What drives Asia’s most powerful art collectors

What drives Asia’s most powerful art collectors?

Following on from a Christie’s Hong Kong sales season which realised almost $HK3 billion, Asia’s most powerful and influential collectors reveal their passions, aspirations, motivations and dreams — and offer advice for anyone hoping to join their exclusive club

  • Liu Yiqian

The chairman of Sunline Group and his wife Ms Wang Wei are among the top art collectors in China. They own two Long Museums in Shanghai, and a third museum in Chongqing will open soon. The couple began collecting in the 1990s, and have built collections in Asian Contemporary Art, Chinese Works of Art and Chinese Paintings. More recently, they started buying masterpieces in the Impressionist & Modern and Post-War and Contemporary categories, including Modigliani’s Nu Couché (1917-18), which Mr Liu acquired for more than $170 million in November 2015.

  • Robert Tsao

The founder and honorary chairman of United Microelectronics Corp — Taiwan’s second-largest producer of semiconductors — began his collecting career in the early 1990s, initially with jadeite and then also with archaic bronzes. In November 2007 Mr Tsao acquired a magnificent Imperial Beijing enamel glass brushpot from the Qianlong period for HK$60 million (almost $9 million) during our Hong Kong sales season.

  • Wijono Tanoko

Wijono Tanoko

The President Director of Avia Avian, an Indonesia-based manufacturer of paint, coating and building materials and furniture, is one of the country’s top art collectors, with a collection that spans Southeast Asian Paintings, Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art, and Chinese Modern Paintings. Mr Tanoko has one of the world’s finest collections of works by Wu Guanzhong, and lent part of his collection to the inaugural exhibition at Singapore National Gallery in November 2015.

  • Robert Chang

Born in Suzhou, in eastern China, Mr. Chang moved to Hong Kong in 1948 where he began working as a broker for friends of his father, who was a well-known Shanghai art dealer. Now 90, the businessman and legendary art dealer has become one of the most influential and highly respected figures in the world of Chinese art, and a key figure in the growth of the Hong Kong market over the last half century.

  • Chan Kok Hua

The owner of Singapore’s Sin Hua Gallery has been an established collector for over 30 years, and is renowned as Singapore’s most successful dealer in Chinese ink paintings, as well as being a leading buyer and consignor of Chinese Paintings. His gallery has organised many exhibitions, including the acclaimed Qiu Zhai Collection, featuring more than 120 pieces spanning the 100 years after the 1840 Opium War in Beijing.

  • Pierre Chen

The Taiwanese chairman of Yageo, a major manufacturer of electronic components, is one of Asia’s leading collectors of Western contemporary art, and one of the world’s top collectors of works by Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter. His collection also includes works by Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Peter Doig, Thomas Struth, and many others. In 2014, 76 works from Mr. Chen’s collection were exhibited by four leading museums in Japan.

  • Hikonobu Ise

The chairman and founder of the Ise Group Inc, and founder of Ise Cultural Foundation, has built an impressive collection that ranges from Japanese Fine and Decorative Arts and Chinese Ceramics through to works by masters of Impressionist and Modern Art and Contemporary Art. The Ise Cultural Foundation was founded in 1983 by the endowments from three Ise Group Inc companies — Ise America, Seaboard Foods and Seaboard Farm in the United States.  

What is your philosophy on collecting?

Liu Yiqian: I don’t have a collecting philosophy. I’ve been going to art auctions for over 20 years, and have a bit of experience. It doesn’t compare with that of a specialist, however. I can look at an object and have a sense of whether it is worth collecting; its good and bad qualities. I am an empiricist, and haven’t received any teaching or instruction on what is good and what is bad. In the auction room, people will contend with you for something good; everybody has a kind of mutual feeling towards beautiful objects.

Video: Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude) leads a night of records in New York

Robert Tsao: From the outset, you must only buy works that are genuine. Some people say that buying fakes is all part of the learning experience, but this kind of approach is wrong. Right from the start, collectors must not take in fakes because ‘like attracts like’. Once you start buying fakes, you are bound to continue in the same vein. It’s like wandering off the straight and narrow in one’s youth — it becomes impossible to disentangle oneself.

Chan Kok Hua: Whether I’m collecting, or managing my gallery, my principle undertaking is relatively clear: to gather together post-Opium War painting and calligraphy. This is because artistic creativity during this period took on a new appearance. The invasion of China by foreign forces had an earth-shaking influence on politics, culture and the economy. Artists sought innovative new techniques to express Chinese painting. The likes of Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Wu Guanzhong, Wu Zuoren and Fu Baoshi all went abroad, one after the other, and in doing so absorbed a wealth of artistic elements and influences. On their return, they brought new artistic interpretations.

Pierre Chen: I am in the business of electronics, which is highly competitive and driven by innovation. For me, art, music and my family are powerful ways to balance the tension from work. They calm me down and keep me sane. Therefore, when I buy, I have to like the artwork first, and then I have to want to live with it. The Andreas Gursky photograph, the Gerhard Richter painting on my living room walls, the Antony Gormley, the Jaume Plensa sculptures in my garden — they are all integral parts of my life. Art collecting has shaped my life and personality.

