Two and a half marble columns overlooking Lake Geneva in the Swiss town of Nyon are all that remains of a retirement colony for Roman cavalry – a relic of the Roman conquest of Europe two thousand years ago. A 15th century Gothic statue of Saint Sebastian, eyes cast downward, reflects the rage of zealots against the religion he represents. His pockmarked body is battered, ripped from a church wall. A scarred imperial Chinese seal, broken in two, represents the end of one dynasty and the violent beginning of the next.
The three fragments come together in the imagination of Nicolas Chow, the Hong Kong-based chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, who sees history as a transformative force that evokes empathy by leaving its marks on objects and the landscape. While collectors may aspire to obtain perfect pieces untouched by time, Chow likes to explore the tension between the ideal and humanity in the auctions that he curates, as well as the objects he buys for his own collection.
An eye for iconoclasm
Chow grew up in Nyon. As a boy, he developed his imagination through its Roman ruins. He still thinks the columns unearthed during road construction and set up on the esplanade des Marronniers (Chestnut Tree Square) are “one of the most beautiful sites in the world. You can feel the greatness of Rome right there.” When the figure of Saint Sebastian, from Chow’s personal collection, received its battering is murky. But the marks of history are undeniably brutal.
Chow’s taste for iconoclastic works is not just about their imperfection but about the intention behind it. Nearly all the pre-modern art that passes through the hands of auctioneers, dealers, collectors, and museums has some sort of damage; with iconoclastic art, the damage is part of the story. “I like the pathos of it, quite heavy but powerful and moving,” Chow says of his Saint Sebastian. “Understanding the physical state ties in with a key moment in history and is a lot more powerful than appreciating something that is broken. When you know the reason, when an object has been desecrated, you can see the anger, the blows of a blunt instrument going back and forth. I loved it, this tragic figure persecuted under the Emperor Diocletian in the third century, a suffering figure, and then on top of it you have these blows.”
“It’s not a very happy piece,” he adds. “I keep it away from home, away from my eight-year-old son.”
Chow shares his vision through a talent for storytelling. His auction house stories are often about the excitement of discovery, going beyond workmanship and the value of materials to their journey through time. As he walks with a group of collectors and potential buyers through an auction preview, a standard feature of the big auction houses, Chow weaves together history on multiple planes, describing how and why the objects were made, their significance and condition, who owned them, and how he tracks them down.
As one of the key figures interacting with Sotheby’s clients for Chinese art over the last two decades, Chow has arguably helped to shape the taste of a generation of collectors from mainland China. His impact goes beyond an ability to keep prices spiraling upwards. Few cultures are more deeply attuned to their history as China, but understanding that history through its art and antiquities takes knowledge, skill and a willingness to explore narratives beyond the ordinary.
A new generation
While the domestic market in mainland China for Chinese art and antiquities has soared, Hong Kong has been the marketplace of choice for Chinese antiquities that left China during its turbulent 19th and 20th centuries. As a free port, without capital controls or restrictions on exports relating to their age, some of the trade raises questions about money laundering and the lack of consequences for collectors and dealers in art that was plundered from China in an earlier time. But it is also a venue where experts like Chow and a strong judicial system based on British common law create an atmosphere of trust, different from the auction business in mainland China, which is widely considered rigged and subject to unpredictable price inflation and deflation.
Chow joined Sotheby’s in the late 1990s, moving to Hong Kong just at the time when mainland buyers emerged on the scene here and around the world. “In 1999, a couple of buyers came in dramatically and propelled prices to a new level,” he says. “They started a phenomenon and over the years, mainland buyers have significantly increased. The majority of our buyers now are mainlanders, both in terms of net amount and flow.”
In his professional role for Sotheby’s, Chow wraps blockbusting auctions around historical narratives that appeal to the intellect as much as the potential for price appreciation. These include Sotheby’s most recent spring auction in April 2021, which had a problem: how to attract buyers in a pandemic, when only a few could actually visit Hong Kong to see the objects for themselves, with Hong Kong’s borders largely closed.
