FEEL­ING IT FIRST

Ni­co­las Chow pushes to broaden the scope of in­ter­est for main­land China’s vo­ra­cious col­lec­tors

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY RYAN SWIFT

As a tod­dler in the 1970s, Ni­co­las Chow would run around in the Geneva house of his leg­endary grand­fa­ther, Ed­ward T. Chow, a famed dealer of Chi­nese an­tiq­ui­ties. “We used to visit my grandpa for lunch on Sun­days, and he had this thick car­pet on the floor… that was my first con­tact, see­ing these beau­ti­ful porce­lains,” Chow re­calls.

The elder Chow was fa­mous for deal­ing with some of the world's ear­li­est col­lec­tors of China's an­cient arte­facts, build­ing an in­ter­na­tional net­work from his home in Shang­hai, be­fore he joined the ex­o­dus to Hong Kong in 1949, fi­nally es­cap­ing the 1967 ri­ots to Switzer­land. Ed­ward Chow also had a hand in the great ex­o­dus of Chi­nese an­tiq­ui­ties from China to west­ern col­lec­tors.

Now, his grand­son, newly pro­moted as Chair­man of Sotheby's Asia, is play­ing a part in bring­ing those an­tiq­ui­ties back to China. He is also do­ing his best to wi­den the in­ter­ests of China's col­lec­tors in a bid to boost Sotheby's pres­ence in China.

Ni­co­las Chow didn't ini­tially plan on get­ting into art and an­tiq­ui­ties – he first stud­ied law in Switzer­land, be­fore be­com­ing in­ter­ested in his Chi­nese her­itage, which prompted a change of fo­cus to the study of Man­darin and Chi­nese his­tory. Though Chow says his fam­ily didn't push him into the an­tiq­ui­ties field, their in­flu­ence cer­tainly helped, with in­tern­ships at places such as the Baur Foun­da­tion, Mu­seum of Far East­ern Art.

He later stud­ied Man­darin in Tai­wan be­tween 1998 and 1999, and fell in love with the place. His wife is Tai­wanese, and he main­tains a small pied-a-terre near Na­tional Tai­wan Univer­sity in Taipei, where he stud­ied. “It's an at­mos­phere you can­not find else­where in greater China,” he says. The at­mos­phere and the cul­ture, he reck­ons, is sim­i­lar to what China would have been with­out the cul­tural rup­ture of the Maoist years. “Tai­wan is my favourite; that's where I see my­self re­tir­ing.”

That said, Chow, still in his early 40s, has years to go, and plenty to do. His fo­cus is to in­crease Sotheby's pres­ence in China and “de­velop their in­ter­ests” in new ar­eas of col­lect­ing.

Hav­ing joined Sotheby's in 1999, Chow ar­rived at just the mo­ment that Chi­nese col­lec­tors be­gan to make their pres­ence felt in the mar­ket. His mo­ment of glory came with the now-leg­endary Chicken Cup, bought by Shang­haibased col­lec­tor Liu Yiqian.

Liu paid US$36 mil­lion for the cup, one of 17 cups con­firmed to be au­then­tic, dat­ing to the Ming Dy­nasty. Chow's grand­fa­ther was known to have four such cups in his pos­ses­sion. So it's not overly sur­pris­ing that Ni­co­las Chow wound up or­gan­is­ing the sale, af­ter which Liu took a now-fa­mous cel­e­bra­tory sip of tea from his multi-mil­lion dol­lar cup.

In 2011, Chow brought the Meiy­in­tang Col­lec­tion, which was owned by Swiss brothers who got rich in Asia and built their col­lec­tion with the help of Ed­ward Chow, to auc­tion in Hong Kong. The sales didn't go nearly as well as ex­pected, ow­ing in part to Sotheby's clamp­ing down on buy­ers mak­ing bids with­out se­ri­ously fol­low­ing through, though some sig­nif­i­cant sales were made af­ter the event. A Christie's of­fer that year was also a dis­ap­point­ment.

