With China’s rapid economic development, more and more people are starting to collect fine art. It may seem like a quick way to make a fortune, but, collecting art is not as simple as it seems. Vantage spoke to three of the most famous collectors in China, and got their insights into the art of collecting.
by Cecilia Chan
Pearl Lam, owner of Pearl Lam Galleries, is the daughter of Lim Poryen, a Hong Kong real-estate tycoon and founder of the Lai Sun Group. With galleries in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore, Pearl Lam’s collection of East-meets-West modern art has put her at the forefront of China’s gallerists. She has been named one of the most influential women in art and is known as the “Queen of Eastern Art”. In 2008, Lam founded the China Art Foundation to bridge the gap between China and the West.
VANTAGE: What made you start collecting art and what was the most exciting moment in your art-collecting career?
PEARL LAM: I actually don’t know how and when I started collecting art; I’ve always told people that I’m a shopaholic! I have been painting since I was a child, so actually the first painting I ever owned was painted by myself. I used to put art on the wall at my flat in London. I went to a graduation show and saw a painting I really liked, bought it and put it on my wall, and that’s the first painting I ever bought. After that, I went back to Hong Kong and bought two other pieces. Because I can no longer put my own paintings on the wall, that’s how I celebrate other people’s work. I collected a series of paintings twenty years ago and many of those artists are really famous now; artists like Zhou Chunya and Ru Xiaofan, I feel really happy for them.
VANTAGE: What’s the biggest difficulty in art collecting?
PEARL LAM: The hardest thing is to find the A-quality works; an artist’s career can be really long, but finding their best work is a crucial job. Sometimes it’s just luck. Many artists don’t produce their best work in their early career, but once they have reached their peak, their works will soon be collected by museums. I’m always telling those young collectors: it’s not even about the price, it’s about finding the right work at the right time.
VANTAGE: What do you like most about art? What do you like most about Chinese contemporary art?
PEARL LAM: I learn about art through learning about the artists’ backgrounds, so that means I’m learning different cultural and social conditions and how those artists lived. The Chinese art I like the most is always related to and involves tradition. The more contemporary Chinese art I like is Chinese abstract; it comes from Chinese brush painting but is not about the technique itself, it is more about Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. It represents real Chinese culture. I always prefer Chinese art that deconstructs Western visual language and concepts, but links it up with home-grown traditions to produce a new visual language.
VANTAGE: Do you have any advice for people who would like to collect art but don’t know where to start?
PEARL LAM: Those people who love art should start going to museums and galleries to see art by themselves. They should talk to collectors and academics, and do their own research, because art is not just about an artist’s work, it is about culture; it is about the artist reflecting on contemporary culture. The most important thing is to integrate into the art world. They should care about who is doing the best art, and which art will makes you jump or make you tick.
Wang Wei is the founder and curator of the Long Museum. For many years, Wang Wei and her husband Liu Yiqian has been under the spotlight of the Chinese art collecting scene. With two large-scale museums in Puxi and Pudong, the Long Museum is now a leading institution of Chinese art. As a world-famous collector couple, their art collection includes Chinese traditional art, Chinese revolutionary art, and both Eastern and Western contemporary art, and takes the Chinese art collection scene to a whole new level.
VANTAGE: What is pushing you to hold so many exhibitions and expand the scale of your museum?
WANG WEI: I am a woman with restless heart, I don’t want to surrender to the traditional Chinese definition of womanhood and I don’t feel comfortable focusing only on family. I’ve been interested in art since I was a child and I have never looked back after I stepped into the art world in 1993. In the beginning, I used to fly all over China for auctions and to visit galleries. I was interested in art of all ages and painting styles, and gradually added to my personal collections. One day, I realized I really have a lot of art! It was then that I decide to open a museum to house everything, and now I have two museums in Shanghai. But it definitely wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, I love art deeply. It was only recently that I changed my focus from personal collecting to sharing with the public. I think museums are a key part of public art education, and that gives me motivation to do what I do.
VANTAGE: We now see many of the world’s best exhibitions in China. Why do you do exhibitions mostly about Chinese art?
