Billionaire Oei Hong Leong’s Buddhist Treasures

AUG 3, 2016 @ 05:28 PM

Naazneen Karmali , FORBES STAFF

This story appears in the August 2016 issue of Forbes Asia.

Nei Xue Tang Museum of Buddhist and Chinese Historical Art

Four decades ago, when he moved to Singapore, Oei Hong Leong started buying Buddhist artifacts as decorative pieces for his home. Then still in his 20s, he had the wherewithal–his father, Eka Tjipta Widjaja, is one of Indonesia’s billionaires. Today Oei owns one of the biggest private collections of such objects, including rare and valuable antiquities dating to the Chinese Tang, Song and Ming dynasties. Having grown up in China “with no religion” and with a wife and four daughters who are Catholic, he sees his affinity for Buddhist art as “fate.”

The bulk of Oei’s 50,000-piece collection is displayed at Nei Xue Tang, a private museum housed in a four-story heritage building on Singapore’s Cantonment Road. Oei visits the museum twice a month to “pay my respects and pray for my family’s peace and health.” He offers flowers to the 17th-century seven-headed Dragon Buddha statue from Thailand near the museum’s entrance.

Visitors to Nei Xue Tang–the name means “hall of inner learning” in Chinese–are admitted only by invitation and have to leave their footwear outside. The antiques come from across Asia, including India–where Buddhism originated–and countries where it spread and is widely practiced today, such as Thailand, China, Cambodia, Japan and Mongolia.

Overseen by a Chinese-speaking curator, the displays occupy every available space inside. In a structure with preserved Peranakan architecture, there is no scope for expansion. Consequently, part of Oei’s collection is locked in a warehouse. The most precious pieces, over which he keeps a close watch, are kept at his sprawling mansion on Dalvey Road.

Among them is a set that Oei refers to as the “18 monks”–4-foot-tall wooden statues, originally from China, that he bought from a Singapore temple 20 years ago. Placed in the ballroom where Oei hosts formal receptions, they create a dramatic setting. He estimates that the set is worth three times the $7 million he paid to acquire it.

Not that Oei is looking to sell. He recalls that his collection got a boost during the exodus from Hong Kong just prior to the 1997 handover to the Chinese, when antiques flooded the market. Oei also picked up statues that were sold by Chinese temples in danger of being submerged by rising water levels caused by the Three Gorges Dam.

In 2007 Oei got a big break when he struck a deal to acquire the museum from retired lawyer and antique collector Woon Wee Teng for an undisclosed sum. Woon, a friend, created the space in 2005 for a collection already numbering 40,000 pieces.



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