A Sotheby's sale in con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art, how­ever, went ex­ceed­ingly well, ac­cord­ing to a Reuters re­port at the time.

Ap­pre­ci­at­ing the va­garies of China's vo­ra­cious buy­ers is now of paramount im­por­tance to Sotheby's, as well as any of the ma­jor auc­tion houses. That re­quires a per­sonal touch. Chow made head­lines un­in­ten­tion­ally when, dur­ing a re­cent lunch with Liu in Shang­hai, he kissed Liu on the cheek af­ter Liu gave a com­pli­men­tary speech about work­ing with Chow. Bai­jiu had been poured (Liu likes wet lunches) and the mood was buoy­ant. Though Chow suf­fered some

“THE CHI­NESE ARE KEEN ON BUILD­ING COL­LEC­TIONS; THAT’S WHY THEY HAVE THIS EN­ERGY. IN THE BE­GIN­NING, A LOT OF PEO­PLE WERE RIDI­CUL­ING THEM AS IG­NO­RANT. BUT WHEN YOU EN­GAGE WITH THAT DE­GREE OF IN­TEN­SITY, YOU LEARN QUICKLY”

– Ni­co­las Chow, Sotheby’s Asia

em­bar­rass­ment in Chi­nese so­cial me­dia, it's just part of the job.

“He's a gen­uine guy – old school Chi­nese. He can be abrupt or rude, but he likes to play this up, be­ing a coun­try bump­kin. Ac­tu­ally, he knows a lot,” Chow says. Liu, who will play the part of a slightly ig­no­rant or clown­ish per­son, par­tic­u­larly when turn­ing up for staged auc­tion house events, likes see­ing how “so­phis­ti­cated” peo­ple re­act.

But while Chow may be Liu's trusted guide in China's an­tiq­ui­ties, Liu, like many Chi­nese buy­ers, is get­ting keen on other types of col­lect­ing. In 2015, Liu set records again, buy­ing a Modigliani paint­ing for US$170 mil­lion (at Christie's); the pre­vi­ous Modigliani at auc­tion went for US$70 mil­lion. In late April, Sotheby's Hong Kong un­veiled an­other Modigliani for its May auc­tions. The es­ti­mated sale price is US$150 mil­lion; the cur­rent owner bought the paint­ing in 2003 for US$27 mil­lion.

The evo­lu­tion of the main­land Chi­nese art col­lec­tor is mov­ing into a wide ar­ray of new types, says Chow, and the price is not the de­ter­min­ing fac­tor. “The Chi­nese are keen on build­ing col­lec­tions; that's why they have this en­ergy. In the be­gin­ning, a lot of peo­ple were ridi­cul­ing them as ig­no­rant. But when you en­gage with that de­gree of in­ten­sity, you learn quickly,” Chow says. “In the be­gin­ning, they (main­land Chi­nese buy­ers) may have grav­i­tated to­wards dec­o­ra­tive pieces, but quickly moved to the es­sen­tials … now they are branch­ing out to other ar­eas – con­tem­po­rary Asian, West­ern, even Old Masters.”

One of the things that mark out main­land Chi­nese buy­ers, Chow says, is their will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment in their col­lect­ing, much more so than buy­ers in Hong Kong. It may also have some­thing to do with the in­tru­sion of so­cial me­dia into the art world, which Chow thinks has led to col­lec­tors, par­tic­u­larly new col­lec­tors, want­ing more stim­u­la­tion and more worlds to ex­plore.

Iron­i­cally, rather than fo­cus­ing his at­ten­tion on e-com­merce platforms and data al­go­rithms (which Sotheby's has been very ag­gres­sive in glob­ally), Chow has taken a re­verse tack, in­stead opt­ing to cu­rate in­ti­mate, thematically ar­ranged sales.

Five years ago, Chow ini­ti­ated some­thing called Cu­rios­ity Sales. These are now done once a year and in­volve a var­ied mix of items that may sell for tens of thou­sands of dol­lars, or mil­lions. But all are se­lected as though to mimic the col­lec­tions of arte­facts that may have pop­u­lated the work­ing desks of China's an­cient schol­ars, or even West­ern Re­nais­sance artists.

