The Wick - Shanyan Koder at Frieze by Louisa Clement The Wick - Shanyan Koder at Frieze by Louisa Clement
Monday Muse

Interview Art Entrepreneur, Collector and Philanthropist Shanyan Koder

Shanyan Koder
09 January 2023
Shanyan Koder
09 January 2023
Ahead of the inaugural edition of ART SG, Southeast Asia’s largest-ever art fair and Asia Pacific’s biggest art fair launch in a decade, art world entrepreneur Shanyan Koder shares her thoughts on the global art market and the Chinese masters that have made it into her family collection.

After studying law at Cambridge University, Koder worked at Goldman Sachs before leaving the financial sector to join Sotheby’s London, and following her family into collecting. Over the past two decades, she has collected and placed works by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Jean Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Zeng Fanzhi and Takashi Murakami.

A respected philanthropist and member of the international art world, she has also served as a council member of the Serpentine Galleries, a member of the women-only Artemis Council of the New Museum, New York, and is a founder of HUA, a digital platform and art advisory championing the best in contemporary Chinese art. In September 2021, she also co-founded the app Mentor360, which provides content by leading psychologists and healthcare professionals to help improve mental fitness and coping methods.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Shanyan Koder:   Patti Wong, who until earlier this month was the chairwoman of Asia at Sotheby’s. We are both from Hong Kong and have been family friends for many years. I worked for Patti when I first started my career in the art world, at Sotheby’s, and have worked with her across Hong Kong, London and New York. She is my ultimate mentor. I admire the way she works in the art world. I admire her as a loyal wife and as a dedicated mother. As an art world entrepreneur, a wife, and a mother of five daughters myself, I have a lot to learn from her.

TW:   With your father being an avid collector and a concert pianist, you were born into the art world. What inspiration did you draw from him?

SK:   My upbringing had everything to do with my love for fine art. My family fostered it and instilled my passion in fine art. I grew up breathing art. Our life revolved around a combination of fine art, ballet, opera and classical music. While my father is predominantly known as a successful global entrepreneur and businessman, he studied music as an undergraduate and is also a professional concert pianist. So, we have always shared a passion in the arts. Even today, we speak almost daily about something that has struck us as interesting in the arts, be it fine art, or the performing arts, theatre, opera, dance, or music.

TW:   What made you decide to leave Goldman Sachs and finance to pursue a career in the art world?

SK:   Having grown up in a family of collectors, I suppose it was only natural for me to want to pursue a career in the art world. I took a few stepping stones along the way before finally arriving into the business of art. I graduated with a law degree from Cambridge University, and had the pleasure of working at both Goldman Sachs and Sotheby’s, spending time across New York, London and Hong Kong. While completely different, both of these institutions provided fascinating and invaluable experiences for me. I learnt much about the finance and business worlds at Goldman Sachs, it was fast-paced, intense and exciting. After several years, as I took a more prominent role in representing my family’s art collection, I decided to pursue my passion in fine art. I joined Sotheby’s on New Bond Street in Mayfair, London and stepped into the art world. Sotheby’s was an incredible experience as it allowed me to fully immerse myself in the exclusive world of auction houses. At the time, apart from my boss, Patti Wong, I was the only Chinese-speaking employee in the company. So, I had the pleasure of bidding for every telephone bidder from Asia who required translation, be it for a Mouton-Rothschild wine collection, to a Ron Arad design table, to paintings by Monet, Miró, Picasso, Warhol or Lichtenstein. I have very fond memories of all these experiences, all of which helped lay the foundation for my career in the business of art. Ultimately, I set up my own private art advisory business, Shanyan Koder Fine Art. These experiences were also instrumental in the setup of my Chinese contemporary art business HUA, a platform celebrating my Chinese heritage and my passion for contemporary art.

TW:   What are your top three tips on how to start a collection?

SK:   I will share three pieces of advice I learned from the three most important figures in my art-collecting life: my father always said to me, ‘Don’t get carried away chasing a work of art’. My husband always said to buy what you love. And my art teacher always said, ‘Trust your instincts’.

“My upbringing had everything to do with my love for fine art. My family fostered it and instilled my passion in fine art. I grew up breathing art.”

TW:   What’s your favourite artwork in your collection?

SK:   I have a deep spiritual and emotional connection with most of the artists in my family’s collection and my own collection. When I was a child, my family collection started off purely in the Impressionist period – we collected works by Renoir, Pissarro, Monet and Degas. As a ballerina myself, I grew up particularly drawn to Degas as a painter and a sculptor. I particularly loved his pastel works on paper of ballet dancers. I also the raw elegance of his bronze sculptures.

