Mason, the senior vice president for Chinese art at Sotheby’s from 1985 to 2003, is a specialist in Chinese furniture, and while he’s in town, he will speak on “An Insider’s View of Classical Chinese Furniture” at 7 p.m. Friday in the Chinese Furniture Gallery (202) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Call 816-751-1278 to reserve tickets.
Tell me about what you’ll be doing with “Antiques Roadshow” in Kansas City.
I am one of the appraisers to appear on air with a large number of other specialists. My area of expertise is Chinese art. We’ll be at the convention center, and we’ll have a lot of people coming to see us, including supporters of PBS and members of the general public bringing objects. They were selected by lottery through WGBH in Boston.
And you’ll also be speaking at the Nelson?
My top area is Chinese furniture. The Nelson has one of the finest collections in the world. Colin Mackenzie, the museum’s curator of Chinese art, is a good friend, and he’s invited me to do a gallery walk to look at the Chinese furniture collection.
Laurence Sickman, who put together the Nelson’s Chinese collection, was a good friend of my mentor, Wang Shixiang. I translated his book, “Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture,” in Beijing. So I also have a wonderful connection to the Nelson because of his direct association with Sickman. Wang helped him choose things for the collection.
And it’s turned out to be one of the Nelson’s greatest assets.
It’s fantastic because of the passion of Laurence Sickman and the support of the board, which gave him free rein to be in China and make selections of things that, at the time, were considered minor works of art. But the result of that freedom and farsightedness is that the Nelson has one of the finest collections, not just in the U.S., but in the world.
It all comes down to the enthusiasm of a particular person pushing his vision and a confluence of opportunity, knowledge and the willingness to commit the resources at a time when there weren’t a lot of resources.
What are some of your favorite objects in the Nelson’s collection?
One is an alcove bed, which is very famous. The form itself is unusual. It’s a bed with an entry area at the forefront, almost a bed within a small self-contained room. It was made for a wealthy person, with a personal assistant or servants who would help him get dressed. If you use your imagination, you can see the curtains that would have enclosed the sleeping chamber part of the bed, and the outer area where the servant would wait to be received. It’s quite marvelous.
The construction and design of it is absolutely fantastic. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of furniture joinery. All these different types of furniture joinery arranged in a repeating pattern have to be put together in a specific order, otherwise it doesn’t work.
What other pieces will you highlight?
There are a pair of cabinets — what we call “sloping style cupboards” — that are made of huanghuali, a particular kind of Asian rosewood. It’s a beautiful wood of the highest quality used during the Ming and Qing dynasties. What’s extraordinary about these cabinets is the simplicity of the design and the use of the beautifully dramatic grain of the wood as part of the design.
The cabinetmaker purposely chose specific cuts of wood to enhance the overall form, mixing man’s creativity with nature. That’s what Chinese cabinetmakers excelled at.
Can you cite a couple of memorable finds from your gig on “Antiques Roadshow”?
One of the most amazing occurred in Albuquerque about 10 years ago. Albuquerque was not one of those places I expected to see a lot of Chinese art or Asian art in general, but in the middle part of the day, a lady came in with a large group of towels wrapped around an object. She brought it in on a little wagon and wheeled it up to my table. I looked and it was an eighth-century carved marble lion made during the Tang dynasty.
It was such a shock to see something that would have been perfectly at home at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, sitting in a Western Flyer wagon wrapped in beach towels. She had inherited it from her family and had been using it as a doorstop.
I don’t remember exactly what I valued it at — around $300,000. It was the most valuable item we saw that day.
So that kind of find is fairly unusual?
None of us knows what’s going to be coming in the door. A tremendous number of people, who receive tickets by lottery, come in and try to find out something about an object they’ve had.
A fairly common occurrence is when someone’s parents pass away and leave an object to a child and the child wonders, “Why did my parents leave this to me? What is important about this object?” By figuring out where it was made, why it was made, where it was sold, we can often come up with an answer. That answer may be: “It was made in 1915 and was probably a wedding gift, and they wanted to be sure you had it.”
It often has nothing to do with the monetary value. It’s more about the emotional content invested in the object. A lot of what all of us (at “Antiques Roadshow”) do falls into that category. I guess you could say we’re therapists.
I have a copy of a list you put out of “Top 10 Collecting Trends for Summer 2013.” One of the things you point out is how the values placed on objects change with the generations.
I think we’ve had a very significant generational shift in the last hundred years. A century ago, one of the important goals was to have an enormous house filled with objects from a variety of cultures that would be evidence of one’s sophistication and worldliness. In the past it was very overt. The furniture was deeply carved and dark and clearly tied to an early period of time in England or France, or even the U.S.
Today that kind of overt connection is not necessary. The younger generation is looking for objects that show a sense of design that reflects the period of time in which we live and an international design sense, that emphasizes comfort and subtly messages sophistication.
Tell me about iGavel Auctions.
It’s an auction platform used by independent auction companies with guarantees for authenticity and condition. It’s a vetted marketplace. I’m the owner, and we have a team of people that oversees it, and I have representatives all over the U.S. who work through our company, including some individuals in Kansas City.
It’s a great source for art and antiques and design. We have a sale on iGavel daily; I also have a company, Lark/Mason Associates, and offer online auctions of Asian art twice yearly in October and April. My company is on iGavel with other companies.