Eskenazi says that the circa 13th-century wooden Guanyin statue (right) is the one piece he would have kept, were he to break his own iron rule against collecting the art he deals in. ‘It

Giuseppe Eskenazi: the world’s foremost dealer in Asian art

As his Mayfair gallery celebrates 50 years of innovative exhibitions, the dealer who transformed the West’s appreciation for Asian art looks back on a career distinguished by scholarly passion, visionary thinking and record-breaking acquisitions. By Jonathan Bastable

For the past six months, an object of extraordinary beauty and power has been on show at the Eskenazi gallery on Clifford Street in London. It is the head of a bodhisattva, 1,300 years old, and once part of a gilded statue that must have stood well over two metres tall.

To see this wonderful work of art you must walk the length of the gallery — which is deep and narrow like the nave of a church. You have the distinct impression that you are approaching an altar — an effect partly due to the arrangement of the hushed space, but mostly to do with the numinous energy of the artwork itself.

All the gold is gone from the deity’s head. His face is now a mottled grey, though there are visible traces of red on the lips. His expression is utterly serene, but the longer you look at it, the more it appears that he is suppressing a laugh. A hint of merriment is there in the arch of his eyebrows and the compression of his mouth. The shadow-smile of this enlightened Gioconda seems affectionate and compassionate, as if he were privately amused by the absurd drama of the cosmos and all actors in it — you included.

This bodhisattva head is one of a group of three, published together in Japan in 1930. One of the others is at the British Museum. The hollow-core dry-lacquer technique used to make it was prevalent for a brief time between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. Photo Eskenazi Gallery

This bodhisattva head is one of a group of three, published together in Japan in 1930. One of the others is at the British Museum. The hollow-core dry-lacquer technique used to make it was prevalent for a brief time between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. Photo: Eskenazi Gallery

‘It’s so exciting to have a piece of this quality in the gallery,’ says Giuseppe Eskenazi, owner of the gallery and the world’s foremost dealer in Chinese art. ‘It is a mind-blowing work: just look at the hair, look at the chignon. And the eyes, they are made of glass but are so human.’ He reaches up to turn the head around on its pedestal, so that it is possible to look inside.

‘It’s pure lacquer,’ he says — and sure enough you can see the coarse weave of the resin-soaked hemp, which was laid like papier-mâché onto a clay form to create the hollow skull.

It is moving to behold the honest, legible workmanship of the interior surface, so different from the polished refinement of the facial features. That contrast, never intended to be seen, says something about sublimation in the creative process, about how humble materials can be transmuted into the pure gold of artistic truth.

The head is one work in an exhibition drily entitled Tang: Ceramics, Metalwork and Sculpture. For 50 years now, the Eskenazi gallery has been staging such curated shows. The first of them, in 1972, also had the Tang dynasty as its subject. Back then, art dealers didn’t stage themed exhibitions.

‘People thought I was crazy,’ says Eskenazi. This was partly because commercial wisdom dictated that all your top pieces, whatever they might be, went straight in the shop window; but also because the early Chinese art that interested Eskenazi was not widely esteemed or understood. In the 1970s, everybody wanted a stout Ming vase that they could turn into a table lamp. ‘People came into the gallery and were amazed when I said that I don’t handle that kind of object.’

‘I spent every weekend at the Victoria and Albert Museum, because I wanted to learn more, to handle more’ — Giuseppe Eskenazi

But something must have been right about the zeitgeist, because collectors queued overnight to be first through Eskenazi’s door on the opening day of the inaugural exhibition. Half the pieces sold within the hour. That success could be seen as beginner’s luck — except that Eskenazi had been a player for more than a decade by then, having joined the family firm in his early twenties.

‘I had thought I might do medicine at University College — there were lots of doctors in the family. But then my father died. I was still very young, and I was presented with an option: to carry on without means, or to come into this business. I made my choice.’ He continued his studies — in a different sphere, and in a way that was less formal but no less rigorous than a doctor’s training.

‘I spent every weekend at the Victoria and Albert Museum, because I wanted to learn more, to handle more,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know where to go for help, but I was fortunate in having two people who believed in me. One was William Watson [professor of Chinese art and archaeology at the University of London], and the other was Margaret Medley [the Sinologist and art historian]. She took the time to talk to me, and I came to understand how porcelains are made, why the Chinese were so good at it.’

Before it came to market in 2005, this Yuan-dynasty jar was used by its unwitting owner for storing DVDs. Eskenazi, realising its worth, fought a lengthy six-way bidding battle to acquire it. He paid a world-record sum of £15,688,000 for it, on 12 July 2005 at Christie’s in London

Before it came to market in 2005, this Yuan-dynasty jar was used by its unwitting owner for storing DVDs. Eskenazi, realising its worth, fought a lengthy six-way bidding battle to acquire it. He paid a world-record sum of £15,688,000 for it, on 12 July 2005 at Christie’s in London

Eskenazi was born in Istanbul on the eve of the Second World War; grew up speaking Greek, French and Turkish; then spent his early teens in Italy before being sent to boarding school in Gloucestershire, with barely two words of English to rub together. So a kind of open-minded, curious cosmopolitanism is Eskenazi’s birthright.

