Eskenazi, Godfather of Chinese Antiques, Recounts His Story of Being an ‘Un-Fair’ Man

The Godfather of Chinese Antiques, Giuseppe Eskenazi, shared with us his journey of becoming a ‘top dealer’, a label that he humbly refused to be put on. Very often, antiques fair serves as a platform for dealers to showcase the finest works from their collection, offering a good opportunity for them to communicate with their peers, collectors and potential customers. Yet, Eskenazi is never seen in these occasions. What had stopped him from joining these events? What’s the story behind?

Giuseppe Eskenazi

Eskenazi in the 1960s

Q: Is it true that you have never been to any antiques fair? Any reason why?

Eskenazi: I have never been to a fair, so I have been known as an ‘un-fair’ man. The top dealers in England, London are very famous. I am not going to mention their names. They are long established. I applied to go to a fair, as a young man and they refused to have me. That hurt me a lot. I found it very upsetting, embarrassing. And then I found out why they didn't want me.

Q: What was the reason?

Eskenazi: They (dealers) would come to me, a month or two before the Grosvenor fair, a big fair at the time, and buy from me. I was small, hidden. They came to me and then put things they bought on their stands in the fair. When I went to the fair, all my pieces were sold with a red sticker put on. And then I realized, I was the supplier to these people, that’s why they didn’t want me to be here as a competitor. The next worst thing is that when people started hearing about me in London, they wanted to visit me. So when collectors started coming for me and asking for objects, I had nothing to show them. By then, they killed me twice by buying from me. The first killing was by not allowing me to go to the fair, and the second one was by taking away from what I could offer. 

Q: How did you deal with it? 

Eskenazi: I started working harder and harder, and I thought, the best thing I could do was to have my own exhibition. In 1972, 12 years after starting my office in London, I started exhibiting objects and cataloguing them as best as I could with the help of scholars. And then the company grew up.

Imperial Alchemy The H.M. Knight Falangcai Bowl, Kangxi Period, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$238m in April 2018

Q: It's good to see your effort paid off as you are now considered a successful antiques dealer. What’s your next plan?

Eskenazi: My plan is to retire, but nobody believes that I want to retire. They want me to stay till I drop dead. I have no plan, except to improve exhibitions, to concentrate on developing areas which are less popular. You look at this wonderful bowl coming up now at Sotheby’s, that Kangxi bowl was considered a modern fake copy when I started, they didn’t believe the seal is a Kangxi red seal. And later when people like Julian Thompson, who had tremendously developed this field, they started reasoning that it was really made under the Emperor Kangxi. Probably they were in the Gugong (Forbidden City) and used by them.

Julian Thompson, Former Chairman of Sotheby's Asia

Very few would expect such a saddening story behind the Godfather of Chinese Antiques’ journey to success. Yet with perseverance and hard work, he has become one of the most respectable dealers in the antique world. However, the art market is hard to predict. How does Eskenazi stay on top? What advice does he have for new collectors?

There has been a 'jade fever' in recent years

Q: The market has its ups and downs. How do you stay on top at all times?

Eskenazi: You think I am always at the top because you don’t know when I was at the bottom. You don’t know when I am losing or making a mistake, like everybody else, I also make mistakes sometimes. These ups and downs had to do with ‘fashion’. I don’t believe there is such a thing as fashion. I think, when prices go up, they attract more people because they feel they can make money. It’s not fashion. It’s people suddenly concentrating on one particular piece, particular period, particular material. They buy and the prices go up at auctions. It makes news and then more people rush into it. And when the price goes higher, more people rush into it. Unfortunately, it becomes a stock market.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Q: What’s your advice to someone who is starting to collect?

My advice would be, first of all, to visit a recommended dealer, a dealer who will help you. He will show you pieces and explain them to you. Go to an auction and have a look at what you like. The next thing is to go to a museum and read as much as you can. To understand under what circumstances was this particular piece made. Then go back to the dealer, go back to the auction, compare it and go back to the museum again. But many people are impatient, they want quick results, quick profits. A lot of people want to know and ask us, ‘If I buy this, is it going to be a good investment? Would the price go up? Will I make a profit?’ And sometimes I get upset and I said, ‘You shouldn’t buy it as an investment to make money. You should buy it to enjoy it. But if you are going to buy it and enjoy it for five to ten years, and it’s going to cost you to resell it at the same price, why don’t you think about the enjoyment you have every year and put some money towards the enjoyment? Then you won’t regret.’

Besides his heartbroken story of being an 'un-fair' man, Eskenazi has also talked to us about his regrets in life and his most desired antiques. Please stay tuned for the next part of our interview with the Godfather of Antiques.