Interview with Master of Sen Shu Tey in Tokyo, Antique Store Under the Stairs

Ginza, a commercial district situated in the heart of Tokyo, is commonly known for its hustle and bustle. Somewhere in the area, away from all the raucousness and clamour, there is a small antique store built under a stair.

On a drizzling evening, the Value team paid a visit to the master of the antique store "Sen Shu Tey". Once we stepped in the store, we noticed the low ceiling of the store — in fact a stair — above our head. While we were still amazed by the beautiful works of art placed in this confined space, Oshima Chiaki, the master of the store, greeted us with a friendly smile. She showed us around the store and spoke to us about her passion in Chinese works of art.

Oshima Chiaki, the master of Sen Shu Tey

Q: How did you become an art dealer?

Oshima: I have been working for over 40 years. After I graduated from university, I worked for a gallery. The antique department of the gallery was later turned into a antique shop, where I started learning Chinese works of art.

Inside Sen Shu Tey

Oshima: I met a good mentor, Mr. Hirota there. He was the founder of a ceramics authentication store, which is the biggest one in Japan. He taught me how to authenticate ceramics of Qing dynasty and Song dynasty.

Ginza district

Q: Why did you set up your store in Ginza?

Oshima: There are many galleries in Ginza but not many stores selling Chinese works of art. So I decided to set the location in Ginza.

The exterior of Sen Su Tey

Q: Have you thought of moving to a larger space?

Oshima: Every day. I have always wanted a place where I can hang paintings on wall. But I am still here, in this shop.

Though Sen Su Tey is a tiny antique store, it houses some museum-grade works of art that the store takes pride in. With Oshima's endeavour and discerning eyes, she has earned considerable reputation in the art dealing industry which is mostly dominated by males. She talked to us about some challenges she encountered being a female art dealer in the collecting world.

Q: Have you faced any difficulty working in an industry mostly dominated by men?

Oshima: My ability has never been questioned simply because I am female. But I have faced prejudice against women sometimes. For example, in the past, I was warned by prominent art dealers not to touch their antique pieces even though I had done nothing wrong.

Q: What does being an art dealer mean to you?

Oshima: An art dealer should be able to tell the dynasties and periods that works of art are made in. It is the prerequisite for any art dealers to distinguish whether works were made in Han dynasty, Song dynasty or Qianlong period of Qing dynasty. Furthermore, one has to know how to appreciate the beauty and rarity of different antiques. At the same time, it is important to have our own judgment.

Q: What's your advice to novice art collector?

Oshima: For collectors, of course one should look for beautiful artworks. But it is more important to choose a reliable antique dealer. That's the advice given by my mentor and I have been bearing this in mind.

In September 2016, an 'oil-spot' tenmoku jian tea bowl was sold for a whopping US$11.7m, setting the world's auction record for any jian ware. The rare ware was consigned by Oshima Chiaki, on behalf of her client Linyushanren. She shared with us the story behind the record-breaking tea bowl.

An 'oil-spot' tenmoku tea bowl, Southern Song dynasty

Q: Can you tell us about your ‘oil-spot’ tenmoku Jian tea bowl?

Oshima: The ‘oil spot’ tenmoku that auctioned a while ago is probably the only ‘oil spot’ tenmoku piece on the market. It’s a coveted piece that worth buying. It has been handed down in Japan for a few centuries. It has clear and illustrious provenance. It has been kept inside Japan all these years. It is definitely a unique piece of ‘oil spot’ tenmoku.

Q: What makes it so unique?

Oshima: There are not many extant ‘oil spot’ pieces, approximately five in Japan. The most iconic examples have to be the one in Osaka Art Museum and the ‘oil spot’ piece that I handled. The ‘oil spot’ of the museum one is in silver colour while mine is in gold colour.

We could see Oshima's passion in art by the way she introduced pieces from her collection. Have she thought of what her life would be if she were not an art dealer?

Q: Have you ever thought of how your life would be if you weren't art dealer?

Oshima: When I graduated from university, it seemed being an art dealer was my only choice.  

Q: Have you thought of taking retirement?

Oshima: I have not thought of it. Maybe I should start thinking about it. But there are many young customers who are not familiar with Chinese works of art. I feel like there are so many things I have to do before taking retirement.

Ms. Oshima has been working in the industry for more than 40 years. In addition to the recording-setting 'oil-spot' tea bowl, she has also handled many other rare wares, including an extraordinary black-glazed bowl of Northern Song dynasty, also from the collection of Linyusharen. It will go under the hammer at Christie's New York this coming spring auction. Please stay tuned for our next interview with Ms. Oshima as she introduces this great piece of art.