‘My grandfather used to refer to us as Europeans in the Orient and Orientals in Europe,’ he wrote in his part-autobiographical book about the art trade, A Dealer’s Hand. One suspects that the outsider’s perspective has been a boon down the years: being at one remove is useful when your job involves making shrewd calls on human nature.

Giuseppe with his son Daniel, who has long been the driving force behind Eskenazi’s many successful exhibitions. He is holding the Tang-dynasty phoenix-headed ewer that sold for £45,000 on the first day of the first exhibition in 1972 — re-acquired by Eskenazi decades later for £2 million. Photo Eskenazi Gallery

Giuseppe with his son Daniel, who has long been the driving force behind Eskenazi’s many successful exhibitions. He is holding the Tang-dynasty phoenix-headed ewer that sold for £45,000 on the first day of the first exhibition in 1972 — re-acquired by Eskenazi decades later for £2 million. Photo: Eskenazi Gallery

Eskenazi’s background did not look like an advantage when he was starting out. ‘When I think of the top dealers in London at the time, I wouldn’t say I was a thorn in their flesh but they certainly could have done without me,’ he recalls. ‘They were not interested in spending time with a young half-Italian, yet a few days before the Grosvenor Fair they would turn up at my gallery and buy a few bits and pieces.

‘Why? Suddenly the penny dropped. It was because my things were saleable at the fair — yet they wouldn’t accept me, they didn’t want me there or allow me to take part. The frustration! They were all very snobbish, and I was just a foreign boy.’

The curated exhibitions — nearly 100 of them so far — evolved into a strategy to circumvent that closed network, and to remake the landscape of the Chinese art market. Sometimes Eskenazi would hang on to pieces for years, waiting for the right context in which to show and sell, and at the same time to promote early Chinese art.

‘If turning a profit was our sole objective we wouldn’t do it this way. But the nice thing about a show with a theme is that everyone, whether they buy or not, is learning something’ — Daniel Eskenazi

‘When you have a general show, people might remember a piece or two, but they don’t get an overall picture of any part of the field,’ says Giuseppe’s son Daniel Eskenazi, who has worked alongside his father since the 1990s. ‘If turning a profit was our sole object we wouldn’t do it this way. But the nice thing about a show with a theme is that everyone who comes, whether they buy or not, is learning something.’

That mission to share the art, and the knowledge of the art, has always been backed up by research that is distilled and decanted into each exhibition catalogue. In 1985, Eskenazi explained his thinking to The Antique Collector. ‘If we could gather a number of important art objects that had not been through the auctions and widely seen, and write an informative catalogue without being pretentious, in other words being aware of our position in the art market, we could make the public aware of fine objects available outside the saleroom.’

Specialists in the field took note as the firm met that modestly worded goal, and went beyond it. The South China Morning Post  called an Eskenazi work on Chinese bronzes ‘one of the best-produced catalogues of art objects I have ever seen’. Souren Melikian, renowned art critic and historian, said that an Eskenazi overview of Japanese lacquer ‘will remain the best-researched book on the subject’.

In 1988, Eskenazi set a record for a Chinese work by paying £1.6 million for this bronze vessel at Christie’s in New York. ‘It may be romantic of me,’ he said after the sale, ‘but I wanted to be associated with the best of Chinese art, even for a short time.’ Photo Eskenazi Gallery

In 1988, Eskenazi set a record for a Chinese work by paying £1.6 million for this bronze vessel at Christie’s in New York. ‘It may be romantic of me,’ he said after the sale, ‘but I wanted to be associated with the best of Chinese art, even for a short time.’ Photo: Eskenazi Gallery

The same could be said of many of the gallery’s publications. Profound scholarship has been complemented by an emphasis on the best design and highest production values. In the early years, the catalogues were the province of graphic designer Gordon House, a good friend of Giuseppe’s, who had also worked on the LP sleeves of Sgt. Pepper’s  and the White Album  for The Beatles.

Eskenazi catalogues were the first to include captions in Chinese as well as English. This was at the insistence of Giuseppe’s wife Laura, a lifelong student of the language. It now seems only sensible and culturally courteous to give Chinese descriptions of Chinese works, but no one did it before Eskenazi. The auction houses and other big dealers swiftly took up the idea.

Meanwhile, the gallery itself became an academic resource. The upper floors of the building on Clifford Street are crammed with books — a collection in themselves. ‘Nobody had any idea that our boddhisattva had been published in Osaka in 1930,’ says Eskenazi of the ineffable lacquer head. ‘We found the reference in-house — there’s the usefulness of having an extensive library.’

‘Most of the dealers bought the best to keep. I think that is immoral, absolutely wrong, because it gives you an advantage over your clients’ — Giuseppe Eskenazi

Such understated measures helped reshape the market — and they went hand-in-hand with a visible and sometimes theatrical approach to buying at auction. Giuseppe Eskenazi developed a flair for purchases that put early Chinese art in the spotlight, generating the attention that made it indisputably desirable.

