The Collectors' Circle: Sotheby’s Asia Chairman Nicolas Chow on the Impact That Chinese Collectors Have on the Art World
He has played a pivotal role in the Chinese art market in Asia, bringing in prominent collections by names such as Sakamoto Gorō, the Meiyintang Collection of imperial Chinese porcelains, and Chinese ceramics from the Le Cong Tang Collection and has also led record-breaking transactions for Sotheby's Asia—so it's safe to say that Nicolas Chow needs little introduction.
Born and educated in Switzerland, Nicolas is an avid photographer and filmmaker and is the chairman as well as the International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department of Sotheby’s Asia.
Some of the transactions he's led for Sotheby's Asia include a rare Ru Guanyao brush washer from Northern Song Dynasty that was sold for HK$290 million in October 2017, setting the world record for Chinese Ceramics, which was previously held by the Meiyintang “Chicken Cup” when it sold in the spring of 2014 by Sotheby’s to Shanghai collector Liu Yiqian for HK$280 million.
The grandson of legendary art dealer and collector Edward T. Chow has always had an interest in the arts, which led him to pioneer the Curiosity sales for Sotheby's, with offerings from Western antiquities, Old Master drawings, African tribal and wood pieces to Chinese scholar rocks which he personally photographs—yes, all the objects that appear in his Curiosity Sales.
In the second part of the Collectors' Circle series for Tatler Singapore, Nicolas shares his insights on the ever-evolving behaviour of Chinese collectors and the impact on the art world.
The number of wealthy Chinese collectors must be growing by the day, can you share any trends you see between those who have been collecting for a while in terms of taste vs. the Chinese millennial collectors of today?
Nicolas Chow (NC) The emerging young collector base, in China particularly, is a key driver of the growth in the Asian art market. Many Chinese millennial collectors are very passionate and willing to go the extra mile to learn about art by travelling the world and on social media. They are frequent visitors to international art fairs, museums and galleries. Compared to the last generation of collectors, young collectors have more eclectic tastes and their collecting approaches are not bound by conventional categories. They are also driven by a strong desire for self-expression. The new generation contributes to a more diversified ecosystem and encourages creative collisions in collecting art across genres, which I believe are extremely healthy for the market.
As for Chinese antiques, the younger generation today is learning to appreciate and value its beauty. We are committed to making our field more relevant to, as well as educate the new generation of potential buyers through curating fresh and interesting sales.
You have done such an amazing job at reviving the Chinese market in terms of antiquity and ceramics, what influenced your keen interest and determination to do so?
NC My family has been involved in the arts in some way or another for two generations and from a young age, my parents nurtured in both my brother and me a certain sensitivity to art. The passion for this field of Chinese art, together with the auction bug, came to me the moment I stepped into Sotheby’s as an intern in London in 1996—the shelves filled with objects, the fascinating debates between specialists in favour or against a piece, the near-existential pursuit of collectors for the next great acquisition.
I was lucky to have found some very inspiring mentors in the late Julian Thompson, the former chairman of Sotheby's, and Jason Tse from whom I eventually took over and, in fact, they were the very reasons I wanted to join Sotheby’s in the first place. I have also been lucky to ride China’s extraordinary growth in the last 20 years since I have been at Sotheby’s and the appetite the collectors there have for buying back their cultural history. I have been working in the industry for 20 years and I still get excited by objects and all their intriguing stories. An object is pure time travel, it is a departure for an extraordinary adventure of the mind that can take you back hundreds, if not thousands of years and connect you with a nameless craftsman, an Emperor, an important historical chapter.
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What are three artworks you would love to have as part of your collection and why?
NC My poison is ancient sculpture, particularly fragmentary sculpture—when history somehow collides with an object and transforms it. Iconoclasm is an area that specifically interests me and the 14th century BC yellow jasper mutilated head of Nefertiti in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, of which only the superb lips remain, is my favourite object of all time.
One of my favourite Chinese sculptures also happens to live in the Met—the otherworldly seventh-century dry lacquer sculpture of Buddha. Lastly, I wish I could drink from the Yohen Temmoku Song dynasty bowl from the Seikado Bunko which is a registered National Treasure. Bowls made at the Jian kilns in Fujian province during the Song dynasty rank among the greatest achievements of the Chinese potter and staring at this exceptional example, with its brilliant electric blue oil spots, is a psychedelic trip.
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Which three pieces in your own private collection do you think you can't live without? What do they mean to you?
NC The object that I own that I obsess the most about is a fragmentary portrait of pharaoh Apries, a contemporary of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel and known as Hophra in Hebrew. This object launched me over a year ago on a biblical murder mystery that has so far taken me to Cairo and Bologna and my next stop is Rome—believe it or not, I am living in a Dan Brown novel!
The two others are harder to select, since one step down from this piece I am quite equal in love but I would choose a small Parthian alabaster figure of a reclining woman that dates from the 1st century BC and may have been found in Babylon. It shows the convergence of the Hellenistic style and the indigenous tradition of fertility figures evident in the exaggerated curves of the female form. Lastly, I would select a Longquan celadon tea bowl fired to a most sublime bluish-green colour restored in gold lacquer (kintsugi) that once belonged to a Japanese potter (1883-1959). The unctuousness of the glaze provides a most exciting tactile experience for my hand and my lip and indeed I occasionally sip a cup of tea from this bowl.
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Do you have any hobbies and interests that people don’t know about you?
NC I am very interested in photography and film and it is a wonderful and deepest way of experiencing an object to confront it to a lens. The more time I spend photographing or filming an object the closer I find myself to the soul of it.
If you could change one thing about the art industry, what would it be? why?
NC I wish we could get the money out of the picture, more people would finally start buying what they really love, not what they think will make them money. But I might just suddenly be out of a job!