For a royal without a kingdom, the Balinese prince exudes contentment as we sip sweet tea on his palace veranda and talk about his family’s patronage of artists whose works now sell for millions of dollars.
Tjokorda Gede Putra Sukawati, eldest son of the last king of Ubud, never even had the opportunity to succeed his father as ruler of the fiefdom in central Bali.
In 1950, six years before he was born, the pocket-sized realm of emerald-green rice terraces and Hindu temples set against the distant sacred volcano Mount Agung was absorbed, along with the rest of the so-called Island of the Gods, into the fledgling Republic of Indonesia.
What Tjokorda Putra can claim on behalf of the Ubud royal dynasty is a more enduring legacy: a key role in an art scene that’s increasingly exciting collectors and investors, Bloomberg Pursuits magazine reports in its Fall 2012 issue.
It’s an aspect of the island that remains unknown to many of the 3 million tourists who flock to it every year to throng the glorious beaches and be pampered in world-renowned spas.
According to London-based real estate firm Knight Frank LLP, more than 90 percent of visitors will cram into the often raucous, traffic-choked beach resorts close to the airport.
For centuries, Bali produced fine painters. They focused solely on religious themes, and their color palette was limited to pigments from locally available natural dyes.
Beginning in 1927, Tjokorda Putra’s father and uncle began encouraging Western artists to move to Ubud and share their techniques with the local painters in exchange for free accommodation and the opportunity to live and work amid Bali’s outstanding beauty.
The result has been what Jakarta-based investment banker, art consultant and collector Lin Che Wei describes as an explosion of creativity.
Just how explosive is apparent in the scores of art museums and galleries that line the bustling streets of some half-dozen small craft villages in the 50-square-kilometer (19-square-mile) Ubud district.
Here, meticulously detailed traditional paintings of bug-eyed characters from ancient Hindu literature rub shoulders with sublime postimpressionist landscapes and even a contemporary work featuring a Batman-like Western superhero with a Balinese mask.
What these works have in common is a unique fusion of a richly layered, centuries-old Asian culture and avant-garde Western art.
The biggest buzz comes from the soaring prices paid at auction for Ubud-inspired art.
Haunting surrealist depictions of Bali life and legends painted by Walter Spies, a German who spent 12 years in Ubud after being invited there by the royal family in 1927, sell for up to $2.2 million -- twice as much as 10 years ago.
What’s more, works by Balinese artists influenced by Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, a Dutch painter also befriended by the royals, are appreciating in value by as much as 30 percent annually, according to Lin, co-founder of art consulting firm Sarasvati.
“Balinese art is one of the best investments I have seen,” says Lin, who has paid as much as $400,000 for a Balinese painting. “It’s still a very inefficient market, with underpriced assets.”
The art business will become more widely known as affluent visitors increasingly base themselves in Ubud (population 70,000), which sits aloof in the hills above the surf and an hour away by car from the nightclub scene.
Discreetly hidden behind luxuriant foliage, big global chains such as InterContinental Hotels Group Plc vie for business with the likes of the ultraexclusive Amandari, a replica stone-walled compound where guests such as German collector and former Hong Kong trading company partner Kurt Kyris base themselves in rooms costing from $950 to $4,100 nightly.
“What I love about Balinese art is the variety,” Kyris says. “Traditional or contemporary, the artists have very strong skills.”
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of art-based tourism is Tjokorda Putra himself. He owns three resorts, one of which, Hotel Tjampuhan, is built around the villa that Spies once lived in.
The prince, a stocky, jovial 56-year-old who wears a sarong and an udeng cloth headdress, also oversees one of Ubud’s finest art collections. He retains some trappings of an Eastern potentate by continuing to occupy the palace, a low-slung compound that features traditional open-sided pavilions.
“I get 1,000 to 2,000 people a day here,” he says, gesturing toward a bustling public section of the palace across a serene, private walled garden that’s studded with frangipani and hibiscus.
Facing Ubud market, Tjorkorda Putra’s residence sits at the heart of Bali’s cultural capital.
