‘Joel Chen is a master curator,’ says John Hoke, Chief Design Officer of Nike. ‘His eye, his knowledge and his point of view are razor-sharp.’ Hoke, who has known Chen and bought from him for many years, says the dealer’s collection is like his mind: ‘They are both thoughtful and powerful. Simply put, he’s the gold standard.’
Born in Shanghai, Chen opened his Los Angeles store, JF Chen, more than 40 years ago. It was a decision he can trace back to one specific incident: ‘I earned an anthropology degree and went to work for my father in the jewellery mart in downtown L.A.,’ Chen told ELLE Décor in 2012. ‘One day I saw an antiques store on Melrose Place, but they wouldn’t admit me, saying it was for trade only. So I decided to open my own store. I borrowed $6,000, flew to Hong Kong, and bought a lot of porcelain.’
In the mid-1970s Chen began acquiring 18th-century Italian painted furniture, and since then he has branched out into Danish furniture, American modern, and much more besides. Today his galleries and showrooms house extensive collections of museum-quality furniture, lighting, accessories and art, ranging from period pieces to 20th and 21st-century masterworks.
Over the years, Chen has championed early modern design heavyweights such as Poul Kjaerholm and Jean Prouvé, as well as Charles and Ray Eames, Jacques Adnet, Donald Judd, Dan Johnson, Hans Wegner, and Ettore Sottsass. In 2006, Chen was a major lender to the first-ever American retrospective of Sottsass’s work, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
‘Chen is deservedly renowned as a design impresario,’ says Wendy Kaplan, Head of Decorative Arts and Design at LACMA. ‘His galleries are where Angelenos go to find amazing objects from all over the world that they couldn’t find elsewhere, as well as superb examples from acknowledged masters. And the creative way these objects are installed is a testament to his rare imagination and impeccable eye.’
But if JF Chen is today regarded as ‘Los Angeles’ most exciting museum of decorative arts’, in the words of art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch, Chen himself is candid about his humble beginnings.
‘When I first opened my shop I had no clue what antiques were,’ Chen explains. ‘I just stumbled into it. In the beginning I was only concentrating on Chinese antiques — being Chinese.’ As the vogue for Chinese antiques ebbed, however, he began to turn his attention to other countries, styles and periods.
Chen is similarly open about having ‘absolutely no unity in my acquisition. I just go around and see what I like,’ he says. ‘The prime elements would have to be quality and workmanship.’
It is precisely that eclecticism that is so appreciated by a global clientele. ‘What appeals to me is his broad tastes,’ says art collector, curator and philanthropist Beth de Woody. ‘High, low, but all great. He makes you look at objects and art that you would have walked past in another setting.’
The sentiment is shared by interior designer Martyn Bullard, who for the last 20 years has turned to Chen for ‘all things wild, witty, wondrous and highly decorative.’ Why? ‘Because his eye for originality and quality is among the finest of today’s dealers worldwide.’ Interior designer Paul Fortune puts it a different way: ‘If JF Chen doesn’t have what you want, it either doesn’t exist or it’s not worth having.’
How does Chen feel collecting has changed since he first got into the business? ‘With the cell phone, you can acquire things in a minute,’ he observes. Yet the fundamentals remain the same. ‘You need to do your homework, you need to travel, go to different stores, read books and visit auction houses.’
Above all, what counts for this master dealer is not the resale value of a piece, but whether or not it makes him happy. ‘A lot of my things are not really sellable these days, but I buy them anyway,’ he explains. ‘I’m still buying what I like.’
Key works from Chen’s personal collection will be offered across two sales at Christie’s: the JF Chen Collection Online sale, from 7-14 February, and the JF Chen Collection sale, held on 13 February at Christie’s in New York.