In 1988, at Christie’s in New York, he spent $2.7 million on a 3,600-year-old bronze wine vessel in the form of a water buffalo. ‘Expensive pot,’ declared one laconic headline — which was true: no one had ever paid so much for a Chinese work of art.

In 2005 Eskenazi bid more than £15 million in London for a Yuan-dynasty blue-and-white guan  jar — another spectacular world-record price. And in 2012, at Christie’s in Paris, he went to 30 times the top estimate, paying €9 million to acquire a wooden sculpture of the Buddhist deity Guanyin.

This earthenware ewer of Sassanian form featured on the cover of the firm’s first exhibition catalogue. Photos Eskenazi Gallery

This earthenware ewer of Sassanian form featured on the cover of the firm’s first exhibition catalogue. Photos: Eskenazi Gallery

For a 2013 show on Jun ware, Eskenazi commissioned floral arrangements from ikebana expert Sumie Takahashi

For a 2013 show on Jun ware, Eskenazi commissioned floral arrangements from ikebana expert Sumie Takahashi

At first glance, these record-breaking forays look like the actions of an obsessive collector, someone who in the heightened atmosphere of the saleroom stops caring about the numbers. But Eskenazi says he has never fallen foul of paddle fever — and, crucially, he doesn’t even collect the art to which he has devoted his life.

‘Most of the dealers, especially in America, bought the best to keep. I think that is immoral, absolutely wrong, because it gives you an advantage over your clients. How can you say to a buyer, “This is very good, but I have taken the best one home”? If I did that to you, I’d have to hide everything every time I invited you round for dinner.’

Eskenazi has set out this position many times over the years. The comical image of him hiding his prize pieces ahead of a knock on the door is one that he hands out like a calling card. Whether he pictures himself cramming imaginary Song vases into a kitchen cupboard, or stashing ancient bronzes under the bed, the point is always the same: it is his bona fides.

‘David Hockney used to come to the gallery. I started buying him when Cézanne became impossible to acquire at my stage of wealth’

‘I know not what a man without trustworthiness may accomplish,’ reads the epigraph to his book, a quotation from Confucius. ‘Be it large or small, how could a carriage move without its yoke-bar?’

And yet Eskenazi has collected all his life: seashells as a boy, English furniture as a youth, European painting and drawing as an adult. He has a special love for Cézanne, and speaks about him with an easy familiarity, as if he had known him personally.

‘A wonderful person,’ he says. ‘Cézanne would go and paint La Montagne Sainte-Victoire time and again, and then go to the coffee shop and paint the card players. With very little work, just patches of colour, he conveyed so much, gave so much to anyone who was prepared to look. There is a great deal more depth than you can see on the surface.’

Eskenazi owned some Cézannes, but let them go when the business needed an infusion of cash. ‘I miss them, but that’s fine. They don’t have to be mine, and I am not a possessor.’ He held onto his portfolio of works by David Hockney — an artist he has met in the flesh. ‘He used to come to the gallery in Piccadilly with his dealer, [John] Kasmin,’ he says. ‘I started buying him when Cézanne became impossible to acquire at my stage of wealth.’

In 2002, Eskenazi devoted an entire catalogue to two objects. They were fish jars — one 14th century, the other 16th. The publication was an object lesson in exhaustive scholarship. ‘The identification of the four fish,’ the text notes wryly, ‘has proved to be a complex process.’ Photo Eskenazi Gallery

In 2002, Eskenazi devoted an entire catalogue to two objects. They were fish jars — one 14th century, the other 16th. The publication was an object lesson in exhaustive scholarship. ‘The identification of the four fish,’ the text notes wryly, ‘has proved to be a complex process.’ Photo: Eskenazi Gallery

He also treasures a brief meeting with Rothko at his New York studio. ‘I thought so highly of him as a painter. I came out of the room wanting to tell the whole world.’ It turns out the attraction of Rothko’s work is much the same as what Eskenazi loves in Cézanne: ‘Those big bright blobs of colour — so cerebral.’

One wonders if Eskenazi looks with the same eye on modern Western art as he does on early Chinese art? He says not — ‘Admiring the surface of a wonderful Ming bowl is not the same as immersing yourself in the layers of an abstract painting’ — but the question prompts him to make a poetic connection between the two cultures.

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‘I have always found Chinese calligraphy to be very exciting,’ he says. ‘When my wife was studying Chinese, I watched her learning how to write, how she made the strokes, varying their thickness with a twist of the brush. Very beautiful. And I think of Pollock — the way he splashed around. People think it was accidental, but he knew just what he was doing with the brush, exactly where he was dripping the paint.’

But if there is a unifying factor to Eskenazi’s lifetime in art, it is the enormous pleasure he has taken in all of it — the buying and selling, the rough and the smooth, the art of the East and the art of the West. ‘I haven’t regretted it, not a minute of it,’ he says. ‘I’ve had a very good life — it couldn’t have been better. And I have been very happy.’

Tang: Ceramics, Metalwork and Sculpture is on view at Eskenazi gallery, 10 Clifford Street, London