The e-mail lurks in my inbox, a large pdf file attached. It’s from Rossi & Rossi in London, seemingly addressed only to me.
There are several paintings showcased, including some new works by Konstantin Bessmertny, an artist I already own. Scrolling down the file, I pause, then quickly skim through the remaining images before returning to absorb the one that caught my eye, knowing already that this is a painting I am fated to possess.
For months I have been good; now all that abstinence is under threat. I am pulled back to my journey from antiques to ancient textiles to Asian contemporary art, straddling cultures and cities thousands of miles apart. Even as I pick up the phone to ensure the work will be mine, I am already considering where to hang the Bessmertny, and the frame I will select, as I bask in the languorous sense of anticipation that will last for days until the painting arrives.
I can clearly recall my first brush with collecting. Fresh out of college, in the mid-1980s, my fiancée and I would go antiquing to shops and markets in Philadelphia and the Main Line area of the American city.
Soon it was day trips to New Hope and Lambertville, then weekends to Amish country, occasionally farther afield to the Poconos and even New England.
We had no mission. We sought small items of furniture and accessories for our rented apartment in downtown Philly, and it seemed cheaper to buy old things than new. On these outings, a particular style of Japanese porcelain – Satsuma – caught my eye. Burnished in gold, the vases and plates depicted scowling warriors and geishas with their hair pulled up, wars more than romance, epics sometimes miniaturised to the size of buttons that once were stitched on to an emperor’s robes.
I started researching Satsuma, distinguishing between fine and coarse workmanship, items made for nobility versus those exported to the West. Inevitably, on our excursions, I stealthily sought only this target, refusing to ask dealers if they had any, just as I would never seek directions while driving to our destination. I wanted to discover them for myself, unearth the dusty pair of Satsuma vases with holes drilled through their bases decades later to convert them into lamps, ruining their value yet making them affordable to me.
As an Asian living in America, I found myself attracted to antiques from the East. My next passion was rugs and carpets. I befriended an Iranian dealer on 23rd and South (in Philly) and spent Saturday afternoons in his store. I bought heavy tomes on Kirman, Anatolia, Bakhtiari, Shirvan; I splurged on a subscription to Hali, a magazine as opulent as the rugs and textiles it portrayed; I began to buy a few carpets.
One day Parviz showed me his private collection of Kashmir and paisley shawls. He insisted they were “not for sale”. Unsurprisingly, I succumbed to the lure of those three words: a red flag waved at a bull.
I begged him to sell me just one. My focus shifted to these ageless and mysterious textiles, woven finer than the tightest knotted carpet, patterns never set down in cartoons or words but recited across generations, a lost art that disappeared at the end of the 19th century due to Franco- Prussian battles and famine in Kashmir. In France and England they invented mechanical Jacquard looms to reproduce these shawls but were unable to match their handmade intricacy. Here, finally, I had found something remarkable that I could own, from India, the country of my origin.
I didn’t know it then, but I was hooked; not just to the shawls themselves, but to the lifelong addictions of a collector. Years later, we named our younger daughter Senna, after the Persian town famed for its paisley kilims and rugs.
The same year, on a trip to Manhattan, in New York, I stopped by an antique market on 56th and 2nd I had visited several times. Wandering through its maze of stores, I came to a halt at a tiny stall I had never noticed before. On a glass shelf I saw several shawls rolled inside out.
From the dangling threads I recognised them as Kani shawls from Kashmir, rather than their smoothly backed European counterparts.
Opening out the shawls, revealed their fragile brilliance, chaadars longer than bed sheets, a kaleidoscope of vivid colours, and mihrabs (prayer niches) criss-crossed by snake-like paisleys. That day, at the age of 26, I signed the largest cheque I had ever written: US$12,000 for 10 shawls; I bought them all. Amazingly, the dealer let me take them home with me even before he cashed the cheque. The need to possess them, right then, satisfied both my objectives: to clutch my treasure in my arms and to allow me to explain my crazy, impulsive behaviour to my wife. For when she saw them, no explanation I provided could speak to her the way the shawls would.
In 1994 we moved to Hong Kong and began to collect Indian contemporary art. Certain behaviours were now ingrained. A connection to my home country: a diaspora’s magnet. Research, focus and discipline. The paintings we hung on our wall would only be Indian; we would resist the expat’s pan-Asian temptation to buy art from Vietnam, Indonesia, China; although sculpture could be an exception to this rule.
This was a nascent market; new books on Indian art were being published every month, augmenting my collection on rugs and shawls. We found ourselves buying bigger bookshelves. Gone now was the tactile and sensory experience of antiquing. We chose from photographs mailed by Indian galleries before the shows opened, sometimes nabbing a sought-after artist sight unseen over the phone.
We collected all the way from the modernists – M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza – to those favoured by Saatchi – Jitish Kallat and Rashid Rana. In our apartment, wall space, as is the case with Hong Kong real estate, was our most precious commodity.
Then, finally we decided to put away our Satsuma, the silver, photo frames, to clear space for sculptures.
My 60 shawls were stored in a pair of antique Chinese carved camphor wood chests, hidden, not one on show. I was like a serial monogamist, reminders of my past banished to make way for the new. We raised our children in a home masquerading as an art gallery. Even the walls of the kids’ rooms displayed our paintings.
As Indian art appreciated in value, Chinese art leapt even further, fuelled by the country’s new millionaires. I now experienced another aspect of the collector’s dilemma: smug contentment over catching the right cycle eroded by regret over missing a different one.
I travelled to Beijing on work frequently. Over three years I spent 500 nights at the China World Hotel. I had never been to the Forbidden City but was a regular visitor to the capital’s urban art villages – 798 and Caochangdi. Exploiting my own loophole set up for sculpture, I explored this niche market, still reasonable enough to collect the blue chips. I discovered Sui Jianguo’s red dinosaurs, shaped as oversized toys with “Made in China” emblazoned across their chests. In the painted bronze sculpture I acquired, the dinosaur poses predatorily alongside a man’s torso, the work titled Dialogue, as enigmatic as the headless Mao jacket by the same artist I spent months seeking out.
Then there was Konstantin Bessmertny, neither Indian nor Chinese, a Russian artist who has lived in Macau for the past 20 years, incorporating the myriad influences of the Portuguese, Russians, Chinese and so much else in his work. In 1997, my wife worked for a Hong Kong gallery and, having spotted the artist’s work in a travelling group show, she convinced her employers to host his first-ever solo exhibition in the city.
As a bonus for a successful show, she was allowed to choose one work for herself, and she selected an old violin painted over by Bessmertny.
On one side: a lothario and his many lovers; on the other: a classical portrait of a nude woman. Since then, we have acquired two more of his violins and a cello (all technically sculptures) but never a painting, which is his preferred medium.
Now, after an unprecedented gap of 14 months without buying art, I hang the new Bessmertny in my living room: two feet square, freshly mounted in a wide gold frame. The painting is titled E. Meets W. Lost in Translation. On the canvas, two Samurai warriors face each other against the backdrop of an ornate European salon, out of place, as if they have wandered off a Satsuma plate. The seated warrior seems at peace, immovable; he has been waiting a lifetime for the other to appear. Yet the viewer cannot help but notice the absurdity of this encounter. Why are they here? Are they friends or foes, aligned against a common enemy or about to enter into a centuries-old battle ritual?
For me, in this painting, Bessmertny achieves the most any artist can hope for: by expressing a distinctive and imagined reality, he offers us a glimpse of a complete, alternate world.
Romnesh Lamba is a co-head of global markets at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing.