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The co-founder of Yahoo is showing part of his Chinese calligraphy collection in San Francisco

Interview with collector Jerry Yang

San Francisco. Forty works from the personal collection of important Chinese calligraphy quietly assembled over 15 years by the American entrepreneur Jerry Yang, who co-founded Yahoo, forms the core of an ambitious exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. “Out of Character”, which opened last month, runs until 13 January 2013. The show moves to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.

The exhibition features only around a sixth of what the Taiwan-born businessman has amassed, and includes masterpieces by some of the biggest names in Asian art history. Michael Knight, the senior curator of Chinese art at the Asian Art Museum, says: “Jerry has developed a very good eye. He’s a really dedicated collector and makes a serious study out of it.”

Of his works, Yang says: “I’m very fortunate to have put together what I have… in 15 years; I don’t think I have a great collection yet. I have a long-term view and I think I will be doing this for a while. I hope to improve it.”

The internet pioneer, who turns 44 this month, moved to the US when he was 10, after being introduced to calligraphy as a schoolboy in Taiwan. Although he admits to privately practising Chinese calligraphy from time to time, he says: “I ­wouldn’t say that anything I write is good or viewable by anyone but myself. I do it for fun and as a way to relax, like meditation. It is more as an inner exercise, rather than something I would show off.”

Yang owns pieces by, among others, Dong Qichang, Deng Shiru, Wang Duo, Wen Peng and Zhang Ruitu, masters of what is known as the “golden age of Chinese calligraphy” (predominantly 17th to 18th centuries). He professes a special interest in works from this time, the end of the Ming Dynasty and the start of the Qing Dynasty, when innovations swept through art practice alongside great political and social changes.

Creativity and history draw Yang to classic Chinese art. “Software and programming are about innovation within constraints—we see something similar in calligraphy. But with technology, we innovate at a rapid pace, whereas a lot of the innovation in calligraphy happened over a couple of hundred years,” he says.

Although he bought his first work, a Dong Qichang scroll, at an auction in the late 1990s, the collection only began to feel like a serious endeavour in the early 2000s. That was when the renowned Hong Kong dealer Harold Wong offered him a group of around 60 pieces. “He was generous enough to sell them to me,” Yang says.

He buys as opportunities arise. “Calligraphy is appreciated by the Chinese more than others, so prices tend to be set by this market,” he says. He bought the show’s most famous piece, The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma, a 14th-century handscroll by Zhao Mengfu that was previously in the Chinese Imperial collection, in 2010 from a dealer and thinks prices have gone up dramatically in the past seven years. Many of the transactions in this market are private, but in 2010, a rare Tang Dynasty (618-907) scroll sold at China Guardian auction house for $46m.

Yang calls his collection “Guan Yuan Shan Zhang” or “The Mountain Villa for Gazing Afar”, using Chinese characters derived from part of his name (Yuan) and from that of his wife, Akiko Yamazaki (Shan), who is Japanese. It is also an allusion to the couple’s home in the hills of San Francisco. Together, they also collect new Japanese ceramics, Asian furniture and contemporary Chinese ink painting.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The writing goes on the walls'