We then moved on to collecting the Post-Impressionists and Modern masters – Chagall, Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso. As I became more prominent in representing the family collection, we continued to move on through the art movements. We added the Surrealists Dalí and Magritte. We added some prominent Chinese modern masters – Chen Yifei and Sanyu. And now, we have moved further into collecting contemporary masters such as Warhol and Basquiat. I love how my family collection continues to evolve, it makes it so interesting and dynamic.

It makes sense thinking about it now, that my own private collection, which is more a mixture of emerging and established contemporary artists, follows a more classical aesthetic. I collect across the art practices, ranging from paintings, sculpture and installation, abstract and figurative, but each work I own carries a sense of the classical, a touch of romance. If you look at the art in my collection, I think you would see elements of history, hints of religious faith, celebrations of the beauty of the human figure, the beauty of life, the beauty of death. My favourite piece from my collection has to be my Damien Hirst butterfly painting that hangs in my London residence. It is from his Kaleidoscope series, and is made entirely out of real butterfly wings. The wings are arranged in a way that is reminiscent of a stained-glass window in a cathedral or church. It is no surprise that it is titled ‘Eden’, given the biblical references of the composition and colours. It is an absolute delight to view the painting; the display of colours by the natural beauty of the butterfly wings is a celebration of Mother Nature and the beauty of natural science and natural history itself. Some of the butterfly wings, particularly those of the Papilio ulysses, are iridescent and create a sense of luminescence across the entire work. I love how the painting is a subtle yet powerful reminder of the beauty of life, and the beauty of death. Butterflies have a very short life. It is a constant reminder to always cherish the present, to appreciate life, to live my life, not to take anything for granted. It also teaches me that even in death, things are beautiful, so while life is short, one should accept and embrace death when it is our time.

TW:   In your opinion, what have been the key changes in the global art market?

SK:   The advancement of the digital age as I was building my advisory business certainly helped from a timing perspective. At some point in the late 2000s, collectors began to shift from needing to see the artwork in the physical form before making acquisition decisions. That was the real break for me in the ability to adopt tech to facilitate China/Europe crossover collecting. I began selling artworks on email – I think my first-ever sale completed on email was a Warhol. As social media began to take over the digital age, I then began to sell work on platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram, and so on.

TW:   What are your thoughts on art’s impact on mental wellness?

SK:   Art carries very different meanings for each and every individual. For me, art is and has always been a way of life, a guiding passion that has informed my senses for as long as I can remember. It was my love for art that sparked the beginning of my artist-muse relationship with Andrea Buccellati of the jewellery label Buccellati. I became his muse eight years ago. He wrote about me: ‘When she speaks of her love for art, her appreciation twinkles into a beaming spotlight, illuminating the space around her.’

Art is spiritually soothing for me; it has always comforted me at a time of need. When I appreciate art, it fuels my soul, and helps me find resolution on a deeper, emotional level.

Mental health is another area in which I am a passionate advocate. As a mother of five young daughters and stepmother of three young-adult sons, growing up in an ever-evolving digital age, understanding and navigating child and teenage mental health is one of my greatest priorities as a parent. I have witnessed teenagers close to my heart lose their way to insecurities, addiction and succumb to the many damaging effects of contemporary society today. I came up with my own philosophy, ‘Happy children are successful children’, and am determined to find a way to help guide children and young adults through life, with a focus on health, positivity, confidence, and resilience.

Following the losses of my babies during past pregnancies, and my most recent pregnancy being an incredibly difficult one, I continued to witness so many people across the world, regardless of geography or demographic, suffer in silence, or cope with their issues in silence. There are many factors, including culture, society, religion, pride, family, peer pressure, which stops one from opening up about their issues. During the pandemic, living in lockdown brought to light many more mental health issues that need to be addressed. This was the trigger for me. Mental health affects anyone, regardless of age, gender, status or race. Helping those who struggle with mental health issues, and particularly those who suffer alone and in silence, find their own formula has become a passion for me.

In partnership with my ex-military co-founder Richard Bassett, and in collaboration with Jason Carl Fox and Dr Emily MacDonagh among others, we launched the Mentor360 app. Our mission is to improve mental fitness, enhance self-awareness and lead the user to ‘finding your formula’. Mentor360 promises to be your pocket mentor, a safe space for all, free from judgement and discrimination, and focuses on mental fitness, holistic wellbeing, mindfulness and performance.

TW:   What’s your favourite culturally curious spot in Hong Kong and in London?

SK:   Sadly, I have not had a chance to return to Hong Kong since 2019, before Covid. I am pleased to see London thrive once more, since the pandemic. This year, I have enjoyed Masterpiece and PAD London immensely. In my opinion, Paris has thrived more so than ever before. It has a renewed, incredible energy. I have enjoyed the past season’s shows during Fashion Week, and the Monet-Mitchell exhibition at the Foundation Louis Vuitton was particularly interesting.

ART SG will take place from 12–15 January 2023 at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Singapore.
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