WANG WEI: My husband and I started from antique collecting because I felt a sense of responsibility for our nation. After that, we spent lots of money buying Chinese national treasures back from overseas. In recent years, we spent a lot of effort on those revolutionary “Red classics” and modern art. Those “Red classics” are an integral memory of my generation, with a unique literature and cultural value. Actually we hope to “stand firm to our roots but look universally”, and we spent many years at auction houses, but now we are back to the primary market. I went to many art fairs, galleries and artists’ studios overseas, getting to know more about how artists actually work. In the future, we’d like to think internationally and I’m sure our collection will likewise diversify.
VANTAGE: As purchasing power keeps growing in China, there are more people considering collecting art – what advice can you give them?
WANG WEI: Art is an investment, but art collectors need knowledge and a love of art. If you don’t really like art, it’s not a good choice for you. When people’s wealth reaches a certain level, they buy things like houses and cars. They choose to invest in something they can see. But my husband and I, we have a huge art collection because we’re passionate about art, and we are still learning about art history, artists’ backgrounds, and also their creations. Interest is the first step, and after that it’s all about learning.
Matthew Liu, the founder of Matthew Liu Fine Arts, came from a family of acclaimed scholars in Chengdu. He grew up around many forms of art, especially literature and fine art. Liu went to the United States at the age of 19 to complete his higher education and after graduating from college with a finance degree, he continued to explore his love of art. After arriving at Wall Street and finding a group of like-minded friends he began his personal collection. Matthew Liu Fine Arts opened at the Rockbund Shanghai in 2014, with Liu’s unique understanding of the Western art market, his passion and unparalleled appreciation of art and the support of his long time collector friends, the gallery brings a fresh new approach to Shanghai’s art scene.
VANTAGE: Why did you start collecting art?
MATTHEW LIU: Actually I bought my first piece in my junior year of high school in Chongqing. There were some students from Sichuan Art Academy painting near my house. I saw the students’ unfinished oil painting in 1993. The artist told me if I really wanted the painting, he would sell it to me for 200rmb, which at the time was three months worth of allowance. I made six payments. It was a landscape, and in it you can see the school at which I was studying. This painting is still on the wall in front of my bed. But I didn’t ask for a signature, so I don’t even know who the artist is. It’s kind of a pity. Many years later, I was working on Wall Street, and Christie’s was next door. I almost spent 20 days per month at Christie’s. That’s where I got a lot of my collection.
VANTAGE: Where does the Chinese name of your gallery, 德玉堂 (Dé Yù Táng) come from and what is the meaning behind it?
MATTHEW LIU: Confucius said real gentlemen are like jade. Actually this sentence is about how you behave and your personality. That’s how I got the name. I hope it has the heart of jade. I think Chinese traditional art philosophy and the most modern Western contemporary art theory have a lot of things in common. They’re all very simple and minimal. It’s a beauty of awareness, not trapped in a format.
VANTAGE: You have been collecting Western art for many years. What’s the biggest difference between Western and Chinese art?
MATTHEW LIU: I think Western art has always been expressing a kind of struggle, and Chinese contemporary art has only been expressing struggle for the last few decades. So this was actually a short phenomenon – a sudden awakening from the pain. But the younger generation of artists – the 80s and 90s babies – they’re doing this less and less so actually the history of Chinese contemporary art is really short. There’s only a struggle for 40-50 years. In the past 100 years, Western art history has never stopped. It’s the same with philosophy, music. Each domain has been communicating with each other. But the main way to communicate is actually through debate.
VANTAGE: In China, high taxation on art is a big topic. But most people don’t know the regulations. Importing Western art into China is actually very expensive. How do you feel about this?
MATTHEW LIU: Well, tax is only a technical problem, but more specifically, it’s a cultural problem and a channel problem. There’s no gallery that does mostly Western artists’ exhibitions. It is really confusing for new collectors, and actually those big auction houses are really mature. Now the Chinese art situation is completely disproportionate to the economy, because if we go to Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, all the museums there – you can find Van Goghs, Picassos, and so on, but there’s nothing like that in the Chinese national art museums. So you really can’t call these large scale international museums – they’re just big national museums.
VANTAGE: Do you have any advice for young collectors?
MATTHEW LIU: Actually it’s pretty simple – price should never be the standard. You have to buy the things you like. If you really have the economic ability, you might think of investing. But the back-knowledge you need to collect art – you can’t learn it in one day. Just buy some work from the students who just graduated art college. It’s not expensive. After you get started, you will naturally do a lot of research on your own. The value of a painting, the situation of the artist, you will learn to consider all of this.