The art of Collecting Chinese art an interview with Michael Weisbrod by Kay Hare
How did you get into the business of dealing with Old Chinese Works of Art?
I started life, from the age of 14 to 22, as a drummer. I was quite good. My father, a physician, was a collector of Asian Art since the mid-1960s. He had many objects but wanted to travel more, buy more, and find better quality. He decided he could only do this with a business, a gallery, to support his collecting and the expenses of travel. In 1970 he decided to open a gallery. He, my mother, uncle, and a doctor who managed their Clinic became partners and set up in Toronto in June 1972. Late 1972, I became disenchanted with music. Our band continued to grow and flourish, but personnel problems destroyed it. So, I decided to study Business at the University of Toronto and work in the gallery to support myself. I caught the collection-dealing “bug” very quickly.
What was the first thing that perked your interest in Chinese Antiquities?
A world-renown Toronto collector of netsukes visited the gallery on my first day and showed me how to look at a netsuke, or any object, critically. He spent about two hours with me, this opened my eyes. However, I was not interested in Japanese objects. Perhaps I remembered those days as a young elementary school student in the Royal Ontario Museum. Even then, I was impressed by the Chinese display, as well as the North West Coast Indian display (indigenous People). I was most enchanted with Chinese Culture and not interested in Japanese netsuke.
What was the decision that changed the course of your business and propelled you forward?
There were a few things, firstly, to forgo University, and stay in this business. Once I started traveling, after only a few months working, I devised a plan to learn fast. My father would send me to the auctions, marking the relevant catalogues, May in London, and New York in November 1973. I decided to view the sales as well as to visit dealers and familiarise myself with their operations, and see what I could buy. I bought more from the dealers, and still do to this day. I was especially happy buying exquisite high-quality Chinese Huanghuali Furniture, although I did not sell those items until I opened in New York, in March 1977.
While attending the New York auction, November 1973, I was supposed to focus on a Junyao Jar. It was beautiful, with an attractive glaze, but no crimson splash. Rare Art had a similar jar, with splashes. I already knew a splash made the Jar much more desirable. I put a hold on the item at Rare Art, Inc. (Hartman) and waited to see the price of the auction example. The Rare Art Jar was only 2600 dollars, and the auction jar was almost 4000 dollars. So I did not bid, and bought the Junyao Jar with splashes, from Rare Art. When I got back to Toronto, my father reprimanded me for buying from a dealer who was only buying from the auction and marking up the price. My father, at that time, had a wholesale to retail outlook. I figured it was a better Jar and for less money, despite not knowing where Rare Art purchased the Jar. I did know that the prices were moving upward at that time. I reasoned if he kept it for a year or so, it might just be underpriced. Two weeks after receiving the jar in Toronto, I sold it for 6,500 dollars. At that point, not only was I vindicated, after less than a year in the business, my father now had very high confidence in me.
Can you give us an anecdote or two regarding unusual purchases or sales?
One of the first things I ever purchased, in 1973, at Sotheby Parke Bernet auction in New York was a painting signed Wen Bo Ren, for 900 dollars. I took it to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), showed it to the curator, who was a renowned Chinese Painting expert. She surprised me by asking the price. I told her the price was 2,200 dollars. I was too shy to ask more, as she might find out the cost in the future. She asked if I could leave it there. Later the museum advised me they would purchase it. Many years later, the ROM used it as a card to promote their “Recent Acquisitions” to the public. With the above-mentioned splashed Junyao Jar and the Wen BoRen Painting purchases, as well as other business I developed in London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, and Toronto my father and uncle became convinced I could operate in this business.
In December 1975, I had become close friends and business partners with a London dealer. He seemed quite intimidated by the “Big Dealers.” However, I persuaded him we should go into John Sparks, Ltd. At the time, Sparks was showing many beautiful objects from The Mount Trust Collection. One, in particular, was a Blue Glazed Dancing Fat Lady, Tang Dynasty. We both were immediately taken by it. We bought it for 6,500 pounds. First, we gave it to a restorer to gently clean the encrustation off the glaze. Then we showed the figure to Julian Thompson of Sotheby’s. He took it to sell with a 20,000-pound reserve, so we were thrilled. It sold, in April 1976, for 36,000 pounds. We were quite ecstatic, as was my uncle, who had decided to go to London and see this auction for himself. Unbeknownst to me, this instilled much confidence in my uncle, separate from what my father had been telling him. Then in London with my father, the next year, we were invited to lunch by one of the greatest dealers. He offered us an association with his firm. I turned him down but offered to cooperate in the future. My father was surprised at my decision to reject a partnership with this dealer. However, the dealer’s interest and proposal only supported my father’s view that I would be successful and made he and my uncle more enthusiastic to open a gallery in New York. My relocation to New York completely changed our business, my life and me.
Do you collect many of the pieces yourself, or do you see them all as items to sell?
At first, my father, who founded the business, was a collector and sensitive to a dealer competing with clients for the best pieces or withholding them from their customers. So we set out to offer every object we purchased. However, this changed when I moved to New York. The business expanded greatly, and I was always buying. It became necessary and more appropriate to take things home, where they were ready to view by clients important enough to be invited. This was preferable to renting storage space or cluttering the shelves.
What medium do you like best, and why?
I happen to have started by following my father’s taste for Chinese Blue and White, especially Kangxi Period; also Song Monochromes and freely painted Cizhou wares. It is hard for a serious dealer to have a preference. We are in business to buy and sell genuine objects of a high standard. Being truly interested in Chinese Culture and History, I tend to gravitate to anything of exceptional quality or great interest. I think this evolves after many years of handling so many objects. First, you buy to have a “stock.” Then collectors gravitate to you, so you start to buy for those hopefully returning clients. Of course, each collector, from our first encounter, introduces us to their taste, which we need to satisfy to stay in business.
