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Why restaurateur Ken Tan pursued an art piece for seven months

Building relationships is all in a day’s work (and rest) for the co-founder of modern noodle bar Wanton.

As the creative director of F&B group The Establishment, Ken Tan makes a living by building relationships with people. His idea of de-stressing is to do exactly the same thing.

“Collecting art is not as easy as going to the supermarket and taking your pick – just like how opening a restaurant is not just about buying ingredients,” says the 34-year-old, who is also an art collector. He is one of the founders of Gem Bar, eatery Pluck and, most recently, Wanton, a modern noodle bar. “There’s a lot of research and networking that go into acquiring art. It energises and inspires me.”

Tan’s collector journey began with innocent barter. He recalls completing a project for UK music label Mo Wax in 2007, where he requested for an art piece, instead of cash, as payment. That first piece was from the Pointman colour series by American graffiti artist Futura. “I didn’t know much about art then and just wanted a piece that has presence,” says Tan.

Today, he keeps his eye on artworks above $10,000 as he feels works below that won’t appreciate in value. His prized trophy is a punching bag by Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson, which he stores in New York.

“I didn’t really like the punching bag series – it was too colourful,” says Tan. But speaking to Gibson at an art fair in Hong Kong helped him understand the artist’s perspective of using the punching bag as a canvas to project his feelings. The next step was finding a work he liked.

“Marc (Straus), the gallery owner who represents Gibson, took out his iPad to show me the whole collection and one piece caught my eye. The only problem? It belonged to Marc,” says Tan. But he was determined.

“If a collector has a piece you really want, you have to chase after it,” he says. “I spent a lot of time building a relationship with the gallery owners, flying to New York to stay with them, and understanding their art programme.” It took seven months for him to persuade Straus.

“In the end, he sold it to me because he could see my sincerity,” says Tan. “It’s a piece you can’t buy, even if you wanted to.”