Diary of a New York dealer: Carlton Rochell

Contemporary art collectors are coming to Southeast Asian art. Hollywood’s fascination with Buddhism is also a trigger


New York

Carlton Rochell concentrates on sculpture and painting from India, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, making him a distinct rarity in the US. In fact his gallery, founded six month ago, is the only one devoted to the field. He runs it with Jeanne de Guardiola Callanan, who spent five years working with him at Sotheby’s. The gallery is located in New York’s Fuller building at Madison Avenue and 57th Street.

Mr Rochell trained at NYU, and spent the first 18 years of his career at Sotheby’s, where he founded the Indian and Southeast Asia department in 1988. In 1998, he was named managing director of China and Southeast Asia and head of Asian departments worldwide.

His current exhibition “Faces of Tibet: the Wesley and Carolyn Halpert Collection”, contains some 70 examples from one of the largest private collections of Tibetan art to come on the market in decades. Its opening night on 24 March will coincide with that of dealers James Lally and Gisèle Croës, both also in the Fuller buildings, as well as Giuseppe Eskenazi across the street (see What’s on, p.5).

The Art Newspaper: Are there any collections similar to the Halperts’?

Carlton Rochell: It stands alone in its focus on quality. I sold the Halperts a couple of pieces at my first sale at Sotheby’s in 1985, but they started collecting in the 60s.

TAN: Can you describe this rapidly changing market?

CR: For a while, Indian art was bringing in higher amounts than Chinese and Japanese, because Indian and Himalayan art is not dependent on nationally based collectors buying their heritage back. When the Korean economy dipped, that market declined just as Japan’s did when it went into the economic doldrums, and their own collectors stepped to the sidelines. Yet Tang horses and other pottery figures are heavily dependent on the West.

TAN: What attracts people to this once little known field?

CR: Today, people who favour contemporary art are drawn to Asian sculpture for its aesthetically pleasing, sensual, tactile and dramatic qualities as well as the spiritual nature of the material. There are great buying opportunities. Consider a Gandhara head, which costs $25/45,000; a comparable Etruscan piece would be three to four times more expensive.

TAN: What is the profile of the collecting base?

CR: It’s roughly half American and half European with perhaps slightly more Americans. They are sophisticated professionals many of whom travel in Asia. Perhaps 10% come out of contemporary art. Three to five collectors are spending $1 million a year but some have had their fill and no longer buy at the same rate. Now more people who are collecting eclectically are willing to buy important pieces. There is a collector in Palm Beach with fine Cambodian sculpture, German Expressionist painting and turn of the century European furniture. At the $100/250,000 level, there are 20-40 people. While most are based in California and New York, there are individuals in Chicago, Texas and Florida. I would say it breaks down into 80% generalists, 10% eclectic and the rest focused, with some only dipping into Indian miniatures. The Old Guard is scholarly and some have begun writing articles.

TAN: Can you describe the growing museum interest in this market?

CR: In 1994, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the Irving Gallery and that validated the field.

Other museums with important collections include the Norton Simon and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Guimet Museum in Paris has undergone a vast renovation and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will re-open this month (see p.14). The Rubin Museum of Art dedicated to Himalayan art opens here in New York in 2004.

TAN: To what degree has the spread of Buddhism played a part in the growing collecting base?

CR: There is a Hollywood fascination with Buddhism. For example, Tibet House is holding a concert with David Bowie, Uma Thurman and Philip Glass. Their fascination is with the spiritual aspects. Other factors are the enormous interest in travelling to Tibet, Vietnam and India.

TAN: How much is left in Tibet, if anything?

CR: As much as 90% was torched or dynamited.

TAN: With your gallery really in its infancy and your speciality still considered a niche area in this country, what are the greatest challenges facing you now?

CR: Keeping collectors excited is paramount. If I am nurturing a new collector in Boston, there’s only one other person there for him to share information with. I have to try harder to make them feel in the swim. It’s not like having 100 contemporary collectors in a single square mile.

TAN: Aside from London’s Rossi and Rossi and Johnny Eskenazi, and private dealers Doris and Nancy Wiener in New York, you have little competition. How much of the market have you cornered vis-à-vis the auction houses?

CR: I have collaborated with Rossi and Rossi but overall, it's too soon to tell.