Giuseppe Eskenazi was born in Istanbul and raised in Milan, but London has been his home for nearly 60 years. His namesake gallery, located in Mayfair, is one of the world’s top dealers in Chinese art, and he counts many of the world’s top museums among his clients.
He met with Art + Auction for a conversation recently.
How did your gallery, which opened in London in 1960, come about?
I had some exposure to the family gallery in Milan, a big gallery started in 1923 that sold Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and carpets. I had no intention of going into the business. I thought art belonged to the people; I was very leftwing.
My father came here in about 1958. We are all British by descent, going back three, four, five generations. He didn’t like the way business was done in Italy. Shortly after, he died of a massive heart attack — at the age of 52. It was quite traumatic. There was question of closing the gallery. I thought I’d try and help. My uncle in Milan who was running the business encouraged me. I started working out of an office on Piccadilly with one assistant, and that grew.
What were you selling?
Only Chinese. Looking at objects, the only thing I really liked was Chinese art: pottery, porcelain, sculptures. I liked what was very popular at the time: Tang pottery, horses, camels, and Song ceramics. Then I got very interested in Chinese sculpture and bronzes.
I traveled to the States a lot, and met some of the museum curators and directors, people like Cleveland Museum Director Sherman Lee, who recommended me to their benefactors.
One day in the late 1960s, a woman knocked on the door, out of breath. I showed her a seated pottery lady, glazed. She said “How much is it?” I said “18,000 pounds.” She said she’d like to buy it. It happened to be Mrs. Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller’s wife. I had no idea. I was just a kid. She said, “When you come to New York, ship the piece.”
I went to New York with my pottery lady, which she loved. I wanted a payment. She said, “Can you go and see my husband John D. at Rockefeller Plaza?” I’d never been in a building that high. John D. said, “I believe we owe you 18,000 pounds. What’s the discount?” And I burst into laughter. He said, “What’s so funny?” I said, “Mr. Rockefeller, asking me for a discount? I thought Rockefeller was synonymous with wealth!” He said, “If you give me a discount, I’ll have a little more money to buy something else from you next time.” So I said okay!
Also, just before I opened my gallery in 1972, Peter Wilson, who was the pope of art, took a liking to me. He said, “You need PR” and loaned me a young woman from his office, Sue Bond. It all started like that, and grew very fast.
I was private, I didn’t have a shop. It was unheard of in those days: nearly everybody had a shop.
How could you function without a shop?
By word of mouth. There were very few people who did what I did. The two or three top dealers at the time would come around April or May, and buy things from me. Then I would see them in June in the Grosvenor Fair. All of the pieces had red stickers: they had all been sold.
I’m probably the only dealer anywhere in the world who’s never done a fair.
They didn’t want me. I applied to go to Grosvenor House and was dismissed. It’s simple: I was supplying them with art that they were selling. Instead, I was going to sell that art myself — and they were not going to be able to buy from me. So I was stabbed in the back. That made me even more energetic, wanting to prove that I was going to make it without the fair.
Five or six years later, they were begging me, literally, to join the fair. I said no.
How can you resist art fairs?
I don’t need them. I know it sounds very snobbish. They’re a bazaar, I’m sorry. Some of them have very good art. But I don’t want to undress in public, put all my things on a stand, and have people come in and out and pick things. I’m very private.
So how have you managed to become a successful gallery?
I sell to museums a lot. I’ve sold to 80 or 90 museums. I get on very well with them, by not being arrogant, listening, learning from curators, reading a lot. My Italian wife learned Chinese to the point that she is so fluent, some people think she’s Chinese. My life is my work and the gallery. I don’t have another life. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t go shooting on Sunday, I don’t go fishing on Monday, I don’t play golf.
This is a very difficult market. Many galleries are going out of business.
Sadly, yes. Yesterday a gallerist came here and said he was closing because the rent was so high, he was only working to pay the rent. A great luck for me was buying this building. That was 25 years ago, and the property market had collapsed. I borrowed the money and had a major exhibition that sold out in a week. I paid for the building in two years. It’s a very sad affair that London, which had all this art and all these galleries and shops, is shrinking. It’s terrible. It’s the end of a great industry. There used to be five galleries like us in London, bigger than us. They’ve all gone.
How do you keep open?
We sell to museums. I would say about a third of our clients are museums. When I first started, 90 percent of my clients were dealers, who I supplied. I had no choice. Then I got more and more collectors. The first museum was the British Museum. Then came the V&A, then Cologne, then Cleveland, then the Metropolitan Museum. We had objects of so-called “academic” interest, not necessarily pretty things.
Today the mainland Chinese are probably the biggest force. We’re lucky to have a few very very good, serious clients — not investors.
Why is the market for Chinese art in London, as you describe it, dying?
When Sotheby’s, followed later by Christie’s, started feeding the Hong Kong market, this was the beginning of the end. Something would come through the front door, or the back door, at one of these auction houses. They’d look at it and say, “Oh, we’ll get more money for this in Hong Kong.” So it was sent to Hong Kong continually, to the detriment of London.
Isn’t it logical to go where the buyers are?
They made the buyers there. When they first went there were no buyers. They say there isn’t the same demand in London. I disagree. People will go where the art is. If you had sold that in London, those Chinese would have come here.
What is the most expensive work of art you’ve ever sold?
I haven’t sold it yet. It’s the sculpture of a Buddha downstairs, and the price is $30 million. Among the things that we’ve sold here, we’ve sold a lot of things for around $4 to $6 million.
What’s your view of contemporary Chinese art?
My son Daniel [a partner at the gallery who joined his father in 1993] said we should take contemporary Chinese painting seriously, because artists like Liu Dan are very gifted — and he was right. Those shows we put on here were all very successful. They filled a gap. We found that 80 percent of the buyers were European. We mostly did them at the same time as Frieze. Of all the contemporary Chinese exhibitions, everything was sold.
What do you think of Ai Weiwei?
He came to the gallery, because he likes Daniel very much. He has a fantastic eye and taste. He picked up one of the most valuable Song pieces we had and started looking at it. As a joke I said, ‘Please don’t drop it!’ because in his artworks, he drops these Han vases! But he didn’t get the joke! He’s been here on two or three occasions. A brilliant man.