Robert Chang: The auction market requires both buying and selling, and only with these comings and goings will the market circulate successfully. Buying in without selling will mean there is no supply. Goods need to be exchanged, and in this way collectors are all able to enjoy precious works of art.

Wijono Tanoko: Much of it has been a trial and error experience. I started collecting artworks for fun. Some of my friends advised that it could be a form of investment as well, but to be honest, it was the pleasure of collecting that motivated me. There was a time when I had a fear of losing out on paintings, and consequently I bought paintings every week to calm that agitation. As time went by, I began to be able to discern different qualities of art in the market. After 15 years of collecting, I am glad that I have not had that many misses in choosing artworks with both investment and artistic value. 

Hikonobu Ise: To collect and buy what you love at first sight!

What has been your greatest collecting experience, and which pieces in your collection are most precious to you?

Robert Tsao: The Qianlong period enamel glass brushpot which I bought at Christie’s Hong Kong for HK$60 million in 2007. I sold it soon after for HK$65 million in the 2008 Hong Kong spring auctions, with the aim of raising money for the Wenquan earthquake disaster relief. At that time, Wenquan [in Sichuan province, China] had suffered a huge earthquake and many people faced disaster. It simply wouldn’t be right to think only of winning the best artwork from auction rooms, and showing no interest in the victims of the disaster. I hope that through this small act, I can bring balance to the whole collecting world — and let the outside know that collectors are not greedy, cold-blooded monsters.

Hikonobu Ise: There are quite a few things I love and enjoy from my collection. For Chinese Works of Art, the palace bowl is by far the best and the most beautiful among the 70 existing pieces in my collection. The bowl grabbed my heart when I went to the preview only to look at it. I ended up bidding and became its owner! It is just so beautiful. For European painting, I love the Still Life painting I have by Paul Cézanne. For Japanese art, my favourite is a painting titled A Rooster under the Tree by Jakuchu Ito.

‘One of the greatest joys in life is discovering little-known artists whose works turn out to be a testament to your vision as a collector’

Wijono Tanoko: It was in 2001 that I started collecting, mostly Indonesian artworks, both modern and contemporary. My first few purchases were works by Hendra Gunawan, Sudjana Kerton, Sunaryo, Djoko Pekik, Srihadi Soedarsono, Masriadi and Agus Suwage. Some time after 2002 I began to look at Chinese painters such as Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou Ki, Chu Teh Chun, Lin Fengmian and Sanyu. At that point my interest shifted towards Chinese artworks. I like Wu Guanzhong’s work the most because he is a genius: his artistic prowess is apparent in his oil paintings, his watercolours and his sketches. The fact that there is so much written material available about Wu Guanzhong’s art means that if there is a work offered at Christie’s, I am able to use my grading method in order to judge it. I guess it’s a combination between my passion and this ability to assess his work that has helped me to acquire such wonderful artworks.

Pierre Chen: One of the greatest joys in life is discovering little-known artists whose works turn out to be a testament to your vision as a collector. Peter Doig was relatively new to the market when his Iron Hill was offered at auction for $400,000-600,000 in June 2006. Fascinated by the painting, I became the direct under-bidder when the auctioneer sold it to another buyer at $1.2million hammer, a record for the artist. While I was hugely disappointed, his name and creative style stuck with me. About nine months later, I acquired a number of Peter Doig paintings from Charles Saatchi’s treasure trove. I kept Canoe Lake and White Canoe but decided to put the latter up for auction. The White Canoe was sold for $12 million in February 2007, setting another record for the artist. Peter Doig remains one of my favourite artists. That’s why I bought his Swamped for $26 million at Christie’s last May.

What kind of challenges have you encountered as a collector, and what has collecting taught you?

Wijono Tanoko: Of course there are challenges. During an auction, the challenge is usually when a particular artwork I am bidding on has fetched a high price and the bidding keeps on going. At that moment I have to decide whether I should continue or let go, and there are times when I have gone over my initial budget. Acquiring a good quality artwork needs some kind of training. When I compare the artworks in the museum and the artworks that I have, I do feel that the museum’s artworks are still of a different calibre. It’s still a long way to go to for me to be able to match that quality. Also, of course, significant artworks are not always available on the market. 

Robert Chang: I have collected ceramics, cloisonné, calligraphy, paintings, and snuff bottles. Lately, I have been thinking about what was missing from my collection, and realised it was jades. So, over the last few years I have started to form a jade collection. At present, collecting jades is by no means easy: increasingly, there are fewer high quality jades left on the market, and prices are high which makes the process of jade collecting even harder.

Liu Yiqian: Art is interlinked; it is all a means by which mankind expresses itself. Although each ethnicity or country will express different things, it is all an expression of the culture of mankind. Collecting is no different — whether it be traditional Chinese works of art, Chinese contemporary art, or not from the Chinese perspective at all. Today’s world is a globalized one. Cultural exchange is happening more and more, and there is no longer a clear distinction between Western and Eastern art. Feeling appreciation for and awe at beautiful things is part of man’s inherent nature.