By day, visitors gaze at the palace’s intricately carved statues of Hindu gods before stepping across the road to the simple Warung Ibu Oka eatery to lunch on possibly the island’s best suckling pig, a highlight of Bali’s aromatic cuisine.
By night, they pack the palace courtyard and nearby venues to marvel at exquisitely choreographed and costumed dances performed to the haunting strains of a traditional musical ensemble called a gamelan.
“When you are pretty, many people want to look at you,” the prince says.
The Ubud royals have been parlaying prettiness into profit since the early 20th century, when tourists first visited Bali. Back then, it was a remote place, physically and culturally separated from the main Indonesian island of Java by the 3-kilometer-wide (1.9-mile-wide) Bali Strait.
Java had once been ruled by the Hindu Majapahit empire. In the 16th century, as Islam swept across Java, its rulers fled east to Bali, taking their court artists with them. Bali, divided into nine kingdoms, became a Hindu enclave in an overwhelmingly Muslim archipelago.
In 1900, Ubud’s royal family sought the protection of invading Dutch colonialists and began to promote tourism and build on Bali’s artistic traditions.
In the late 1920s, the then-king’s brother, who had met Spies in Java, persuaded him to move to Ubud. Ensconced in a home provided by the royals, Spies hosted the glitterati of the day, including Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
Other painters began arriving: Bonnet and his countryman Arie Smit, Belgian Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur, Mexican Miguel Covarrubias and Theo Meier, a Swiss who had originally followed Paul Gauguin to Tahiti, only to conclude it wasn’t the utopia Gauguin had portrayed.
Instead, Meier and the others found paradise in Bali, drawing inspiration from everything from the tropical light to the bare-breasted women.
In 1933, nine years before his death, Spies sold a painting titled Village Vista to Hutton, earning enough to pay off his debts and build a swimming pool, now the Hotel Tjampuhan’s fish pond. In 2001, his painting Balinese Legend went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Singapore for $865,000; in 2010, it sold for $2.18 million at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
Spies’s works aren’t the most expensive to come out of Bali. In 2007, a Le Mayeur sold at Christie’s for $2.23 million. And in 2010, Chinese-born Lee Man Fong’s Bali Life sold at Sotheby’s for $3.3 million, a record for a Southeast Asian artwork.
Collectors can find less costly pieces. In March, Jakarta-based Larasati Auctioneers, which usually holds its out-of-town sales in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Netherlands, staged an auction in Ubud.
Five of the 70 works sold went for $20,000 to $50,000 -- the price range showing the fastest appreciation, according to art consultant Lin.
While some of Bali’s most famous contemporary artists, including I Nyoman Masriadi, now work in Java’s cultural capital, Yogyakarta, most, such as Agung Mangu Putra, continue to live and paint at home.
Visitors to Ubud aren’t in search only of art. They also include singles seeking self-fulfillment (and perhaps a Javier Bardem look-alike lover) as they reprise the journey of American author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love became a Hollywood movie starring Julia Roberts and Bardem.
Other attractions range from fine international, Balinese and Indonesian dining to white-water rafting on the Ayung River system that has cut deep ravines into the landscape.
One day, I drive north from Ubud toward Bali’s volcanoes. At Kintamani village, on the rim of a glistening crater lake, I hire a guide, and we trek toward the two peaks the Balinese consider most sacred. Mount Agung is the holiest and highest, at 3,142 meters. Mount Batur, at 1,717 meters, is the most active, having last erupted in 2000.
It’s too late in the day to make an assault on either summit, so we take a path between the two. The trail offers perfect views of the Balinese volcanoes as well as distant Mount Rinjani on Lombok island to the east.
From this vantage point, I can see Bali’s wonders unfold. On the higher slopes, villagers pull plump vegetables from the volcanic soil. Lower down, rice terraces form stairways down to beaches that arc to the horizon.
Now, it’s obvious to me why Spies, Bonnet and the others produced their finest work here.
“They are so popular today because of Bali,” says Daniel Komala, founder of Larasati Auctioneers. “Without Bali’s inspiration, they would have been just like any other painters.”
And Ubud might have been just another tourist destination.