Emerging Collector to Watch in Asia: Yuri van der Leest

Hong Kong
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Contemporary art, including paintings, prints, sculpture, and fabric art

Yuri van der Leest first got the idea to start collecting around a decade ago when he came across an image of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay taken by late photographer Fan Ho in 1953. He found the picture captivating in a way that led to an early obsession with the photographer’s vintage prints. “I quickly found that the pursuit scratched many itches for me: it was fascinating from a conceptual perspective, bringing together history, aesthetics, craft/technique, anthropology, politics, philosophy, economy, etc.,” van der Leest said.

Soon enough, he had the same experience with other artists’ works, and began to buy them too. His collection now numbers around 135 works, with an emphasis on art from Hong Kong, and
it was the subject of an exhibition titled “A Collection in Two Acts” at Hong Kong’s Rossi & Rossi gallery in 2022.

One early purchase was a Cubist-like watercolor rendering of Victoria Harbor by Malaysian artist Lam Siong Onn. “In some ways, the work is atypical of what eventually became the ‘mode’ of my collection,” van der Leest said. “But it remains close to my heart as a depiction of a city that I love and the genesis of a collection that has become such a deep part of who I am.”

A blocky watercolor of Hong Kong's skyline.

Lam Siong Onn: Downtown Hong Kong, 2013.

Courtesy Affinity Art, Hong Kong

Collecting has always been in van der Leest’s blood. His father amassed a collection of some 130 pump organs that were housed in a purpose-built museum behind the family’s home. “He traveled our home province repairing pump organs for local churches and obsessively acquiring organs that added something new or unique to his collection,” van der Leest said. “As he always said, ‘Mice love church organs!’”

That inspired van der Leest to collect comic books from the 1950s and ’60s, around which he found a sense of community in the local comic shop. In the art world, he found a similar sense of community among artists, dealers, and fellow collectors.

At this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, van der Leest made key purchases by two Hong Kong–based artists: a suite of five still-life paintings by Yeung Tong Lung, and a sculpture, Equal=Unequal (2020), by Jaffa Lam, whose work he had purchased the previous year. “Tong Lung is an artist who captures the day-to-day life of average Hong Kong people and their surroundings in loving detail and from a multitude of challenging perspectives,” he said. “Jaffa’s piece speaks to her experience in the first year of the pandemic, when she was confined to home and studio and pouring all of her fear, uncertainty, passion, and pathos into her work.”

When thinking about buying art, van der Leest said he’s initially driven by a gut instinct that is also informed by research and talking with friends, dealers, and artists. But at the end of the day, “aesthetics is a consideration that cannot be separated from art,” he said. “This does not mean that a work has to be beautiful: a work that is disturbing or makes one uncomfortable can be astonishingly powerful, but its appearance, composition, and materials have to engage my senses.”

Early in van der Leest’s collecting journey, “I bought almost everything I liked with very little thought about how it fit my collection,” he said. “I worried about this for a time. In retrospect, I needn’t have worried, because over the years, as I viewed and explored more and more, I found my taste maturing somewhat and a theme emerging.” 

A version of this article appears in the 2023 ARTnews Top 200 Collectors issue.

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