What I Buy and Why: Engineer Howard Tam on the Painting That Turned Him Into a Collector, and What He’s Looking for Next

The longtime engineer has recently acquired pieces by Andre Butzer and Alfredo Esquillo.

Howard Tam at his home. Courtesy of Howard Tam.

School field trips to the Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney instilled in Howard Tam a love of visual art. But it was an interaction with one particular masterpiece—Picasso’s Guernica—that sealed the deal. “That was the work that inspired my interest and made me want to learn more about art,” he said.

More recently, Tam, a longtime engineer who has worked for multinational healthcare and consumer goods companies, has started amassing his own collection. Of particular emphasis for him are artists from southeast Asia, many of whom he has forged a personal relationships with. The goal, he said, is to signal-boost their work to an international audience. 

To that end, Tam has loaned pieces from his personal collection to the San Jose Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, among other institutions. 

Artnet News spoke with Tam about his burgeoning collection, and the works of art he plans to add to it next.

Courtesy of Howard Tam.

What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?

My first purchase was a figurative work, Untitled, by Ngo Bao Hoang, a Vietnamese painter. I purchased it in 2000 during a trip to Ho Chi Minh City for $1,000. I remember it cost more for shipping than the work itself!

What was your most recent purchase?

My most recent purchase was a great work by Andre Butzer, from Carbon 12 Gallery in Dubai.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

I would like to add works by Andre Butzer, Dinh Q. Lê, Andre Hemer, Sopheap Pich, Kyle Dunn, and Louis Fratino in the near future.

What is the most expensive work of art you own?

The most expensive work of art I own is a large abstract painting by Andre Butzer.

Courtesy of Howard Tam.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

I usually buy art from galleries. This may be at the gallery itself, online, or when a gallery is at an art fair. It is important that I have a connection with both the artwork and the artist, and galleries facilitate getting to know and meeting the artist.

Is there a work you regret purchasing?

No regrets. However, when you collect art for a long period of time, your tastes evolve and change. I would probably not purchase the first work in my collection now given my tastes and interests.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?

There are no works hanging above my sofa, but in my living room I have primarily abstract works that are colorful and larger in scale. Since I spend much of my time in my living room, I prefer to showcase works that have a large amount of “presence.” Given the pandemic, the works tend to be cheerier and more colorful.

Courtesy of Howard Tam.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

I have an installation by a Filipino artist, Alfredo Esquillo, that is made with an old wheelchair and found objects.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

I wish I had purchased a work by June Edmonds that was offered to me a few years ago. This painting was an earlier “Flag” series work in a solo show in a gallery in Los Angeles.

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

I would steal Picasso’s Guernica, which I remember seeing as an elementary school student on a field trip to MoMA, before it was returned to the Prado/Reina Sofia. This work was the work that inspired my interest in art and made me want to see and learn more about art. I would probably need to add an addition to my house to properly showcase this masterpiece!

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