Grandpa brought Chinese antiques abroad. Now Sotheby’s new Asia chief wants to bring them home

Chinese collectors have branched out from decorative pieces to areas like contemporary Asian and even Old Masters

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 9:00am

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 artifacts, 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  to boost Sotheby’s presence in China. 

Nicolas Chow didn’t initially plan on getting into art and antiquities – he first studied law in Switerzland, 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, the Swiss 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 Shanghai-based collector Liu Yiqian.

Liu paid US$36 million for the cup, one of 17 confirmed authentic cups dating to the Ming Dynasty. Chow’s grandfather, Edward, 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 – a fiery Chinese liquor – had been poured (Liu likes wet lunches) and the mood was buoyant. Though Chow suffered some 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 himself, like many Chinese buyers, is getting keen on other types of collecting, aside from Chinese antiques. In 2015, Liu set records again, buying a Modigliani painting for US$170 million; the last Modigliani at auction went for $70 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. 

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

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 artifacts 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 $20,000 purchase in a new field could turn into a $20 million purchase if that field proves interesting. 

Though the Curiosity Sales may not be driving top-line figures, it is ventures such as these (as well as some heady top line sales) that have 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 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 full-fledged 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. 

(This article is published in the May edition of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)