Renowned antique dealer and connoisseur James J. Lally announced the closure of his fine Chinese art gallery, J.J. Lally & Co. in New York on March 1. The news definitely came as a shock - especially when we are just a week away from New York’s Asia Week. The decision left the industry wondering if his collection will soon hit the auction block.
“After 35 years, the time has come to close the gallery. I will be forever grateful to the collectors, curators, scholars, colleagues and friends who have supported the gallery and generously given me good advice, encouragement and help over the years. Thank you for your steady friendship and many kindnesses.” Lally wrote in a statement.
James J. Lally (left), a reputable Chinese art dealer
Prior to his own gallery, Lally served as a director of Chinese works of art at Sotheby’s in New York and Hong Kong from 1970, and was named president of Sotheby’s in North America. Since his departure from the auction house, he founded J.J. Lally & Co. in 1986, at 41 East 57th Street in New York - just a few blocks away from the MoMA, to provide advisory services for keen collectors.
Lally’s time spent at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, his hometown, was said to be a catalyst for his love for Chinese art. After joining the auction house, the devoted Chinese antique lover was also among the pioneers in the Western market, to establish standards of detailed cataloging for Chinese works of art.
The early 1970s saw the booming of the Chinese art market; it was also when Lally decided to join Julian Thompson, Sotheby’s director of the Chinese department in London at the time, in setting up the Hong Kong branch, to open up the antiques market in Asia.
Two of J.J. Lally Co. exhibition catalogs
Established in 1986, J.J. Lally & Co. specialized in a vast array of Chinese artworks - from Shang/ Zhou bronzes, Song/ Yuan ceramics, archaic jades, to Sui/ Tang Buddhist sculptures.
Giuseppe Eskenazi, dubbed the “Godfather of Chinese Antiques,” and one of the world’s most esteemed Chinese art dealers, also spoke highly of Lally for his achievements in the industry, alongside William Chak from Hong Kong, and the Marchant family from London.
James Lally (center) at New York Asia Week 2019
Lally played an important role in the curation of the renowned “Ten-Views of Lingbi Rock Retreat” collection, which boasts some of the rarest finds spanning archaic bronzes, ceramics, furniture, and classical Chinese paintings.
Named after the Ming dynasty Ten Views of Lingbi Rock by Wu Bin, which was sold for a record-breaking RMB 512m (US$78.4m) last year, the coveted collection was often vetted by some of the most esteemed names in the Chinese antiques circle - with Lally being one of them.
A number of the Song and Yuan ceramics presented in the collection was acquired directly from J.J. Lally & Co., including the ones below:
A Yuan cunliffe Guanyao celadon glazed stoneware dish, sold for RMB 32,775,000 (US$4,748,000) at Poly Beijing, June 2019
A Yuan to Ming Junyao purple glazed washer, sold for RMB 17,250,000 (US$2,499,000) at Poly Beijing, June 2019
In 2019, the Tianminlou Collection assembled by Ko Shih Chao (1911-1922) and his son See-for Kot was auctioned off at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Hailed by avid antique collectors, the collection was kept out of the public eye for nearly three decades before the sale, which assembled a number of prized Chinese ceramics acquired from Lally’s gallery as well.
A Qing dynasty yellow-ground blue and white “lotus” dish, sold for RMB 897,000 (US$130,000) at China Guardian, March 2019
One of the highlight lots in the forthcoming New York Asia Week - a late Shang bronze ritual wine vessel, was also once in the hands of Lally, poised to bring in US$4,000,000 to 6,000,000.
A late Shang bronze ritual wine vessel. Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
In the midst of the escalating US trade war with China, the former Trump administration, in 2019, introduced a new tariff that applies to art, antiques, and antiquities, upon import to the States. Lally also spoke on behalf of the industry, and protested against the imposition of tariffs.
The ongoing pandemic has in every way disrupted the art and antiques market globally, exposing many sectors to deep financial uncertainty. With travel bans and gathering restrictions in place, major auction houses, mega galleries, and mid-size dealers are all trying to stay afloat.
“Although the gallery is closed, my love for Chinese art remains undiminished, and I plan to stay involved. I hope we will meet again when safe travel and social gatherings are possible. Take care and be well, Jim Lally,” the antique enthusiast noted.