Singaporean family of art collectors offers UK art prize

Art collector Woon Wee Teng with three of his prized Buddhist statues originating from the Dali kingdom in 12th- and 13th-century China. — PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Strait Times

Singaporean family of art collectors offers UK art prize

Published on May 27, 2012

Art collector Woon Wee Teng with three of his prized Buddhist statues originating from the Dali kingdom in 12th- and 13th-century China. — PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

By Joyce Teo
A Singaporean family of art collectors is sponsoring a major new art prize for students in Britain.

At £40,000 (S$80,000) a year in total, the prize is equal in value to the Turner Prize, Britain’s biggest art award, and will be launched tomorrow.

It is the brainchild of art collector Woon Wee Teng, who collects art together with his three brothers.

Mr Woon Wee Teng and his brothers have been collecting art almost their entire lives.

He started collecting Buddhist art when he was in Primary 5 and his first few pieces were talismans and Buddha statues given to him by monks.

‘Buddhist art is for protection and was not meant to have monetary value,’ he said. ‘But they turned out to be collectors’ items and there is a market for them.’

Today, the brothers’ collection of Buddhist art has grown to include sculptures, scrolls, paintings and more. It includes a rare gilt bronze Acouye Guanyin from the Dali Kingdom that dates back to 1172.

‘We also collect modern art by artists like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, Hindu art and some Christian works, jade and jewellery and so on,’ said Mr Woon.

Among the brothers, he has been the main one involved in acquiring Buddhist art.

‘I had the intuition that I would be able to piece together a great collection. I had the interest and the foresight,’ he said. ‘In my late 20s, people were not chasing these Buddhist art pieces so I got good prices. I could pay a few thousand for paintings, which are now worth millions.’

The collection is now so big that it is housed in several places, including his Burn Hall mansion near Durham in Britain, his brothers’ homes in Singapore as well as bank vaults.

Some items will soon be moved to two 3,000 sq ft warehouses being built in Yishun.

The funds for buying art come from the Woon’s family business and also privately from the four brothers.

‘We do the business, make the money and we share,’ said Mr Woon. ‘We love art and we support artists. You need patrons in art. We’ve always supported young artists, whether they are here or overseas.

‘If I cannot build a museum, I will part with the collection in the hope that someone can build it. To me, a museum is a university of the future.’

Have they sold off any of their other beloved purchases, especially those that could reap a handsome profit?

‘Buddha statues are not for sale but the rest, we sometimes let go of some pieces for a profit,’ he said, adding that the brothers see themselves as custodians of their Buddhist art.

Elder brother Tek Seng told The Sunday Times that he sold a painting by Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong seven years ago for $200,000. He had bought it for $10,000 in 1990.

Mr Woon Wee Teng also once let go of 40,000 pieces of Buddhist art at an undisclosed price, to start a world Buddhist museum. ‘It’s a source of pride to have a major collection in the family,’ he said. ‘If you are motivated by money, you will sell if someone offers you 10 times the price. But I think you will get a better price eventually if you don’t think of the money.’

Joyce Teo

They own a pawn shop and many shophouses in Singapore, and recently sold a construction business.

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