Diary of a dealer: veteran Asian art dealer Robert H. Ellsworth states “provenance is worth one-third of the price”

The market is driven by supply and demand and not by collectors’ taste, says veteran dealer in Asian art

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Oriental art dealer Robert Ellsworth holds a preeminent position among his peers in the trade. This 73-year-old bachelor has sold more and donated more real rarities of Asian art to museums than any other dealer in the US, if not the world. And yet he refers to himself, not as the top dealer in his speciality, but, rather perversely, as "the richest man in the world."

His celebrated collection of Chinese paintings, dating from 1840 to 1980 is going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it will be on view from next year. His calligraphy collection was the subject of a show at the Beijing National Palace Museum in 1996. He says that when he dies, his entire personal collection will go under the hammer in a seven-day long sale: "I want to keep people interested in the field."

Mr Ellsworth’s name is intertwined with virtually every major Asian art collection. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art he gave half of the contents of the Ming furniture for the Brooke Astor galleries; Mrs Astor paid for the rest, which he assembled.

The Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries of South and Southeast Asian arts, which includes prize 12th-century Chola bronzes, also owe a debt to him; the Irvings are longtime clients. And some half of the holdings in the Charlotte and John Weber Galleries of ancient art were put together by Mr Ellsworth.

His most important client was the late John D. Rockefeller III, who left his very good holdings as the basis of the Asia Society. Other clients include Hong Kong trading mogul Sir Joseph Hotung, who sits on the boards of both the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr Ellsworth played a pivotal role in assembling the Hotung collection of antique jades.

He is the author of the three-volume Chinese painting and calligraphy: 1800-1950 and Chinese hardwood furniture: examples of Ming and early C'hing dynasties, along with numerous other publications.

His other impressive credentials include being named the fourth Honorary Chinese Citizen and the first foreign member of the Chinese International Board of Cultural Heritage. In that capacity, he has been instrumental in the restoration of ancient buildings in central China, including the largest private family temple.

Mr Ellsworth lives in a grand, 20-room Fifth Avenue apartment, filled with Ming furniture, celadon porcelain, six-panel screens and calligraphies.

How did this son of a New York dentist and opera singer get to such lofty heights? The Art Newspaper visited him after he returned from appraising the Winthrop collection, valued at more than $500 million, at the Fogg Art Museum. There, he estimates that he was cataloguing the more than 1,000 artifacts at the rate of one a minute.

When and where did you begin to deal in such rarities?

Robert Ellsworth I quit school at 14; I'm the only dealer never to have got through the second year of high school. When I was 17, I sold a collection of snuff bottles to the Montreal Museum (where they are still on show), through an agent because I was underage. I began working for a jeweller at $37.50 a week and strung pearls for petty cash. In the early 1950s, I concentrated on American furnishings including early silver and brass and sold to the Halcyon Foundation of American Museum in Bath. [At that time, Alice Boney, a formidable figure in the Asian art trade, took him under her wing. By 1959, he had opened a shop in midtown Manhattan before setting up a townhouse in 1970 and finally moving to 960 Fifth Avenue in 1977.]

With such vast experience, having dealt with celebrated collectors like Douglas Dillon, how do you see the collecting base for Asian art now?

The great clients, John D. Rockefeller, Norton Simon and Peter Ludwig are gone, so precious few are left. Shelby White and Leon Levy are marvellous. But serious collecting won't die; it goes in waves, although it may be a decade or two before a new group starts to move in at the top. Take 30-year-old Jerry Yang, [the Yahoo internet entrepreneur]; it will take time for him to come along. Chinese art is now at the top—look at the Fogg with its vast holdings.

Compared to a decade ago, how do you see the market shifting?

Of course, there is less truly great material available, but compared to the Winthrop Collection, I have pieces that are ten times better: fourth- and fifth-century jades; early bronzes with the kind of quality you can't buy for any price, and ceramics. But the Winthrop has staggering early material—Neolithic to later Han jades and Ti'en Lung stones. Today it's a question of availability. Some prices have also gone down tremendously. Terracottas are down. A good Tang horse used to cost $40,000-50,000; now the price is $18,000-20,000.

