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Business Times

Cheng Tai-Heng

EACH morning before international arbitrator Cheng Tai-Heng heads to his office in Madison Avenue, New York, he looks up and stares for a moment at his life-size Italian painting of David and Goliath by Allesandro Turchi (1578-1649) hanging on his wall.

Once owned by Louis XIV at Versailles, the painting depicts a decapitated head of Goliath held by a solemn David. The Singaporean lawyer says: "I wonder whether there's a message there for me when I battle daily on behalf of clients in their international legal disputes. I suppose it could represent the triumph of intelligence over brute force, without being triumphant."

The former President's Scholar read law at Oxford University and Yale Law School before becoming a tenured Professor of Law at New York Law School. In 2012, he quit teaching to lead the New York international arbitration practice of global law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and has achieved numerous victories in investor-state and commercial arbitration cases worldwide.

Home is a swanky two-floor apartment in an early 20th century cast-iron building with a roof garden in Chelsea. He shares it with his partner Cole Harrell, who runs his eponymous tribal art advisory firm focusing on the arts of Africa and Oceania.

Mr Harrell once gifted Mr Cheng a 16th century Tellem wood figure that was formerly in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. It is now one of his favourite possessions. He says: "A Japanese tea master pointed out that, even though it was not the carver's intent, the piece had eroded in a way that suggests one hand pointing to the heavens and the other to the earth, reminiscent of a sculpture of Buddha."

Another favourite piece is a small cream vase from the Qing Dynasty in China. "It entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in 1879, and found its way to me after the museum deaccessioned it to benefit future acquisitions," he explains.

Mr Cheng, 39, fell in love with art while studying at Oxford. Dame Jessica Rawson, the warden of Merton College, was previously the Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. She introduced him to a world of art and antiquities.

Together with Mr Harrell, he has amassed a small but beautiful collection of Chinese antiquities, Old Master paintings and contemporary photography: "I've learnt that possessions can be burdensome. So these days I would rather own fewer excellent pieces than lots of new works.

"My test is whether a piece is arresting enough to put up with looking after it for many years. I like pieces that encourage contemplation over a sustained period rather than holding my attention for only a short while. Often the pieces provoke reflections on the way we live."

As a high-flying lawyer subject to the pressures of time, art and antiques encourage him to slow down and look: "My job requires quick and sound judgment. But as Cole would say about art, we need to 'look carefully'. So it's good practice to combine both: look carefully and make good judgments quickly."

Appreciating art also means displaying it in the best possible way at home. A curator friend once opined that if one buys art for one's home, one is merely decorating. But Mr Cheng demurs. "Integrating art into our lives can be a beautiful thing that straddles, uneasily, experiencing art and decorating."

Asked which artwork he'd like to own if he could choose any in the world, he names Bernini's Sleeping Hermaphroditus, a sensual marble sculpture carved in the 17th century. "But it should probably be left at the Borghese Collection in Rome so everyone can enjoy it."