying horizontally stretching to the edge of its frame with a similar size to the crocodile’s descendent. Seeming that its head and tail were extending out of the frame with ivory teeth smiling on the mustard background. This inclining lizard was painted with uneven thick trowel strokes resulting from the artist’s frenzied feelings. I couldn’t figure out the amount of oil paint on the panel. The harmonious strokes of colors created strong muscles, scales, spikes, teeth, and pointed organs eccentrically. Moreover, the lightning trace of the thick paint contributed to the liveliness of the lizard as if it was moving with a mouth wide open raising its neck, and flicking its tail leaving an amusing emotion to the audience. The painting’s tone was so vivid that it almost glowed in the dark. 

‘Lizard’ 1964 oil painting on a wooden panel with a size of 121 x 65 cm.

Every corner of the painting stunned my mind, especially the painter’s oversized black signature contrasting with the vivid yellow beige background. This signature’s size was about half of the lizard’s head scripted at the low left corner ‘Thawan 64’. Guessing that this paint was created in 1964 by an artist named Thawan; however, I had no idea which one was. 

This is because Thawan mostly always drew the face of the Lord of Buddha, humans with beastly heads, tigers piercing buffaloes, swooping eagles, or other similar abstract contents with paint brushes or giant brushes, not a trowel. His monotonous paintings were contrasting the different shades of background, such as thin black paint on white canvas; black strokes on a red background; or pure white on a black screen. 

Well, it was pretty hard to identify whether the lizard was truly painted by Thawan as it was far different than his usual art pieces. This was the reason why my friend rhetorically questioned whether he might get deceived. At that time, having a clear-cut answer was no more sweating as Thawan was alive, so he could ask the painter himself. 

Before heading home, my friend further gave some information about this painting. He got it from an online auction arranged by a small auction house in the USA, but the price bid was not mentioned. And I didn’t dare to ask, too.  Owing to my curiosity, I, in no time, googled some data about this myth of the lizard as it revealed the authenticity of the painting. After a few minutes passed, the data was lined up on the screen. This painting was put in an auction with a large number of art pieces at a local company named Slone and Canyon in Maryland in June 2013. Frankly speaking, it was the first time to learn about this auction house. At that time, there were well over a thousand works waiting for an auction. The majority were antiques and artworks deriving from Thailand and the neighborhood including Buddha images, table wares, and furniture ranging from the Sukhothai era to the Ayuthaya period and ending up with some antiques made in the Rattanakosin time. 

Strikingly, all the stuff auctioned at that time was solely owned by Baker’s couple: Mr. Conrad and Mrs. Sara, living in an apartment in Virginia close to this auction company. The question that why and how they owned these innumerable fine arts, and why those arts were being auctioned at one time like garage sales. After glancing at the information, it can be concluded that this couple used to work with the US Embassy in Thailand from 1960 to 1970. In the meantime, their shopping spree of artworks would grow to the max. After their tenure had finished, they relocated and moved every dear possession back home, The USA. The reason underlying their garage sales could be the result of their death and their descendants would not like to hoard myriad valued objects at home. Thanks to their sense of undervaluation, that precious stuff was on sale in the market at a very reasonable price. 

Not only was the lizard painting auctioned, but the others were also on sale. Most of them were created between 1960 and 1970 by the most recognizable Thai artists: Swat Tantisuk, Sujarit Hiranyakul, and Thawan Duchanee. Ironically, they seemed unknown to the western world. After I finished glancing at the bidding price result, astonishingly, those prices were really dirt cheap. For those who were unfamiliar with the market, their works cost about thousands of THB while Sawat Tantisuk’s work was worth just over a few ten thousand THB. In Thailand, his works usually cost well over two to three hundred thousand THB. If this was widely heard by Thai real fans, certainly, those prices wouldn’t be cheap as chips. For example, the paintings of a lizard and the Crucifixion of Jesus were too cheap to be true. Both prices ended around a few ten thousand THB. As those paintings did not belong to that place, the bidding competition was not fierce enough. Salute to my friend who was an expert in delving into the matter. 

Back to the lizard painting, some might question whether it could be artificial or not, but this could be proved from the work, frame, and other components like playing the jigsaw. Moreover, the story of the ex-owners could help me figure out its authenticity. When comparing the painting style and signature of Thawan’s work after his fresh graduation from Silpakorn University in the 60s and the lizard, there was something in common. It is undoubtedly to say that the lizard was completed by Thawan. 

Leaflet at Baan Dam Museum in Chiangrai province
Baan Dam Museum’s leaflet in Chiangrai province

To reassure my latest confirmation from Google.com, I dashed into a pile of my art books. After flipping through a few books, I came across a painting called the Crucifixion of Jesus in the Thai Surrealist Painting Art Book. Exactly, it was the same piece auctioned at the same time as the lizard was. In light of this circumstance, it can be assumed that the lizard painting was absolutely done by Thawan. Owing to my obsessive habit, on the following day, I made several calls to art gurus to reconfirm my viewpoint. Soon after, I dropped my friend a call with my classic and humble request ‘Would it be possible to share this lovely lizard’ with me?’ and asked about the Crucifixion of Jesus painting. Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure whether it was the real one done by Thawan or not, so he didn’t place the higher bid for that. As a result, the other took that bid for his own sake at the price of well over ten thousand THB. Regretfully, my friend didn’t get it for himself. But it’s not the end of the world. A year after, a vivid oil painting of a farmer doing rice harvesting troweled by Thawan with his astounding strokes in the 60s revealed its presence in an auction run by Christy’s Auction House in Hongkong. Its look and painting style undeniably resembled the paintings of the lizard and the Crucifixion of Jesus. Putting the right painting in the right place, the bidding prize ended up at around 20 million THB. As soon as the news reached my ears, I hurriedly told my friend, the owner of the lizard (painting), with delight. Unintentionally, such news gave him badly hurt as he missed it. 

A black and white portrait photo of Thawan in his teenage time stood amidst his numerous painting

At that time, I was almost 100% sure that the illuminated lizard was stroked by Thawan. After his death, I had the visit at Baan Dam Museum in Chiangrai province, the black house collecting Thawan’s art pieces. The ticket was adjoined with a map brochure of the place given to the tourist each. Inside, a black and white portrait photo of Thawan in his teenage time stood amidst his numerous painting. His dishy pose and character looked like James Dean with a slim body, gloomed hair, pointing his eyes, and pressing his lips in the trendy attire. In the background lay assorted just-finished paintings. Despite the dull quality of the photo, there was a painting of the lizard smiling at his back after a glance. Automatically, I pressed my hands together at my chest paying respect to him as if he knew about my curiosity from another world. Thus, he mercifully filled up the gap to totally confirm the authenticity of his painting. On that day, my little doubtful gap had been fulfilled amidst vibrant artwork at Thawan’s place. This put me immersively into the multitude of pleasures even more. 

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