At home with business leader and art collector Pierre Chen
For the electronics billionaire Pierre Chen, collecting art balances out the pressures of doing business. By Mark Jones
Taipei isn’t an immediately lovable city. It’s dominated by grey office blocks and car-repair workshops interspersed with high-rise housing. But it doesn’t take too long to discover another side to Taiwan’s capital. The side streets are crammed with quirky shops, cafés and restaurants. There are ‘creative hubs’ in places like Huashan, a converted distillery. Eslite is a thriving department store for books and the arts. After four or five decades spent relentlessly pursuing the money, the city’s continuing evolution into a centre of Asian design and art is there to see in the galleries and public artworks now sprouting between the tower blocks.
Its setting is dramatic, too: Taipei is ringed by mountains of green. That’s where I head one bright morning, into the foothills of the Yangmingshan National Park. Boulevards give way to suburban highways, bridges lead to urban villages — and eventually to a narrow country lane that ends outside Pierre Chen’s house.
Chen has a couple of homes in Yangmingshan, including the former French embassy. But his main residence is a discreet, low 1940s villa with panoramic views over Taipei City. The first thing I encounter is Kate Moss doing a complicated yoga pose on the broad lawn. This is one of Marc Quinn’s bronze, white-painted Sphinx and Siren series, his depiction of the supermodel as a ‘knotted Venus of our age’.
‘I’m not an art collector. I prefer to say I live with art. It is just a part of my life’
Inside the villa, I’m greeted by Carol Huang, the former Christie’s Taiwan representative and for 20 years the head of Pierre Chen’s Yageo Foundation, the cultural and curatorial arm of the Taiwan-based, multinational electronic components business he set up in the 1970s. We have a few minutes before Chen arrives, so she takes me on a quick tour of the house and its surroundings.
There’s a Ron Mueck Ghost, a long-limbed figure in a swimsuit; large-scale canvases by both Gerhard and Daniel Richter; two Antony Gormley figures standing silent sentinel on a terrace; and a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin, a glowing beacon in a wood-panelled room. The list of major works goes on.
Chen arrives, dressed in the kind of dark sportswear that fits in as easily in Silicon Valley as on the Yangmingshan hiking trails he loves to pound. As we begin to talk, my eye is drawn to the canvas behind him: José-María Cano’s portrait of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, one of his ‘Wall Street 100’ series. The work seems to bring together Chen’s business and collecting lives.
Yageo’s fortunes have been profitably intertwined with companies such as Apple from the start. But I am also thinking about something Jobs told an interviewer who asked him about his career: ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward,’ said Jobs. ‘You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.’
Looking at the dots picking out Jobs’s features in Cano’s exaggerated line drawing, I try to find a similar pattern looking back on 61-year-old Chen’s decades in business, collecting and life.
He was born and raised in the southern city of Tainan, the son of a businessman and a teacher / clothes designer (‘Though we didn’t have that word in Taiwan in the Sixties,’ he says). As a child at elementary school, he loved drawing.
The best way to describe Tainan’s relationship with Taipei is to think of Kyoto’s to Tokyo: the former capital, with a slower pace, which is more of a haven for thinkers and artists — and
with a reputation for its fine, clean-tasting food. The city’s most famous son is the film director Ang Lee. He and Chen — acquaintances rather than friends — came of age in the city as it played its part in Taiwan’s economic miracle.
‘When I was at university I had a part-time job,’ says Chen. ‘I designed software programmes to support myself. There was very little money left for savings. But then I saw a sculpture by Cheung Yee at one of the first galleries in Taipei. I really liked the piece. It cost me $2,500: one-and-a-half year’s savings.’ You can’t help wondering what his fellow engineering students made of it.
That work still has pride of place in Chen’s Taipei office. The pattern was established early. He is not one of those businessmen who came to collecting late, with thoughts of diversifying a portfolio of investments or maybe enhancing his personal brand. The interest was there from the start.
As was his obsession with music. That’s not unusual for students. But Chen put his passion to practical use. ‘Aside from computer programming, I also started DJing for private parties. The music mixes were very popular. It was good business and most of all a very gratifying experience.’
We’re still joining the dots. He founded Yageo in 1977. In the 1980s and 1990s, business leaders such as Chen began to look to overseas markets at the same time that Taiwan emerged from dictatorship to become one of Asia’s more open and raucous democracies. Those markets were more than happy to be looked to.
First came the consumer electronics boom. Then personal computing. Then the mobile phone. With every leap forward, the demand for Yageo’s components grew. Chen’s work took him to more and more territories. And as he travelled,
so his collection grew, and with it his appetite for Western art. ‘I was like a fish swimming from a pond into the ocean,’ says Chen.
