The art of amassing a fortune

The art of amassing a fortune

SINGAPORE - About 20 years ago, I first set my eyes on the famous collection of Chinese paintings donated by the late Singapore banker Low Chuck Tiew to the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Wandering around the Xubaizhai gallery which had been specially built by the museum to house the 1,000 paintings and works of art, even a layman like me could appreciate the painstaking lifelong efforts made by Mr Low to amass the collection.

It had been billed as the most comprehensive collection of Chinese paintings outside mainland China and Taiwan, spanning artworks from the sixth to the 20th century. At the time of its donation, it had been valued at $150 million. But its worth must have grown many times since.

Many Singaporeans had been upset that he chose to leave his collection to Hong Kong rather than his native Singapore. So, when a friend related that he and his wife had recently been to Hong Kong and seen a special exhibition to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Xubaizhai gallery, I was tempted to fly there to take another look.

Art collecting has often seemed like a rich man's game, open to the rarefied few who could plonk down a few million without breaking a sweat.

Yet, Mr Low was not a rich man. Till the end of his life in 1993, he had lived modestly in a two-bedroom flat in Kowloon, unfettered by the money-grubbing and status-seeking Hong Kong society he had lived and worked in.

He had been assigned to Hong Kong in 1949 to restart the local branch of the then Four Seas Communications Bank - which has since been absorbed into OCBC Bank - as the Communists swept to power in China.

The political turmoil then engulfing the mainland led to a surge of valuable Chinese artworks appearing in Hong Kong. As an art lover, he was motivated to try to buy them up partly because he wanted to ensure they were not siphoned off to the West.

By following his passion and amassing the paintings "to the extent of depleting his private resources" - as the Hong Kong Museum of Art puts it - he built a magnificent collection which he then generously bequeathed to the world, rather than pass them to his children or sell them at a profit.

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