While Chow had framed many auctions around historical themes before, this time it was a struggle to find objects that would work for buyers at a distance. History came to the rescue, together with Chow’s appreciation for iconoclastic art. In more ways than one, it became an auction for a pandemic, a time when globally people have greater awareness of their own vulnerabilities as well as the power of history to leave its mark. The theme that emerged, “The Rise and Fall of Dynasties – Three Supremely Important Ming and Qing Imperial Seals,” came together as part of Sotheby’s 2021 Hong Kong spring auction, an annual event.
The auction was anchored by three imperial seals, two of jade, one of sandalwood. Jade seals have been associated with imperial authority since at least the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), with a mythic overlay of jade as a uniquely spiritual material from well before writing was invented in China and history formally began. The two jade seals at auction were burned or broken at dynastic turning points – the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 and the beginning of the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1860, when British and French forces burned the imperial Summer Palace. While the sale included ceramics, bronzes, jade, paintings, sculpture and imperial robes, the seals, commissioned and used by emperors, were considered the highlights of the auction.
While some sceptics might feel that verbal modifiers like “supremely” are thrown around too readily by the auction houses, the burned white jade seal set two world records for the highest price paid for white jade and the highest price for an imperial jade seal. The hammer price of HK$145.7 million was 10 times the price it achieved the last time it was at auction in 2004, when it was sold for HK$14 million. The broken seal sold for 11 times its previous price at auction in 2004, at HK$43.4 million, compared to 2004, when it was sold for HK$3.5 million. Paradoxically, the sandalwood seal, in perfect condition, did not reach its estimate and was withdrawn by the auction house, despite having made a record price of HK$92.6 million at its most recent sale in 2016.
Described as representing the high and low points of the last two Chinese dynasties, the Ming and Qing, the seals ranged in age from the 15th through 18th centuries. On a wall facing a shelf with the seals on display was a detailed timeline covering a history that begins with the birth of the future Empress Wen in 1362, the future owner of the Ming seal, and ending in 1911, with the end of the Qing dynasty.
Symbols of history
Imperial seals were made for a variety of reasons, from stamping documents to commemorating important people and events, among them deceased ancestors. The first of the seals has an approximate date of 1425 during the brief reign of Empress Wen’s son, the Hongxi Emperor who commissioned it after her death with the posthumous name he gave her and who placed in the imperial ancestral hall, or taimiao.
Empress Wen is viewed in China as a figure who promoted Buddhism and social justice. Dramatically, her memorial seal was broken roughly in half on June 3, 1644, when a rebel leader, Li Zicheng, occupied the Forbidden City and set it on fire, destroying all the Ming seals except this one, a dark green jade which was broken in half. Li’s destruction of the palace opened the way for the Manchus to invade and occupy China for the next four centuries, under the Qing Dynasty. As with Chow’s Saint Sebastian, it is easy to feel the emotion behind the heavy blow that broke the seal in two. An expert from the Palace Museum in Beijing has confirmed that it is the only known Ming seal.
The second of the seals was the largest of the seals commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor in the 1680s or 1690s, who consolidated the Qing empire and was its longest reigning ruler, from 1661 to 1722. The sandalwood seal, a squat, crouching dragon, was placed in the Palace of Ultimate Purity, the Qianqinggong, to remind Kangxi of his duty to serve the people. Inscribed “revere heaven and serve the people,” the large sandalwood seal was copied in jade by succeeding emperors.
Tying the two earlier seals together is the third seal in the collection, commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1766, both as a meditation on his grandfather Kangxi’s influence in his life, and a reminder of what it means to lose authority by failing to meet his high standards. Its name commemorates the place where he met his grandfather for the first time, the Hall of Grace Remembrance, or Ji’entang, a year before the Kangxi Emperor’s death. The poem on its side links to the inscription on the Kangxi seal, advising his descendants to serve the people – or face the consequences.
Its burn marks likely came in the sacking of the Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860. Its fate was prophesied—albeit indirectly—by Qianlong, who in 1782 wrote another poem called “On Jade Books,” which reminisced about the objects emperors left behind. He wrote that when he was young, he didn’t understand what it meant if there were no seals, but now that he was older—he was 71 at the time—he knew that it meant the loss of the “mandate of heaven” or the right to rule. Together, the two poems link the three seals to basic concepts of Chinese governance.