Chow is eas­ily fas­ci­nated by an ever-widen­ing cir­cle of cu­riosi­ties, an­tiq­ui­ties and art. A dis­cus­sion about scholar stones – in­trigu­ing or unusu­ally shaped stones col­lected by an­cient Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tu­als – turns into a broader dis­cus­sion about the na­ture of ap­pre­ci­at­ing ug­li­ness as a mea­sure of sophistication.

By plac­ing a se­lec­tion of items to­gether in a way that col­lec­tors

can see and touch, Chow says he can set a con­text and give such items a res­o­nance they might not have if pre­sented on their own in a cat­a­logue – on­line or in print. A col­lec­tion of Chi­nese schol­arly items – ink­stones and schol­ars rocks – might be po­si­tioned along with clas­sic Chi­nese desks and other fur­nish­ings.

Such pre­sen­ta­tions are not nec­es­sar­ily mon­ey­mak­ers, as Chow ac­knowl­edges, and “to­tally the op­po­site” of the cur­rent drive to do things on­line. But Chow ar­gues that such sales help es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships in ways that on­line ex­pe­ri­ences can­not. They also en­cour­age col­lec­tors to branch out into new ar­eas – an en­try-level US$20,000 pur­chase in a new field could turn into a US$20 mil­lion pur­chase if that field proves in­ter­est­ing. Though Cu­rios­ity Sales may not be driv­ing top-line fig­ures, it is ventures such as this (as well as some heady top line sales) that has vaulted Chow up the ranks of Sotheby's in quick or­der. Chow is an avid pho­tog­ra­pher and loves mak­ing films with an old Su­per 8 movie cam­era. He pho­to­graphs all the ob­jects ( black and white only) that ap­pear in his Cu­rios­ity Sales and has even made a hand­ful of pho­to­books of the col­lec­tors that he works with. Among them are Robert Chang, a Hong Kong art dealer-turned col­lec­tor, Goro Sakamoto and the im­pos­si­bly flam­boy­ant Chris Hall, a tax ac­coun­tant.

As for the Cu­rios­ity Sales, Chow says these will con­tinue, adding that he in­tends to bring even more un­usual items to Hong Kong from Lon­don and New York. African art and an­tiq­ui­ties are one area he plans to ex­plore (his brother ig­nored Chi­nese art al­to­gether and is now im­mersed in Africa and African art). While such ex­otic items may not yet war­rant a fullfledged sale in Hong Kong, a few Cu­rios­ity Sales may do the trick.

One piece shown at a re­cent Cu­rios­ity Sale, an in­tri­cate crown of thorns for an African tribal chief, was pur­chased by a Bei­jing-based artist.

For his part, Chow, the ex­pert on Chi­nese an­tiq­ui­ties, says he can get ex­cited and in­ter­ested in al­most any­thing that Sotheby's puts in its cat­a­logues. He says he is cur­rently in­ter­ested in clas­sic Celtic sculp­ture.

If Ni­co­las Chow has his way, main­land Chi­nese buy­ers will be com­ing to Hong Kong to buy ev­ery­thing from African wood art to Old Masters; some bai­jiu served in a teacup might do the trick.

RATHER THAN FO­CUS­ING HIS AT­TEN­TION ON E- COM­MERCE PLATFORMS AND DATA AL­GO­RITHMS ( WHICH SOTHEBY’S HAS BEEN VERY AG­GRES­SIVE IN GLOB­ALLY), CHOW HAS TAKEN A RE­VERSE TACK, IN­STEAD OPT­ING TO CU­RATE IN­TI­MATE, THEMATICALLY AR­RANGED SALES

ABOVE Chi­nese buy­ers are broad­en­ing their in­ter­ests to con­tem­po­rary Asian, West­ern, and even Old Masters. OP­PO­SITE A carved wood Inu­piaq mask of a 15th cen­tury Eskimo in Alaska; a carved box­wood me­mento mori skele­ton.

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