Ceramics a labour of love for specialist dealer Alain Chiglien

An emotional thread runs through the city's first gallery for modern ceramics, writesFionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 8:21am

There was once a boy in France who liked going to art galleries. From the age of 11, he started saving his pocket money and after three years, he knew how to spend it: on a lithograph by German-French artist Hans Hartung. The gallery's director, taken aback by this unexpected client, remarked that she wasn't convinced it was an ideal purchase for a 14-year-old. He assured her he had enough money.

"Then she tried to explain to me the story of the painter, how he works," that boy, now a middle-aged Frenchman called Alain Chiglien, says as he sits in his own gallery space in Hong Kong. "But I said no. For me, it is about the emotion."

Telling his tale, all these years later, Chiglien is still emotional. "I had a very, very, very good relationship with my father," he says, and pauses for a long moment. "All my education … the passion and the possibility is from him." Was his father a collector too? "No," says Chiglien but his partner, Roger Nilsson, sitting alongside, remarks thoughtfully, "Well, he had an enormous stamp collection."

Nilsson, who is Swedish, and Chiglien don't collect stamps. Their passion is for ceramics and, having two galleries in Paris that combine their initials - NeC - and their enthusiasm, they've recently launched a third, in Sheung Wan.

Their first exhibition, in May, featured the work of Steen Ipsen, who is Danish. Their second show offered works by Wouter Dam, who is Dutch. Their third, which opened on Friday, showcases Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who is Swedish. As you might expect the city's northern European community (and its consul-generals) have been beating a loyal path to their Hollywood Road cocktail parties.

What's more surprising, however, is that their backers are Hong Kong Chinese (they prefer to remain anonymous) who visited Galerie NeC in Paris a couple of years ago and liked what they saw.

"In 2010, we were selling pieces by an artist called Eva Hild," recalls Chiglien. Hild is a 46-year-old Swedish ceramicist whose much-lauded work features sleek curves and holes and bulges, and is about as obviously related to the Chinese porcelain sold in Hollywood Road shops as Scarlett Johansson is to the empress dowager Cixi.

The visitors from Hong Kong were impressed. They bought a Hild work.

"Months after, they saw the same artist at auction cost three times more," says Chiglien. "And they bought again and again, and they realised that the artists we buy are good to explore as an investment. They tell us they love our approach, that we don't present ceramics as everyone thinks of them, something old. Our artists are in their 40s and 50s. They realise that we don't do it for speculation but that it is a real speculation."

Isn't it going to be difficult shifting that engrained Hong Kong mindset, moving clients on from Mammon to marvel? "That's our job, to change this way of thinking," says Nilsson. "We see it as our mission, to get the passion in the right place."

Their investors, who have put up 90 per cent of the enterprise's costs, stipulated that the Hong Kong gallery should have exactly the same programme as in Paris: the same artists and the same presentation of their work, simply shown later in the year.

The partners met in 1994. Nilsson was a dancer, Chiglien had studied architecture, then became a fashion designer. They were both interested in ceramics, particularly those from Vallauris, in southeast France, which had always been known for its pottery but became famous when Picasso moved there in 1948. Nilsson used to go to the flea markets at dawn, entranced by shapes and colours, to add to his collection. "When I met Roger," Chiglien remarks, delicately, "I saw he had a lot of different pieces. There was a lot of kitsch you could buy from Vallauris, like a ceramic in the shape of a mussel with a light inside." (Nilsson: "I assure you I didn't collect that.")

They decided to be more specific, and narrowed in on Roger Capron, a ceramicist who'd moved to Vallauris in 1946. In 2001, they sold their collection (keeping just a handful of works, which they lend to museums) and opened their first gallery. It focused on Scandinavian design from the 1940s to the '60s - furniture and lamps, as well as ceramics - but it became clear there was a growing interest in contemporary Scandinavian ceramics, and in 2010 they opened their second gallery.

You can see why their Hong Kong investors, who'd been checking out galleries in Paris, would be attracted to both the work and the partnership. Chiglien radiates genuine fervour; Nilsson is quieter but his low-key manner is highly effective. On a second visit, he explained to this writer the methods of Ipsen.

At first glance, Ipsen's works resemble clumps of billiard balls lashed together with string; they come in different colours and bear titles such as
Tied Up. By the time Nilsson has pointed out the beauty of the craftsmanship - the faint ripples, the brilliant application of glaze, the tactile effect of clever stoneware bubbles - you're thinking where, in your flat, you can place it.

Nordenskiöld's exhibition is entitled "Treasures" - and that's clearly the way Chiglien and Nilsson view the ceramics he creates. The pieces will cost between HK$30,000 and HK$90,000.

"Gustaf is exactly at the period where he grows very quick," Chiglien says. "For sure, in two years' time these pieces will cost more. All of our artists, we see at auction. The stock market is very … imprecise. But contemporary art, if you buy at the right moment, is the good investment."

And what happened to the investment in a Hartung lithograph a teenage boy made all those years ago? Chiglien laughs. "The end of the story is that my best friend decided to marry and so I offered to her as a gift my first piece of art. You know, it's about sharing what you love with other people."


Gustaf Nordenskiöld: Treasures, Galerie NeC, G/F, 208-218 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. Tel: 2547 0000. Ends Sept 29