Christie’s x Chiu Sum: A Disciplined Pursuit of the Heart's Desires

As Christie’s Shanghai celebrates the 10th anniversary of its auctions, we invited Chiu Sum, a revered collector who has been collecting art for over three decades, to share his insights and the story of his daughter Chloe Chiu, who carries on this passion with contemporary art

Recounting the early days of his collecting journey, Chiu said, ‘I started collecting art after retirement. Unlike other entrepreneurs or investors, it was purely driven by passion.’ Moving from porcelain and ancient paintings, to the treasures recorded in Shiqu Baoji, the veteran collector explained his change of focus with a simple yet important story. ‘When I had a chat with Xu Bangda over dinner, he pointed out that it was difficult to pass down the knowledge of understanding and authenticating ancient paintings.’ The casual remark by this eminent appraiser of classical calligraphy and paintings prompted Chiu to look for items with clear provenance and convincing records. Today, he still upholds this collecting philosophy.

Shiqu Baoji is a set of catalogues documenting over 10,000 items in the Qing Dynasty’s imperial collection of Chinese calligraphy and paintings. Most of the works recorded in the catalogues were destroyed in wars. It is said that around 300 items have survived, of which about 100 had been put up for auction, including the nearly 20 works in Chiu’s collection. One of his favourites is Emperor Qianlong's Review of the Grand Parade of Troops that he acquired at Christie’s Spring sale for over HK$26 million in 2004.

The Review of Grand Parade comprises four scrolls and is one of the most important works by missionary and court painter Giuseppe Castiglione in the Qing Dynasty. Each scroll depicts the scene in which Emperor Qianlong reviewed his troops in Nanyuan (South Park) in 1739. While the first and second scrolls are now in a French collection and the collection of The Palace Museum respectively, the third and fourth scrolls are both in the hands of Chiu, and stand out with their exceptional quality and magnificence.

Chiu attaches high importance to the literature and supporting evidence associated with a work, and this is evident in his collection of imperial masterpieces. For example, he started studying The Four Sages of Mount Shang immediately after he discovered the imperial inscribed poem on the back of the Celadon Jade 'Four Sages' Mountain Boulder, offered at Christie’s autumn sale in 2010. After learning that the painting was in the collection of Cincinnati Museum, his daughter, who was studying in the U.S. at the time, immediately contacted the museum to buy the high-resolution images of the work. Chiu then compared the two works carefully and confirmed that they echoed with each other. Finally, he placed a decisive bid and purchased the mountain boulder for nearly HK$60 million.

His relentless pursuit of excellence and inquisitive mind have helped ensure the overall quality of his collection. In November 2004, Chiu acquired Yao Wenhan’s Emperor Qianlong Appraising Horses in Spring for over HK$9 million at Christie’s. However, Nie Chongzheng, an expert in imperial paintings from the Palace Museum, questioned its authenticity as there was an identical work in the museum’s collection. Sceptical about this claim, Chiu examined the work in his hand and believed that it was real. The authenticity was later confirmed by the museum after in-depth evaluation. Recalling this incident, he said, ‘Perhaps the painting was transported out of the palace at some point, and was secretly replaced by a copy.’

Chiu’s relationship with Christie’s dates back to the beginning of his collecting journey. In the 1990s, he was impressed by the superior antiquities offered by Christie’s, and thus started to bid in its auctions. One of his close friends is Huang Junshi, who founded Christie’s Chinese Paintings Department and proposed the faithful and elegant Chinese translation of the auction house’s name. A calligraphy created by Huang for Chiu’s 70th birthday still hangs in his home. It encourages the collector to ‘follow one’s heart’s desires without overstepping the line’, which is a perfect description of his collecting philosophy and his lifelong motto.

‘The economy is like a tank of water, and the art market is the oil on the water surface. It always floats on the top and won’t sink.’ – Chiu Sum

Witnessing the changes in the art market, Chiu is still optimistic about the market’s outlook. ‘There are collectors collecting from every period, whether it’s the Qing Dynasty, the period of the Republic of China, the late Cultural Revolution era, or the modern age. With social stability improving, the collecting world will continue to evolve and move forward. The economy is like a tank of water, and the art market is the oil on the water surface. It always floats on the top and won’t sink.’

Chloe Chiu reading a catalogue at her home in Hong Kong

His daughter Chloe Chiu is also a key figure amongst millennial art collectors. Now living in Hong Kong, she focuses on contemporary art, notably works by Yayoi Kusama and Yoshitomo Nara. Reflecting on her father’s influence on her collecting practice, Chloe said, ‘He encourages me to develop my own system of collecting, and think about the reason before buying a piece of artwork. Since the contemporary art market is evolving quickly, it’s important to think twice, assess the price carefully, and learn more about the artist before making a move.’

She still remembers how stunned she was when she first saw Emperor Qianlong's Review of the Grand Parade of Troops. ‘The details and brushstrokes of the scroll were so refined and exquisite that they could never be replicated.’ While her father has dedicated decades to collecting Chinese antiques, Chloe considers her contemporary art collection to be more of a lifestyle. ‘The main purpose of collecting is to please and delight myself, and then hopefully I can start to influence others.’

The father and daughter often exchanged collecting insights via video calls

Today, Chiu’s two young grandchildren also frequent art museums and auction salerooms, and they have already developed their own understanding and preferences of art. Chloe’s daughter is especially fond of the lively and playful style of Japanese artist Mr. Chloe also hopes that art can become an integral part in the life of the next generation, and, as a parent, she wants to promote art as part of children’s education.

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When Christie’s held its first auction in Shanghai ten years ago, Chiu witnessed and participated in this historic moment. Time flies and Christie’s takes great pride in having contributed to the tremendous growth of the art ecosystem in mainland China over the past decade. At Christie’s, we have grown with a new generation of collectors and have been enlightened by each other. We are also pleased to see the passion for art collecting being passed down through generations, inspiring people and enriching their lives in various ways. As Chiu put it, ‘The joy of collecting is more important than owning the art.’

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