From the mid-1980s, he began to acquire works by Twombly, Warhol, Rothko and Richter. In 2003, he set a new record for Francis Bacon, buying his 1969 triptych of Lucian Freud for $3.8 million. (Given the performance of Bacon’s work at auction since, that record seems hardly credible: Chen himself sold Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards in 2014 for more than $80 million.) In 2000, Yageo made what was then the biggest ever overseas acquisition by a Taiwanese company when it took possession of two businesses from the Dutch electronics giant Philips.
So the dots of this particular life in business and art make a pattern as ordered and logical as a circuit board: local business becomes international player, its founder’s art collection moves from Asia to the great Western art capitals, and along the way there are spectacular acquisitions — of companies and artworks. There’s only one problem. That’s not how Pierre Chen himself sees it.
‘In the hi-tech business, you need to push your team,’ he says. ‘To be a pioneer, you have to pump, pump every day. It’s a very high-pressure business. I need to balance my life. Whenever I touch music and art, my soul can be more calmed down.’ Art and music — and (as we’ll see) food — are his way of escaping from that pressure, the incessant restlessness of the entrepreneurial mind.
A typical working day for Pierre Chen will see him work from breakfast until lunch at 4pm, often at a favourite ‘hole in the wall’ place in the city; then work until midnight, when he has dinner. Far from bringing the rigour and discipline of the C-suite to his art-market dealings, however, Chen says his buying is spontaneous, even emotional (on the Bacon: ‘It’s hard to say. It’s dynamic. I just liked it’). He needs to be touched by the work. Then due diligence kicks in: he walks away and spends
a week intensively researching the artist before returning to the work to see if he is ‘still excited’.
Business is different, he says. ‘It’s more scientific. To acquire, you have a number, you understand the technology and you know the trend for the future. I am not an art collector. I prefer to say I live with art. It is just a part of my life. I don’t think I’m a good collector. When I buy art, I think about how I’m going to live with it. I have more of a free style. What kind of space does it require — study, living room?’
There aren’t too many who would agree that Chen doesn’t merit the title ‘collector’. Carol Huang tells me how his taste and judgement have evolved over the years. Chen concedes it’s ‘much easier now after 20 years. I can recognise the artist and see what their best work is: I’ve accumulated the knowledge.’
But art is not a discrete, compartmentalised aspect of his life: it’s part of being a — he searches for an English or Chinese expression, then chooses a French one — bon vivant. (He owes his French name to his Francophile ex-wife and daughters, and owns a Left Bank apartment opposite the Louvre.)
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He gets up and brings back a copy of the previous day’s local paper. He is on the front cover of the business section: Yageo has completed yet another acquisition. He is also on the cover of the lifestyle section. The article shows him shopping in the local market and cooking for a group of Michelin-starred chefs. It’s hard to say which piece gives him more pleasure. The lifestyle one, perhaps, because he suddenly decides I have to try his cooking for myself.
‘Cooking and art,’ he says. ‘I make great friends through those. And I enjoy all kinds of music: Andrea Bocelli, Glenn Gould, Chris Botti, Adele, Kenny G and the Beatles are some of my favourites.’
Calls are made, diaries rearranged, and the next afternoon we meet: Pierre, Carol and a couple of neighbours, one of whom is a non-executive director on his board. We stride along the Qingtiangang trail, a place of low cloud, soft, deep-green hills and unexpected herds of buffalo. Towards the end, Mr. Chen decides he needs to stretch his legs a little more and runs the last couple of kilometres.
Back at the house, the serious business of preparing dinner begins. Chen is determined and diligent in his business and art-collecting lives, so it’s no surprise that he takes extraordinary care sourcing his ingredients. The Kobe beef comes from a specialist Tokyo supplier so renowned that it only parcels out tiny amounts to each customer. So Chen simply went back day after day and waited patiently until he got what he wanted.
His other interest is wine and, more recently, vinification: he has acquired land in Burgundy and gone into business with the Grand Cru vineyard Musigny, aiming simply to produce the best red Burgundy on the market. The venture has exceeded expectations, with the first vintage, released in spring 2017, selling at €5,000 a bottle. Again, you sense it’s the bon vivant and investor working in harmony: his business partner Erwan Faiveley says that Chen’s objective is to ‘collect, keep and drink’.
And that is the word portrait I’m left with: a man who collects, not for something to look back on or profit from in the future, but for something to enjoy and live with now. As for the calming influence of art, wine, music, food and good company, there’s a limit. It’s late, we are enjoying a Macallan ’56 (the year of Chen’s birth), but the man himself is beginning to pace around the house and his iPhone is buzzing while Steve Jobs looks on.