Art of Buying: Collecting Young [Summary]

Art of Buying: Collecting Young [Summary]

As an art collector would say, “Once you catch the collecting bug, it doesn’t leave you”.

However, starting an art collection at a young age can be intimidating. For many people in their twenties, art collecting can feel like a far-off pipe dream, reserved for the old and wealthy. Millennials, after all, don’t typically make oodles of money. But the art market isn’t all $450 million Leonardo da Vinci paintings and snooty evening auctions, and many in the industry are taking steps to lower barriers to entry and bring in newer collectors, including young people.

The importance of both young artists and young collectors in the arts ecosystem

Young art collectors are defined as professional individuals who are below the age of 40 and actively engaged in the art market. Many start young, some with intrinsic passion for the arts, while others are influenced by their parent’s involvement in the art world as collectors themselves.

This panel discussion brought together young collectors from Penang and Kuala Lumpur to know more about their latest undertaking, the collecting community in Malaysia, and why and how we should be supporting emerging contemporary art. The panel also included a veteran art collector and well-respect patron who owns one of the largest art collections in Penang to share their insights on how the world of art collecting has changed over the years.

The panellists present were Sharmin Parameswaran, Howard Tan, Sophia Shung and Lee Khai.

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The conversation kicked off by going back in time with the panellists to the earliest starting point when they started collecting art. Both Sharmin Parameswaran and Lee Khai were influenced by their parent and grandparent who were also prominent collectors, whilst Sophia Shung gained interest through her profession as an insurance agent for art collectors. Howard Tan’s love for art and collecting grew from visiting art galleries in Penang and acquainting with local artists.


Part 2 of the conversation explores the significant difference between acquiring one artwork and building or adding to a collection of artworks. With more than 200 artists’ works in his collection, Lee Khai ensures, at great lengths, to know most of them in depth. Although Sharmin buys artworks that she loves, as a collector she is a little more aware and conscious of the trajectory of the artist whose artwork she intends to add to her collection.

Panelists: (Second left to right) Lee Khai, Sharmin Parameswaran, Sophia Shung and Howard Tan(Left to right) Lee Khai, Sharmin Parameswaran, Sophia Shung and Howard Tan

“It is said that you are only a collector when you do not care whether you have space on your wall for it [a new artwork] anymore.” – Lee Khai.

“When I was invited to this talk and was requested to represent a young collector, my first thought was, ‘Am I a collector?’” – Sharmin Parameswaran.

Both Sophia and Howard were asked if there was a difference in collecting for their personal collection and collecting for resale at their gallery. While Howard does not separate the two as he buys art according to his taste and preference, there is a great distinction between Sophia’s personal collection and what she collects for the gallery.

(Left) Suma Orientalis in Petaling Jaya, co-founded by Sophia Shung; (Right) Shop Howard on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling in George Town by Howard Tan

“If I like something that I can afford, I buy it straight away. I don’t think about how I would like to resell it in the future, that will be a different story – I see that as a [form] of sharing [the artist’s work].” – Howard Tan.

“For our personal collection, I can buy anything, because I don’t have to take care of people’s opinion. I just buy what I like.” – Sophia Shung.

The second portion of Part 2 explores the criteria which the panelists look out for when buying works of young artists. Sophia deliberately sets a different vision for the gallery when it comes to selecting artists to represent instead of following societal trends while Howard emphasized, he only has one intention with the gallery – to provide a platform for artists to showcase their body of work, with no particular set list of criteria for selection.

Sharmin expanded the topic further by sharing some insights on the deliberate choices she makes when promoting young artists in her curatorial work, particularly selecting specific places and events to reach a variety of audience and the crucial conversations she has with the artists in the curatorial process.


Part 3 of the conversation attempts to address the challenges of increasing the small pool of collectors, especially in Penang. The benefits of technology and its flipside were inevitable factors considered in reaching out to more art collectors.

Lee Khai stressed on the importance of talking about art.  He has influenced some new buyers in his time merely by talking (and showing) about art. He also acknowledges the need to leverage on online platforms to increase accessibility to the arts for young buyers.

Sharmin shared her thoughts on the pros and cons of social media, with emphasis on Instagram. The platform allows her to follow the international art scene and to see what is happening around the world. It also allows her to communicate the projects and artists she is working with to her followers.

Social media has given the opportunity for wider audience to have a glimpse of behind-the-scenes processes of artists’ work and not just focusing on the end product. The flipside, however, is the bombardment of images, making it challenging to discern good art from the bad.

Sophia shared about the online platforms, including mobile applications, utilised by international auction houses and galleries. However, only about 8% of art purchases across the world happen online, as people are more cautious with online transactions for high value art.

The panellists wrapped up the discussion with some advice to encourage young buyers to take the very first step of purchasing their first art piece in the later portion of Part 3 and continued in the earlier portion of Part 4.

Part 4

Questions & answers session.