Putting this story together, with the detailed timeline and choice of the objects, was just part of Chow’s exercise. His enthusiasm is catching and has won him a following among some of the mainland’s largest collectors, including Liu Yiqian, a former Shanghai taxi driver turned billionaire. Liu’s purchase of a Kangxi-era pink-ground falangcai bowl at Sotheby’s spring auction in Hong Kong in April 2018 for HK$238.8 million set a record for Chinese porcelain. Chow famously sealed that deal with a bear hug and an air kiss on Liu’s cheek, creating a sensation on social media.
Stories for a strange moment
Chow has led record breaking sales for Sotheby’s almost since he joined the auction house in Hong Kong in 1999. He started at the auction house as an intern three years earlier, freshly graduated from a master’s programme in Chinese art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and Chinese language study in Taiwan. His grandfather, Edward T. Chow, was a famous dealer-collector in Chinese ceramics who moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1947, escaping the devastation of the Japanese occupation and Chinese civil war, and to Geneva 20 years later, following his European clients. Chow grew up in Nyon, the Swiss town with the Roman columns, between Geneva and Lausanne. Aside from weekly visits to his grandfather’s house, he had little other contact with the Asian art world.
That changed when Chow was studying for an exam in his first year of law school in Geneva, when he suddenly realised he wanted to learn about his Chinese roots. “I was slowly following in the footsteps of my grandfather, but it is something that happened almost subconsciously,” he told the collectors’ magazine Orientations in 2013. He interned with Sotheby’s London and got his master’s degree before Sotheby’s gave him a full-time job in Hong Kong. He chose to work with an auction house because of the volume and range of objects it exposed him to, compared to working as a dealer which would have been more limiting. “I feel very lucky to have been exposed to art and antiquities from a young age. When I was young, I had absolutely no interest,” he says. “But seeing it obviously affected me over time.”
Previous auctions at Sotheby’s in 1994, 2004 and 2016 had exposed Chow to the three imperial seals, giving him an idea for something that would work for a pandemic auction. In the art auction business, jade seals have their own separate chapter. Until the late 1990s, they were mid-market items, seen as jade carvings, different only in the quality of the jade material and workmanship. Their collectors were “on the margins, below the radar, and [the seals] were valued very differently,” says Chow.
That changed when mainland buyers entered the market. They resonated with the history and the enormous power and authority represented by China’s imperial tradition, where outside the mainland collectors might know the history but not experience the same sense of national pride. “The market went from nothing to something almost overnight,” says Chow.
The Ji’entang seal had come on the market in 1994 and was relatively easy to find by going to the dealer and describing the market opportunity. The other two seals, the broken Ming seal and the wooden Qing seal required more detective work. It took five years to track down the owner using private online detectives.
The travel restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic have changed the auction game once again. “It is a very strange moment with the pandemic,” says Chow. With his clients unable to visit Hong Kong, he began thinking of ways to pique their interest. That’s when he thought of the Kangxi and Ming seals. “People want to handle porcelain, but [with seals] the value does not rely on condition, particularly the two seals, one mutilated, and the other suffered from a fire,” he says. “[You] could see the stylistic link, with the Kangxi seal based on the Ming seal, and the relationship between them and the poem inscribed on the [Kangxi] seal, the message that you must serve the people.” But how would clients value them?
Chow says he had a “surge of adrenaline” when he came up with the idea of getting the Ming and Ji’entang seals on consignment, to have a “complete and beautiful overview of those two dynasties with the Kangxi seal in the middle.” The three seals bear witness to Chinese history: the clear break at the end of the Ming Dynasty, then the Kangxi seal, which anchors the Qing Dynasty, and then the scars of the Ji’entang seal, marking that dynasty’s decline.
“Having done this job for a long time, it’s rare to feel genuinely moved,” says Chow. “I really looked forward to presenting these objects together. You have the aesthetics of the objects, but storytelling is a different thing. I don’t like to use the word marketing because it cheapens things. A good story has to be told in 30 seconds or a minute. And I thought that’s what we have with these three objects.”
The storytelling approach worked. The Ming seal may be broken, but it evoked something that Chow remembered from the statue of Saint Sebastian in Nyon – the scars of history in tangible form. “People were quite moved by the story,” says Chow. Bidding on the damaged Ming seal was the most intense of the three.