The Joy and Frustration of Becoming an Art Collector

For the first 30 years of my life, art did not interest me at all. During my school days in my native Singapore and in my youth, I had set foot in the local museum only once as a family outing. To this day, the only exhibit there that I can still recall vividly was the massive skeleton of a whale, which was hung prominently in the main gallery of the museum! This museum has since been transformed into a fine history museum, minus the ubiquitous whale skeleton of course.

Even in art-rich and metropolitan London, where I resided for four years studying to be a lawyer, I steadfastly stayed away from its world-renowned museums and national art galleries until shortly before leaving London for home after my graduation. When a close English friend found out that I had not even visited the British Museum, which was near my lodging, he was aghast and thought me uncultured! He then firmly advised me to go there and to also to visit the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery in order to widen my intellectual horizons, or I might live to regret it. After some hesitation, I decided to heed his sound advice. These visits did enlighten me and opened up my mind to the sublime beauty of art and the ancient artifacts. After having been initiated into art collecting for the past four decades, I now look back to this long learning process with mixed emotions of ecstasies and frustrations. Certainly, there were moments of triumphs and self congratulations but, more often than not, I was truly appalled at my own initial lack of good taste or for allowing rare buying opportunities to pass me by when they came my way.

My nascent collecting career started when we moved into our new house. Like all proud first time property owners, my wife and I agreed that a couple of art objects would definitely add a touch of elegance and refinement to the ambiance of our new home. We began to plough into art books, visit museums, art galleries and antique shops at weekends, so as to gain some insight into the esoteric world of art collecting. We were fascinated by antique Chinese ceramics and contemporary paintings and decided to make forays into purchasing them. Armed with such skin-deep theoretical knowledge, we thought that we were ready to embark on our path as collectors! We could not have been more wrong.

We were cautious in our first ceramic acquisitions of the late 19th century Chinese pieces, which were relatively affordable and there were few fakes then in the shops and more quality conscious collectors would shun them in preference for those of older vintages. Our colourful wares were pretty to look at, but lacking in artistic merit as we found out only much later. As we were quite satisfied with these picks then, we became emboldened and decided to go for the older and better quality pieces which would set us back by quite a tidy sum.

One day, we were shown an assorted antique Chinese ceramic pieces by an amiable and patient proprietor of a long established antique shop. A 12-inch blue and white vase caught our eyes and we were instantly struck by its obvious aesthetic charm and appeal. The proprietor, sensing our interest in it, promptly complimented us on our “cultivated taste” in selecting a “rare collector’s item”, made during the reign of Emperor Kang Hsi (1662-1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). We bought it after some negotiation over several cups of exquisite Chinese tea, as this seemingly benign and elderly dealer had convinced us that it was indeed a very good buy at a most reasonable price considering its quality, rarity and intrinsic value. A well-carved blackwood stand and a silk-lined brocaded box came with it.

We later proudly showed it to a couple of collector friends who showed much interest in our ware and congratulated us on our “discerning eyes and judgment”. But the moment of truth came six months later, long after we had “discovered several more bargain pieces” from this and other shops as we were then gripped by a burst of collecting fever and spent almost all our weekends hoping to discover more bargains from various antique shops. The fateful day finally arrived, a consummate collector of impeccable credentials from overseas came to our house for dinner. We naturally showed him our pride, the Kang Hsi vase, confident that he, too, would be impressed by it and this would decidedly make our day. He took a close look at its motif and examined the neat and well-written six-character reign mark at the base, and lamented that, although it is undoubtedly a superbly-crafted first rate specimen of that period, its neck had, unfortunately, been truncated due to earlier damage. He taught us our first object lesson in collecting antique ceramics: that a defective porcelain, no matter how exquisite, leaves one with an utter sense of frustration, not to mention that its commercial value would have been substantially diminished. He put it most aptly and poetically: “Its like gazing at a stunningly beautiful woman with pock marks.”

He also told us that the dealer was under a professional duty to disclose its condition to us. The fact that he had failed to do so, and instead charged us an exorbitant price as though it was perfect, clearly showed that he meant to deceive us on account of our inexperience. I promptly confronted the dealer who, at first, flatly denied that the vase was defective and refused to make a refund. It was only when I threatened to seek legal redress that he realised that the game was up and I got my money back.

This unpleasant episode was timely and had a salutary impact on our collecting career. We became more discerning and less impulsive when buying antiques thereafter, for impetuosity is a common weakness of most beginner collectors. Through the recommendations of expert collectors, we came to know two reputable and knowledgeable Singapore dealers. From Mr Goh and Mr Loh, of Moon Gate, we bought our first respectable and perfect piece of porcelain, a doucai bowl of the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820), which was sagaciously chosen by my wife. But, unfortunately, we could not bring ourselves to acquire a couple of even more desirable pieces which, at a pinch, we could have afforded by not buying the other lesser pieces. To this day, our lack of foresight continues to haunt us, as such excellent wares had become very scarce in the market and would now fetch a small fortune at international auctions.

From the late Mr Lim, who once owned a well-known shop in Orchard Road, we bought a fine blanc de Chine libation cup, made by a Dehua kiln in China’s Fujian province, in the 18th century. Its glaze is almond-white and was very thinly potted. It has sentimental value for us both: it was my birthday present to my wife.

Over the years, we had learned a great deal about the finer points of Chinese ceramics of the different periods from these and other mentors, much more than we would have gained from book knowledge and passive viewing of pieces at museums or exhibitions. Since then, despite our having ventured into collecting other art forms such as painting, jade, antique furniture, collecting Chinese ceramics continues to be our real passion and abiding hobby, without which our lives will definitely be less fulfilling. As our experience and knowledge grew, we had also made some very exciting and memorable purchases overseas.

Based on our own experiences, the following tips might help would-be or new collectors of Chinese ceramics, if only to avoid certain pitfalls which had confronted us earlier, and to make their artistic pursuit more joyous and smoother a process:

  • Read, view and handle as many pieces as possible before making your first purchases.
  • Take your time before making up your mind so that you would not regret it later.
  • Buy only from reputable dealers as they would guarantee the authenticity of the article in order to maintain their hard-earned trust of collectors.
  • Concentrate on the best quality pieces that you can afford, as this will pay handsome dividends in the long run than buying quantities of mediocre pieces, besides giving you endless hours of enjoyment.
  • Collect art for appreciation rather than for investment. By so doing, your collection will better reflect your personality and taste, instead of that of your expert advisers! Also, if you had bought the right pieces, they would definitely increase in value with time as their supplies are limited and finite.

Happy antiques hunting!

3 thoughts on “The Joy and Frustration of Becoming an Art Collector

  1. Pingback: Collecting Chinese Ceramic Spoons - Southeast Asian Ceramic Society (SEACS)

  2. Hi Mr Lam, happy to found your blog and thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m a new collector from Malaysia and as beginner, i usually buy pieces that i can afford (so long i’m convinced they are old & i like) and less focus on rarity. Your post shed lights for me to re-think how should i build and shape my future collection journey. Thank you so much.

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