The art of amassing a fortune

PHOTO: 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.

It reminded me of another unlikely success story in a modern art collection: Herbert Vogel and his wife Dorothy, who are among America's most famous art collectors.

They never had much money. Herbert was a high-school dropout who worked as a postal worker, while Dorothy was a librarian in a public library, and they lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment all their lives.

Yet, they managed to amass a US$400 million treasure trove of almost 5,000 sculptures, paintings and prints, which they then donated to 51 museums across the country.

Through their extensive collecting history, Low and the Vogels offered some valuable insights to art lovers and value investors everywhere on how to create wealth and beauty:

Buy for the long term

Even though they never sold their collection, they followed the classic strategy of "buy and hold". Instead of flipping their artwork for a quick profit, they purchased with an eye to keeping them for the long term.

Buy for love, not profit

One thing you would never have caught Low or the Vogels doing - buying an artwork simply because they believed it would appreciate in value. Instead, they bought them because they appreciated their beauty and the value they added to their lives.

Know the market

Given their limited funds, they were extremely savvy with their investments - and they made it a point to understand the market well.

The depth of Low's knowledge was such that he was accepted as one of the few experts capable of authenticating paintings dating 200 years back.

Look for investments which are new and original

Low was also known for building a modern Chinese art collection, spending a few hundred dollars - a hefty sum 60 years ago - a month to buy paintings to support struggling mainland artists before their capabilities were recognised.

Knowing when to pounce

Like all value investors, they knew when to buy. Low arrived in Hong Kong at a time when the then British colony was teeming with mainland refugees selling their most treasured possessions, which had been handed down for generations in some cases. Rather than allow them to slip out of Asia forever, he bought them at what would now appear to be huge bargains.

Spirit of giving

Above all, Low and the Vogels were motivated by a sense of fair play and generosity in whatever they did. The word "greed" did not enter their vocabulary. That was the formula for their success.

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