Chan Kok Hua: I buy paintings to make a living, and can hardly be called a collector. With finite resources and facing a fiercely competitive market, the path of the collector is extremely difficult. There are occasions where one comes across a good painting, but there is no way to obtain it. Once I had the chance to buy Xu Beihong’s Put Down Your Whip, with the oil painting even spending an evening in my house. But I was unable to find the funds to buy it and so, to my horror, I watched it slip away. For a collector, nothing is more challenging than this.

‘Chinese art serves as a form of sacrificial offering, enabling communication with spirits and gods’

Hikonobu Ise: I have not encountered any particular difficulty in collecting art, but being a collector in Japan makes you a bit lonely as Japanese collectors tend to be rather shy and private. Every week I take out an artwork from its box and enjoy looking at it while having tea. It is something beyond just relaxing and gives me so much joy. I would love to make more ‘collector’ friends to share the joy of art together.

Robert Tsao: Collecting has taught me that the artistic achievements of the Chinese classical traditions far exceed those of Western fine art. Western art is concerned with depicting personages or historical events, with an emphasis on realism. This realism requires sheer hard work — tireless application and continual practice. Chinese art, however, serves as a form of sacrificial offering, enabling communication with spirits and gods. It must grapple with the mystical and the creation of meaning. Because of this, works often reveal the artist’s genius and startling power of imagination.

Pierre Chen: We have learnt to overcome technical challenges in issues such as conservation or the logistics of moving monumental or delicate artworks. However, there never seems to be enough space for the pieces we like. I guess that’s the reason many collectors chose to build their own museums!

How do you see the future development of the art market?

Robert Chang: In the 1980s, the market offered for sale hundreds of ceramic lots, and proportionally very few Chinese paintings. So, at that time in New York, I helped to launch the inclusion of Chinese paintings at auction, and later the auctioning of Chinese paintings also began in Hong Kong. I believe Chinese paintings will continue their upward market trend, one reason being that paintings and calligraphy are so easy to collect. But you must also exercise caution when buying paintings, because the market is flooded with fakes.

Chan Kok Hua: This is related to economic development. The Chinese economic growth of the past 30 years has spurred on the art market, and especially the demand for Chinese works of art. Will Chinese art still lag behind the West in another 50 or 80 years’ time? No way! Outsiders say that the art market is facing a ‘winter’ period, but I have total confidence.

Wijono Tanoko: To me, the price of an artwork is significantly affected by the economic condition of its originating country. For example, when the Indonesian economy is good, usually the prices of paintings from Indonesia will increase as well. If a particular country is experiencing an economic crisis, to some extent it contributes to the decrease in art prices. This is because there are fewer buyers and therefore more unsold lots. As I observe the economic growth of Indonesia, I am confident that the Indonesian art market will grow. I am also certain that in the future, modern Indonesian artists will fetch a much higher price. 

Hikonobu Ise: In Japan, collecting art was long considered lavish and people were not open about it. Nowadays, spending on art has come to be better understood and I expect that the collector population will soon be increasing. 

Tell us about your goals in terms of establishing your own museums and art foundations?

Hikonobu Ise: There are three aspects of my mission with The Ise Cultural Foundation. Firstly, I wanted to protect Asian art from being dispersed, particularly Chinese works. I find them absolutely beautiful. When I started collecting more than 30 years ago, they were more affordable and this is when I started going to Christie’s auctions. Secondly, I wanted to introduce art by European masters to Japan, and to create more opportunities for Japanese people to enjoy art by those artists. That is why I lend pictures from my own collection to exhibitions at domestic museums. The final part of my mission over the last few years has been to promote young Japanese craft artists both domestically and internationally, to help them establish themselves and to survive as artists. These young Japanese artists are amazingly talented and highly skilled, but they are undervalued. 

Liu Yiqian: In all things, it is important to have one’s feet planted firmly on the ground. The same can be said for setting up a museum. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion: the outside world might think that setting up an art museum is a noble pursuit, but I personally have no connection with art history. As for the future, I don’t know what people will think of me. At present, I am setting up the Long Museum with my wife, just because we enjoy art. We have amassed a lot of art over many years and it is on these grounds that I am setting up the museum, nothing as noble as promoting Chinese art. These works of art, once displayed in my house, are now being put into the museum for others to enjoy. The sort of passion my wife has for the museum is rare. Regardless of whether it’s setting up a museum, collecting or doing other business, all we want to do is give it our best.

What is your advice to new collectors?

Robert Tsao: Don’t buy fakes and don’t buy damaged objects. Look at genuine pieces, and draw comparisons as often as you can. Without comparisons, collecting is no different from shopping. Without any knowledge of value or being able to tell the real from the fake, it’s no good. To be a collector, you must have these fundamental skills.

Pierre Chen: Choose only artworks that you are passionate about. Strive to get to know the artists and their works as best as you can, and enjoy the process.

Hikonobu Ise: Buy art with passion and follow your instincts — and don’t think about the price!