Do you ever have any regrets about the artworks you have sold or ever wish you had kept a hold of them yourself?
As I said, we made a conscious effort not to compete with clients. I think the excitement of buying more, and higher quality created a great stimulus to sell. Then we couldn’t really look back with regret. There was always the excitement of the new acquisition. Now so many years later, when I see our objects return to the market and sell for many multiples of what they were only twelve to fifteen years ago, of course, it is remarkable. However, we have enough amongst our stable of family, friends, and investors.
Do you prefer working as an independent dealer, or did you prefer being in Madison Avenue/ 57th St in New York?
Working as an Independent Agent, Consultant, Appraiser has been very interesting. We have essentially refrained from buying over the past two to three years. There are just too many copies offered everywhere. We have such a deep well of objects from our own circle, most having been off the market for decades. I have much more freedom to travel, study Chinese sites and museums, as well as make new friends and clients than I did when I needed to be in the gallery, just in case somebody of importance came by.
How do buyers find you?
The question of accessibility is a difficult one nowadays. Galleries are very expensive to run. The real estate is so expensive. The price structure of the Art, certainly Early Chinese Objects, is much higher so many collectors, as well as dealers, with not so much money, have a difficult time being able to buy objects which truly interest them. This makes being “on the street” questionable for the dealer, at best. Many older dealers run their business from home, or an out of the way, “off the street” office-gallery with no visibility. This is because they are already well connected to museums, collectors and auctions. Of course if one has many objects they are often stored elsewhere, keeping them fresh for auction and clients. Everybody wants the object that is tucked away someplace.
When we had the gallery in New York I often remarked, “the easiest way to hide an object, was to display it openly.” Clients and especially other dealers, often came directly to my office and asked, “so what do you have?” The casual wealthy Chinese Antique buyer is almost gone in the West. Between the high prices, import regulations and embargos, as well as the new Tariffs in the USA, collecting and dealing is overly complicated, more serious, and not as much fun. Objects are now serious investments.
I don’t think we have had many new buyers outside of China over the last few years. I ignored reaching out to a new international market since moving to Shanghai as we operated from a gallery and advertised in Orientations Magazine, Hong Kong, as well as the annual Auction Price Review Book. However, we have now chosen to widen the net in the Western market by hiring a young professional to help with social media, web design, and planning.
How do you find new pieces?
Recently the son of an old client, who passed away many years ago, brought a small but very lovely Rare Longman Fragment of a Seated Buddha to us in New York. These are almost impossible to find on the market and are quite valuable for their size. Most have returned to Chinese hands over the last few years, so we are fortunate to be able to offer such a rare and charming 5th-6th Century Stone Buddha. Otherwise, it is tough to compete now for objects in which to make a profit in the near future. If you buy at auction, it is no secret, and when you go to sell, at auction, there is so much commission going in and out it makes it very difficult to see financial success immediately. Now we rely on our stable of objects. Many are already published, and some have been exhibited in museums. They are all from Western collectors, dealers, and auctions. We have purchased a few objects in notable sales, as well.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out collecting Asian art?
CoIIecting is not rocket science. My opinion is to buy the best quality you can buy as soon as possible. If you are a collector, higher quality will be more satisfying. If you are an investor, the appreciation, percentage return on investment, is far more significant with the higher quality objects. Buy what you like. Make sure you get the advice of somebody like myself, and you will be on the right path. It does not need to be me, but a collector needs a good dealer, for his experience, advice, and to acquire the “taste” of the Culture and the market. The more experience your dealer has, the better off you are.
Is there much in the way of legislation and laws that regulate Asian art? Are there any industry rules?
I must admit laws and regulations seem to change so swiftly. We do need to keep up with what is going on. Antiques generally move freely. Of course, now we have tariffs on Chinese Antiques, no matter where they are shipped from, upon entry into the USA. There are also embargoes on some early Chinese objects, which cannot be proven to be out of China before a specific date.
How do you value Asian art? How do you know it’s genuine?
The same methods evaluate Asian Art as any property. We compare past sales, including some very subjective subtleties, including but not limited to condition, size variation, fads in the market, etc. Genuine is a different story. Some people think they understand Chinese ceramics, sculpture, and bronzes, but they have just not seen enough, or perhaps do not have the right aptitude. The copies are so good today that textbooks and catalogues are meaningless. The objects must be handled. I was lucky to begin learning when I did. I went to Sotheby’s for many major auctions, including the Clark Collection, Levy Collection, Edward T. Chow Collection, T.Y Chao Collection, Lindbergh Collection, Bernat Collection, Ferris Lubochez, etc. I was visiting New York before moving there as well as London, Paris and in 1979, Hong Kong, I had the great fortune to learn from the old dealers, as well as the new generation, only a few years older than myself. Experience is everything, and if the object does not seem right in my hands, I do not buy it. They are even copying the test papers now, and the old collection stickers.
What is the best part of your day at the office?
Now my office is in my Shanghai home. As it always has been, the best part of the day is to find some treasure. Alan Hartman, a giant of an antique dealer in New York, Rare Art, Inc., once told me, decades ago, that he found his best discoveries in his own inventory. I now understand him. I get a big kick out of seeing some similar objects to ours in museum catalogues or textbooks, especially the excavation reports online. Any businessman, certainly any antique dealer, always enjoys making new clients. That is why I decided to do this interview. I feel young enough to meet new contacts, offering them guidance and expertise in the formation of a meaningful collection.
Originally published at realriviera.com