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Mr Goh (above) donated the Farquhar Collection of rare paintings to the Singapore History Museum in 1996.

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Mr Goh donated the Farquhar Collection of rare paintings to the Singapore History Museum in 1996 and he, with Mrs Goh (above), enjoying the teamLab's video work at the glass rotunda.

Man behind the Farquhar Collection

The 477 paintings of Malayan flora and fauna could well have remained in the UK if not for this art lover.
Dec 16, 2016 5:50 AM

THE source of inspiration for the National Museum's latest glass rotunda installation and a prized national treasure, the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, might not have made it to Singapore if not for one man, and a few serendipitous occurrences.

The 477 paintings of Malayan flora and fauna commissioned by Singapore's first Resident Commandant (1819-1823) could well have remained in the United Kingdom, where it might not have gotten the contemporary art treatment by leading Japanese digital art collective, teamLab, if so.

Goh Geok Khim, 85, founder of brokerage firm GK Goh, who acquired the collection in 1993, got a pleasant surprise earlier this week when he got a guided tour of Story of the Forest, teamLab's digital animation made from 69 illustrations. The new glass rotunda installation is part of the S$11 million renovation of its permanent galleries. "It's fantastic and I think it'll attract a lot of young kids," says the sprightly 85-year-old who had donated the collection to the museum in 1996.

Thoroughly pleased with the outcome of the collaboration, Mr Goh recalls how he wouldn't have acquired the collection if it wasn't for the UK's heritage body's intervention to stop the collection from leaving the nation, a rescinded auction bid, and a gentleman's agreement with a close Malaysian friend back in 1993.

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"The story would make a good book," he chuckles. The original custodian of the collection was the Royal Asiatic Society of London since 1827, but they had put it up for sale in 1993, through Sotheby's.

"My son had told me about it. He came to me and said that he had a proposition for me, where I either make a lot of money, or lose a lot of money. I told him: 'I didn't send you to business school to tell me that'," he relates.

But Mr Goh's interest was piqued, and he made an agreement with a close Malaysian friend who was also interested in the collection that only one of them should put a bid for it, and if they got it, they'd toss a coin to decide who got it. "Yes, really, that was the plan! After all, there's no point bidding up the price," he says.

"But we lost the bid." It was too bad, but because he hadn't seen the collection, he didn't think anymore about it.

A few months later, Sotheby's contacted him again to ask if he wanted to buy the collection. It turns out that the collection could not leave the UK without permission from the relevant heritage body, which Sotheby's left out in the sale information. In the end, the buyer got tired of waiting and didn't want to go through with the purchase.

The collection was finally allowed to leave the UK so the auction house approached Mr Goh, who then, as an astute businessman, told them he would only be willing to pay his original bid price, and half the commission. He bought it for S$3 million. After that, his friend also agreed that he should keep them. The latter had wanted to donate it to a museum in Malacca. "So I got stuck with it!" he quips.

After he saw the paintings in London for the first time, Mr Goh was blown away by the vivid colours. "I think it's because the collection has been kept in storage for over a century, with very few pieces ever being shown - so they were absolutely pristine," he shares.

Mr Goh had it kept at Sotheby's for another two years, "Because there's no way I can put it in my house, and there's no way I can keep them in pristine condition, so I decided to donate it to the National Museum."

He even hand-carried them back to Singapore, because he knew they'd be damaged in the cargo hold in the plane - being subjected to freezing conditions and then being brought to Singapore's humidity. He donated them to the National Museum, in the name of his father, Goh Seng Choo. "My father had come to Singapore, penniless, at the age of 17 and when he was married to my mother in China, he didn't bring her to Singapore until he made good," Mr Goh regales.

He's the third of 12 children, and although they weren't rich, they were comfortable. Their father had farming land and the house garden had all kinds of fruit trees which his father made the children take care of. "He got us all to work on the garden . . . it was part of our upbringing then," says Mr Goh, who adds that he also grows all kinds of fruit trees in his garden and personally tends to them, hiring a gardener only to cut the grass.

He kept a cockatoo for 20 years that made a perfect guard as it squawked at every movement it saw. He's even reared a sun bear once, in the 1960s - but gave it to the Singapore Zoo after it opened, where it unfortunately didn't survive for long.

As to which are his favourite Farquhar paintings, Mr Goh says he is amazed at how real and lifelike some paintings are, like the mouse deer, the rat on the vine, the cashew nut and the ginger plants. "The lobster is very real," he says and he should know, as an avid deep sea fisher. He's just returned from a nine-day open sea fishing trip in Australia a couple of weeks ago. As fate would have it, the Farquhar paintings certainly went to the best man, one who appreciated nature as much as Farquhar did.