Hubert Burda Media

Masters and Commander

A former IT honcho and award-winning entrepreneur is back with a new passion-led venture dedicated to bringing in rare European old masters paintings. By Lauren Tan

A long drive followed by manned gantries, security pods, bag scanners…what’s next? A voice in the wall telling us to hold up our right hand and swear that we’re not about to pull off the biggest art heist Singapore has ever seen?
Then again, given that behind the wall of security there actually is a signed work by Rococo artist François Boucher, a museum league painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, and not to mention, the US$9 million Madonna and Child by Andrea del Sarto in one of the viewing rooms, the precaution is understandable.
We are at Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services at the Singapore Freeport where gallerist Chng Hock Huat displays — for sale — a collection of European paintings that date between the 16th and 19th centuries. His year-old gallery Emperor Fine Art is the first in Asia to specialise in the old masters (a term which denotes European painters of skill who worked before 1800) and entry to it is by invitation only.
“When a client follows us all the way out here to Changi, they must have a real interest. It’s not like there’s a shopping mall with Prada or Hermès next door,” the 45-year-old says of our eventful journey. “We like that it has a very museum-like environment here,” he continues, gesturing at the interior’s whitewashed walls within which we can hear even a pin drop.
“We need to treat the paintings with dignity and respect. We don’t own the paintings; the paintings own us. We live for 70 or 80 years and then we’re gone, whereas these paintings have been around for 400 to 500 years.”
But unlike museums where guided tours are bonus, all viewings here are led by an expert, in this case, Curatorial Director and Head of Business Development Merit-Verena Eisenmann. Art history-trained, she helps would-be collectors make sense of high art in simple parlance. One fine example: “That’s Venus. Venus is always pulled on a carriage of swans,” she says of a Raffaello Vanni canvas that is part of the current 24-strong collection.
German-born Eisenmann is the yin to Chng’s yang. “I’m all about art for art’s sake, but he, he’s a businessman,” she teases her boss. “Within the organisation, I am the most capitalistic,” Chng concedes. “I started [the gallery] as a 75-percent entrepreneur, 25-percent art lover, but now it’s about 50-50, and I need to maintain that balance because Merit is 99-percent art lover.”
A former infocomm technology CEO and a 2004 ASME Entrepreneur of the Year, Chng believes Singapore’s position as a cosmopolitan hub will drum up interest for European old masters. “At any one time, we have 10 to 20 percent of the world’s richest passing through or residing in Singapore, and many of them, including the region’s tycoons are no strangers to Western art. We just need to further unleash their appreciation,” he says.
Chng also plans for Emperor Fine Art to establish a presence in Hong Kong and Beijing within the next two years and is also looking to organise a fine arts fair in Singapore.
A self-described “Singaporean heartlander” — he grew up in a one-room rental flat in Lengkok Bahru — Chng’s own enthusiasm for art was discovered a decade ago when, on a friend’s recommendation, he purchased his first painting, a piece by acclaimed Chinese landscape artist Lu Yan Shao.
“At the time, for the $100,000 I paid, I could have bought a small apartment in Shanghai. And when my wife asked: ‘Will it give you rental or dividends?’ I rationalised that it would give me aesthetic dividends!” the now avid collector recalls.
In 2010, Chng left corporate life to enrol in the Masters of Art Business programme by Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. While studying Western art, he also pursued Chinese brush painting on the side. (His very commendable attempts still hang “in the dungeon”, ie the basement of his home.) It was his dissertation supervisor Professor Jeremy Eckstein that introduced Chng to Derek Johns, owner of London-based Derek Johns Gallery, through whom Emperor Fine Art obtains its pieces.
“I still have that capitalistic side in me that is very logical. And with the old masters, provenance and authenticity is of paramount importance, so the partnership with someone like Johns, who used to head the old masters department at Sotheby’s, is an assurance that the pieces I’m getting are genuine,” says Chng.
Much like buying a car, each painting sold by Emperor Fine Art further comes with an “owner’s kit” containing a welcome letter and documentation of provenance — an industry first according to Eisenmann.
While Chng professes an eye for beauty, technique and not to mention, a businessman’s gut feel of what will sell, a good number of paintings he selected for the gallery were picked, in part for his personal connection to the work. Mario del Fiori’s still life of a vase of flowers was chosen as he had his mother in mind, while Jeanne-Elisabeth Chaudet’s portrait of a young girl tending to her birds reminded him of his 10-year-old daughter. (He has three other children ranging in age from two to 12.)
“I hope the selection I made will suit local collectors. But the test of the pudding is in the tasting. I can only tell you later in the year if my taste works or if we have to calibrate our offerings,” says Chng who has set himself a sales target of $1.5 million this year.
Will he snap up any of the pieces himself? “Strictly speaking, we have to keep the best for our clients. They should have first right of choice. But if after a year, no one has bought any of the pieces I like, I may take a couple,” he replies.
“He has to wait,” Eisenmann pips up at this point, clearly allowing him no room to renege.