Giuseppe Eskenazi on Five Decades of Selling East Asian Art
“It all really started from scratch,” says Giuseppe Eskenazi, the London-based East Asian art specialist, recounting how his father set up a small London branch of the family’s Milan gallery in 1960. The plan was simply to stock his cousin Victor’s “oriental” art gallery. But after his father’s untimely death, Eskenazi took over the fledgling business in his twenties and now – aged 83 – marks his 50th year of performing in London and New York, with a loan of five masterpieces sold and now borrowed from a private family collection. (The show coincides with Asian Art’s 25th anniversary in London.)
Although his son Daniel, who joined the business in 1990, now runs it, Giuseppe Eskenazi is still in the grand six-storey gallery on Bond Street from 8.30am to 4.30pm every working day. We meet in the bright library on the third floor, which houses a fraction of the gallery’s 25,000 reference books. Few dealers have devoted as much energy to the preparation of spectacular exhibitions and beautiful scholarly catalogs as the smiling and courteous Eskenazi.
London was then exceptionally attractive to art dealers. He had usurped Paris as a center of the international art trade, thanks to low or no import, export or sales taxes and minimal bureaucracy. It has benefited from outstanding museum study collections of Asian art, perhaps a dozen major dealers in the field, and monthly auctions. The cosmopolitan and polyglot Eskenazim were also Anglophiles: the family had obtained British citizenship in 1863 in Constantinople, where Giuseppe was born, in return for unspecified services rendered – said within the family for espionage.
London’s established dealers were far from welcoming or generous, however, with the exception of Sydney Moss. It suited them to buy works from him to sell at London’s flagship fair, Grosvenor House, rather than inviting him to participate. As Eskenazi said in her memoir, “When it was raining and I needed an umbrella, I wasn’t offered one. When the sun came out, I was offered a lot. This is one of the reasons why he is probably the only major Western dealer to have never exhibited at any art fair. Specifically, fairs, which he says would have allowed him to meet more people, do not lend themselves to the Eskenazi way of doing business.
“Japan had a big influence on me,” Eskenazi explains by way of explanation. Its culture reveres early Chinese artwork, acknowledging them as the foundation of its own, and takes a different approach to engaging with objects (and their sales). “In the early 1960s, I had the courage to go there on my own, without speaking a word of Japanese. You would sit down with a dealer, and he would show you a room and watch to see how you answered it and wait for your questions. Then he would show you another room, if he thought you were worth it. It could last for days. If you bought something, you were a friend forever.
He wanted that kind of close relationship with customers, letting them sit down and handle parts, pull out books. You can’t do this standing in a cubicle. Japanese taste also influenced his own: from Neolithic pottery and Shang bronzes from the 12th century BC to early Ming blue and white porcelain from the 15th century, which dominated the market in the 1960s.
What set Eskenazi apart from his fellow Asian art dealers in London was that he wanted a gallery, not a shop. In 1971 it moved its premises on Piccadilly to the first floor and into a modern and elegant gallery. Where others had shelves full of stock, he showcased a single piece in a display case. Encouragement and help came from unlikely quarters. Marlborough art dealers encouraged him to organize exhibitions. Peter Wilson, the mercurial president of Sotheby’s, lent him a publicist for his inaugural show. It generated the first of many long queues of Japanese people snaking along Piccadilly.
These broadly thematic shows, up to 10 years in the making, played up to date but also innovated. The 1978 exhibition of early Buddhist sculptures, for example, was the first to be held in the West since 1944. Another specialty was early inlaid bronzes. The company was one of the first to implement pioneering thermoluminescence tests, which determined the age of ceramics and cast bronzes in a market awash with counterfeits. His catalogs may also have been the first in the Western art trade to include information in Chinese, thanks to Eskenazi’s wife Laura.
Eskenazi weathered many storms, including the oil crisis and the real estate crisis of 1973-77. He had the audacity to buy and remodel his current building on Clifford Street during the recession years of the early 1990s. He has a theory for the survival of his business: “We are relentless. We don’t give up. If there’s something we think is the best and really want, we’ll buy it, even though it may take a while to sell. The record auction prices the gallery has paid over the decades – sometimes for the same piece – are legion.
Institutional buyers have always been its main customers: Eskenazi is proud to have sold to more than 80 museums, supplying more than 30 pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, and almost the entire Chinese collection of the Miho Museum to the Japan.
The demand for Chinese art has not diminished over the years, even though the buyers and their tastes have changed. After the collapse of the Japanese market in the early 1990s, Hong Kong and Taiwan gained ascendancy, followed by the United States later in the decade. Over the past 15 years, buyers from mainland China have pushed prices to extraordinary heights, initially for the showy and technically complex Qing porcelains. The gallery has continued to adapt, with Daniel introducing ink paintings by contemporary artists, gogottes and Japanese baskets.
It also has to come to terms with London’s devalued status, says Eskenazi: “London isn’t what it used to be. There are fewer major dealers and as a result of Brexit auction houses have either closed their Asian art departments or held more of their sales in Paris. The power is moving away from London but we are working hard to keep it.
What has he learned in his seven decades in the business? “When I started, I could only see the surface of an object. Over the years – like anyone dealing with artistic experiences – I have been able to examine it, see how and why it was created. He adds: “I can also now see the waste right away!”
’50 years of exhibitions’ runs until February 3, 2023, eskenazi.fr. Asian Art in London runs until November 5 asianartinlondon.com