The ABCs of Art Collection: Hong Kong’s enigmatic gallery owner Pearl Lam
Hong Kong art collector PEARL LAM, who runs four internationally-acclaimed galleries of her namesake, on turning art into a business, and the wisdom in curating a worthy art collection.
Trail-blazer, Asian arts authority, championer.
These are some of the terms used to describe veteran art curator Pearl Lam. But words can hardly define the personality that Pearl is. Born into one of the richest families in Hongkong, Pearl fought against familial odds to become one of Asia’s pioneers in the international art collection scene. The enigmatic, larger-than-life businesswoman now owns four galleries in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, all of which are currently run by renowned art curators.
Over the last 20 years, Pearl has pushed through the modernising of the Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asian art scenes and played a key role in bridging the gap between Western contemporaries to the traditional sensibilities and cultures of the Asian art world. More than that of her perfectly-coiffed purple hair, commanding deep voice and infectious laughter, Pearl has become the face of a modern Asian art world.
At the behest of her good friend and Art Stage founder Lorenzo Rudolf, she joined the Art Stage Singapore in 2009, and recently, the inaugural Art Stage Jakarta in August. Pearl, who represents several Indonesian artists, including the emerging Gatot Pujiarto and young artists like Yudi Sulistyo, has high hopes for the Indonesian art world.
“I am constantly looking for art pieces that go beyond political and social issues. I’m looking to understand the undercurrent values and issues of a culture, and I can see that in Indonesian art pieces. There are artists here who can open my mind to that — and this is high praise, you can’t say that for some countries.”
She is circumspect — and controversial — when we ask her how far she thinks Asian art has come along. “I’ve always said that Asian artists simply take the Western precepts and feed in the local content. Sure, it’s easier for the West to understand us but do we really have to communicate with them on such a shallow level? To me, a standout Asian art deconstructs the Western theories and aesthetics, grounding it back to our Asian culture and tradition.”
#1 Do your research. Or make sure you buy so much you feel the pinch, then you will know to do your research.
The art world is a complicated one, and it requires collectors to enter with caution, i.e knowledge. Says Pearl, “I’ve seen new collectors who buy art pieces even when they don’t know much about it. I’m fine with that, but if you buy enough — or spend enough until you feel the pinch, you will definitely want to learn about it. You’d think to yourself: I better do my homework now that I’ve spent a fortune on them. I like to do my research on art works so that I will know what I am in for. It’s important because having the right knowledge can support you in making wise decisions.”
#2 Buying art is no different from investing in stocks. You want the stock value to go up in the future.
Pearl tells us that it takes a trained eye to find art pieces that have a sustainable value over time. But she outlines a few things that collectors can also look out for: “You need to find artists who have had international exhibitions and credentials to back them up. These artists and their art works will hold their value during an economy crisis.” Pearl added, “It took me a long time to accept that art is an asset. But you can’t look at an art piece as a product that’s determined by the supply and demand of the market. If you want it to have value, it will require endorsement from the museums, academics and curators.”
#3 Determine your collection’s purpose: Investment or wall decoration?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying an art piece to decorate your walls, says Pearl. “Important works are usually sold to influential collectors and museums, so you need to know what sort of collection you want to build. If your objective is to build an important collection, you usually need to have a theme and a good budget. Also, you have to decide what kind of mix you want in your collection: international versus local art pieces, emerging artists versus established ones. My galleries don’t have a specific theme. I’m a shopaholic, I don’t like to be limited — but that forms my style too.”
#4 Always find someone credible to help you build your art collection.
Pearl shares, albeit incredulously, that she has seen her fair share of customers duped into thinking they had bought real pieces. Find the right people who can genuinely advise you, she asserts, and when in doubt, stick to the primary market. “I’ve seen so-called advisers in Asia who have no idea what they are talking about. If you have a Picasso painting, usually you send it to the Picasso Foundation to authenticate it. You’ve to bring specialists in to certify your painting. Many of them do not know this because they do not have the right contact, neither do they understand the need for authentication. I’ve had people asking me to hold an exhibition for their Pollock painting over WeChat. Come on.”
#5 Be open-minded, curious, and teachable. Ask lots of questions and know what you’re getting into.
“Art has to arouse you to learn new things, like philosophy, politics, psychology. If it’s merely politics and social issues, we have the newspapers for that! I love to look at art pieces that provoke insights. Art, especially contemporary art, can be intimatidating. But it’s only so because people never ask. If you start asking questions, you will know more and you will improve. Remember what we teach children. Essentially, we want to become better versions of ourselves, and art can be a means to do that.