Mark Goh and Guillaume Levy-Lambert have incorporated art from their collection into a diptych, which tells the story of their life together.

PARIS - Some call it a chronicle of coincidences. Others say it is an allegory about fate.  But most of all, it is a charming tale of love and art. And from 6–18 January, with an exhibition at Sotheby’s Paris, Mark Goh and Guillaume Levy-Lambert will share the story behind their remarkable art collection with the world.

It all began once upon a summer’s day in 1999, when the two men, who had just recently begun a relationship, took a holiday together to Los Angeles. Art lovers both, they headed straight upon their arrival to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the first of many museums they planned to visit. As they toured the rooms, the couple came upon Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 Desk Calendar, and stopped in sudden shock. In simple black and white, the painting depicted an enormous, old fashioned desk calendar, the kind that flips from day to day, with the date clearly visible on pages nearly four feet high: 21 May 1962 – the day Levy-Lambert was born.

But there was more. Standing behind Levy-Lambert, Mark Goh took a second glance at the painting and gasped. On the left of the canvas, Lichtenstein had painted a year overview for 1962, as are often found
on such calendars. One date had been circled: 26 October. “That’s my birthday!” Goh burst out.

Though neither of the two were particularly religious, they both immediately understood this as a sign. They had met only a month earlier; this was their first holiday and their first museum visit together. Lichtenstein happened to be Levy-Lambert’s favourite artist. “This is a good omen,” he remembers saying at the time.

There followed immediately another ‘first’ for the pair: their first major decision as a couple. That was to begin building a serious art collection “as a way to celebrate the most romantic thing that ever happened,” Levy-Lambert explains now, “and to leave a legacy of the story.”

Because they live in Asia, where the art market was then just starting to take off, and because Mark is Singaporean-Chinese, they were determined to focus on Chinese contemporary art (though they have since expanded their interests to all of Southern Asia). “What’s interesting is that there is also a link between our generation of Chinese artists and Pop Art,” observes Levy-Lambert. “It is perhaps more obvious with Warhol, but it’s true with Lichtenstein as well. That link was maybe not so apparent to us then, but it’s more clear to me now.” The two further decided to focus only on living artists, with the idea in mind that, through their support, “more art could be produced,” Levy-Lambert explains.

Paintings by Wang Guangyi and Yue Min Jun are among the more than 300 works in the couple's collection.

Fourteen years later, their collection now numbers more 300 works, including paintings by Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi, as well as pieces by Indonesian, Thai and Singaporean artists. Levy-Lambert, a marketing consultant, and Goh, an architect, keep a rotating selection of the works in their home – about twenty at a time, which they select and curate annually.

Unlike most art collectors, however, they do not simply hang the paintings on the wall. Rather, with the help of an ingenious design by architect Jean-François Milou, each painting has also been transformed into the right-hand side of a diptych, forming a kind of enormous book – something you might find in Alice in Wonderland, perhaps. On the left half of each, a poem by Levy-Lambert relates the story of his life with Mark Goh. The effect is of reading an illustrated fairy tale. “It gives people a different experience of the painting, like a sculpture,” he says. “And like in Narnia, where you walk into the cupboard and enter another world, we try to replicate this with the diptych – because we know that art can change lives.”

It was precisely that passion – not just for specific works of art, but for art in general, and for the art of collecting – that inspired Sotheby’s Contemporary expert Stefano Moreni to offer the couple a chance to exhibit a selection of these works in Paris. The invitation was particularly welcome to the French-Singaporean couple, who had already exhibited their collection in Singapore in 2010. “The Calendar Story," as the exhibition will be called, is not a sales exhibition, but rather, one meant to articulate Sotheby’s commitment to collecting and to the lives of its collector clientele.

In fact, it was not only the high quality of the works themselves that Moreni found so exciting, but also the history of the collection – and the devotion of the two men who had built it. “It’s such an interesting and unusual story about how a collection can come to life,” he says, “and how it can become part of the life of the collector.” While he admits that Sotheby’s exhibitions usually have a commercial purpose, in this case, says Moreni, “I thought it important to show that an auction house can also help or support people in such intimate desires and needs.”

Goh and Levy-Lambert are equally pleased, finding the choice of Sotheby’s as a venue particularly suited to their vision. “It makes people realize how special our project is,” Levy-Lambert says.

It is the opportunity to present the work publicly, however that really excites the collector duo. “The number one short-term objective,” Levy-Lambert explains, “is to share the story. It’s a spiritual mission for us.” To that end, the couple has also developed an app, appropriately named “Fairy Tales,” so that others, all across the world, says Goh, “can appreciate our joy of collecting, be touched by our story and marvel at the serendipity of life.”

Abigail R. Esman writes regularly about art and design for Art + Auction, The International Herald Tribune and, amongst other publications.