Wednesday, 16 April, 2014

Published December 13, 2013
Top tips from top collectors
Searching for 'oh my god' art
From around the world, five collectors of South-east Asian art share their wisdom on how to build an art collection. By HELMI YUSOF
BT 20131213 HYCOVER13A8L0D 873302

Top-tier fare: The pieces belonging to Mr Tam's collection currently on display at Artspace@Helutrans include some extraordinary works such as Sopheap Pich's 'Buddha' (above). - PHOTO: JOHN HENG

  • 1 of 2
BT 20131213 HYCOVER13A8L0D 873302
BT 20131213 HYCOVER13ANEW 873391


47, USA

Technical director of a medical technology firm

HOWARD Tam applies a simple rule of thumb when deciding whether to buy art: "I categorise art into three baskets - oh, oh my and oh my god. The oh my god is the top tier.

"I buy only works that are oh my god. Works that are oh my may slip down the list to become oh; works that are just oh may slip off the list altogether. The oh my god are the ones you should collect."

So far, that strategy has worked like a charm. The pieces belonging to his collection currently on display at Artspace@Helutrans include some extraordinary works such as Sopheap Pich's Buddha, one of only three in the world.

The famous Cambodian rattan sculpture comes apart in its bottom half, as a symbol of how goodness and humanity unravelled under the Khmer Rouge rule, which the artist witnessed as a child.

Mr Tam says: "There are two things I think about. First, whether the work has a deeper political, social and religious meaning. Second, how does that work fit into the artist's entire body of work? Does it represent a progression? Or is he just producing more of the same?"

"Oh my god" artworks seldom come cheap, and Mr Tam has seen his budget for each work rise from US$20,000 in 2005 to around US$100,000 these days. He has amassed some 250 pieces of mostly South-east Asian artists that include the Who's Who of the art world, such as Filipino Ronald Ventura, Indonesia's Handiwirman Saputra and Malaysia's Yee I-Lann.

Mr Tam is clear about one thing, though - he doesn't buy art to speculate. Even though several of the works have seen their value rise, he's never sold a piece.

One day, the American hopes to loan or donate them to museums in the United States which he feels need greater exposure to South-east Asian art.

He says: "To collect art for investment's sake would be rather foolish. You'll get burned because you never know when the tide will turn. Artists who may be hot right now may collapse in two years. And art is not liquid - not like stocks or real estate."

"There are wiser ways to spend your money," he notes. "Collecting art requires genuine passion."

Final word of advice: "I have very few Singaporean artists in my collection. Historically, I've been very cynical about Singaporean artists. I generally found the works derivative ... And even among many Singapore collectors, I noticed there wasn't strong interest in local art.

"But in the past 10 years, I've seen a lot of progress. The young generation of Singapore artists are producing some really good works, so I recommend that collectors look at Singapore art now.

"My picks include Robert Zhao, Donna Ong, Joel Yuen and Jane Lee."

Part of Tam's art collection is currently on show at Artspace@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road, #02-03, Tanjong Pagar Distripark, from now till Dec 15. Opening hours: 11am to 7pm daily. Admission is free. Call 6329-6847 for details.

5 takeaways

  • Buy art you love; never buy art for pure investment purposes or you'll most certainly get burned.
  • Buy your generation's art.
  • Buy art that offers a snapshot of history, implicitly or explicitly.
  • Buy art only after you've researched the artist.
  • Don't buy four cheap average paintings - save up for one solid work. In other words, buy the best or not at all.