Why? If you look at the 1929 catalogue of the Berlin Museum, there was only one, broken, Han horse head. Now, the market is flooded. Remember both the Tang and Han dynasties stretched over more than four centuries and now considerably more tombs are being excavated. But Song ceramics are slowly coming up. The excavation of the kiln sites has brought the great pieces out. Yet a Northern Wei horse of great sculptural quality has never gone down in price—that period lasted a brief 30 years. So, the market is driven by supply and demand, not the collectors' taste. Another market shift is the presence of contemporary Chinese painting, which is coming into its own now. In this area, people spend $20,000, $50,000, or $100,000 – that's their budget for the year.

Can you speak of your work as an agent for the British Museum? I'm a friend of the British Museum as well as all museums and I never charge carrying a bid for them. I've given the British Museum paintings and calligraphy.

With a furore brewing over the trade in illicit material, to what degree is provenance even more important today?

Provenance is worth one-third of the price of the goods, especially if it is Asian. As to the number of clients who are keenly interested in provenance, it's a lot less than you think. When the client wants to be a donor to a major institution, then provenance is critical simply because you can't give it to the Freer or the British Museum without proper documentation.

A lot of what is in the press is misinformation. For example, the Hong Kong China Morning Press reported that the Chinese Cultural Heritage was opening a special branch to bring back one million pieces around the world. I was entertaining the director, Wang Li Mei, and she said she never heard of that programme.

If the Elgin marbles had not gone to England, they would be dust. In fact, if all the so-called plundered material were returned to its native country, the neglect would destroy 90% of what was returned.

Nineteen years ago, I carried back four early Burmese bronzes from Bangkok. [They had been owned by a private collector and when he died, it was proven that they had been stolen from the Rangoon museum.] Nancy Reagan stepped in and arranged with the State Department for me to return them personally, thereby avoiding any possibility of them getting lost along the way. If I had given them to the Burmese consul, the bronzes would have been back on the market in 60 days. They are now in the Rangoon Palace Museum. It happens all the time with African art, too. It’s returned to Africa but then shortly thereafter the objects in question are back on the Paris market. It’s the balance of interest in art, commitment to art and the donating of art that outweighs all the trash written about smuggling and raiding.

Can you explain your relationship with Japan in terms of the art world and the situation there now?

It goes back to the Goetz sale [Impressionist painting sale at Christie's New York on 14 November 1988, which realised over $85 million]. Edie Goetz, Irene Selznick and Claudette Colbert were friends of mine. Even though it was out of my field, I handled that sale and saw to it that it was the first collection of Western paintings to be taken to Japan prior to the sale. Ever since, the Japanese have never forgotten me. Of the 50 modern Japanese paintings I sold at Christie's [on 10 May 2000 for $7.982,325] on behalf of the Sumitomo Bank, 100% was sold and they made double their high estimates. Even so that was only 40% of what they had cost in the first place.

I've held another group of paintings—Wyeths, which once had been in the Levine collection, as well as Cassatts and Homers—back for eight years and that's why the bank trusts me. The market is right for them now. [The paintings will be auctioned at Sotheby's on 30 November]. More loans are being called up in Japan because the government wants the interest paid now, and they believe that banks should not be art dealers.

Clearly, you are at the top of your speciality. Are you trading differently and how are you changing? Once I meet my overheads, which are $3 million, I stop.

$3 million in overheads and you don't have a gallery?

My dear, you don't know what things cost. Look what it costs to keep all this going: a 13,680 square foot apartment on Fifth Avenue, a Hong Kong apartment, and a car and driver whenever I move around. This will be the first year that I won't be doing the Haughton's Asian Art Fair, although I helped started their October show. I'm too old and I've got 28 pieces of titanium in my back. My godson Andy Hei, whose father, Hung Lu, is the true king of Ming, will be handling the stand.

How do you see the enormous wealth of today affecting the art market compared to a century ago?

Very few understand that from 1890 to 1940, wealthy private collectors made most of the cultural donations. But from 1960 on, you see major gifts of art from the trade: the Eugene Thaw Rembrandt drawings to the Morgan Library; the Klaus Perls Benin bronzes to the Metropolitan and my $23 million Chinese paintings to the Met. Dollar for dollar, artwork for artwork, the trade has contributed more to the heritage of museums recently than any major private collector.

Do you think the Sotheby’s/Christie’s price-fixing scandal will have any impact on the market?

Yes, in a small but important way. People may prefer to go back to doing business with dealers rather than the auction house.

Can dealers play a larger role in the art world?

Absolutely. They should be permitted on museum boards of director so they can tell them about the ways the art world operates. However, they do not belong on the acquisitions committees.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Provenance is worth one-third of the price”

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