Playthings From The Collection of Edward T. Chow - Lot 1 - 133

                                                             10AM, 27 May 2014 | Hong Kong


Edward T. Chow is today an almost legendary figure, the dominant Chinese collector-dealer of the post-war years. He inspired enormous affection and a certain amount of awe. A great many stories are told about him – many probably apocryphal – but they describe a strong minded individualist who did not care a fig for the modern world and lived wrapped up in his Chinese works of art where he found perfection and joy. He had seven children (whom he adored and apparently named alphabetically for ease of memory). Each evening they would be marshalled to put his porcelain “babies” to bed. Chow placed immense importance on presentation and having the right boxes and stands. The children would be put in a line, one with a chamois cloth, another with a brush, another to gently tap the piece against the window to remove any further dirt, and so on. It was a ritual and Edward Chow with his old world manners gave such moments the seriousness they deserved.

Edward Chow was born in Yangzhou and sent at the age of 13 to Shanghai to study Chinese art with the dealer Zhu Heting. He wrote an unpublished memoir about his early years, which gives the impression of a poor diligent boy with a difficult father who was befriended and taught by a series of benign mentors. The greatest of these was a Danish Jew in Shanghai “my dearest friend Mr Jacob Emil Melchior”, a porcelain collector and “the kindest hearted man I ever knew”. Melchior worked for Shanghai’s International Maritime Customs Service but lived for his collection. He kept Yingqing in the bedroom, Song in the sitting room and Han on the stairs and he introduced the young Chow to the beauties of the earlier periods. Above all he made him realise that collecting is more important than dealing. From then on Chow always kept more than he sold.

From Shanghai the young Chow established trading relationships with all the great collectors around the world including King Gustav of Sweden and Barbara Hutton. Around 1930, three important connoisseurs of Chinese art came from England to arrange an exhibition of the Imperial collection in London: R.L. Hobson of the British Museum, George Eumorfopoulos, and the greatest of all English collectors of Chinese art, Sir Percival David. Chow met them when they stopped off in Shanghai and it was the beginning of an important friendship. David came back in 1941 just after the war had broken out and visited the growing Chow collection. The two men became so absorbed in their study that they forgot about the curfew and so they sat up all night talking.

In 1946 Chow staged the first exhibition of his collection in Shanghai under the title The Hall for Disciplined Learning, and significantly it was mostly Ming porcelain. Song ceramics which held the great pre-war collectors like Percival David in thrall was already becoming much harder to find, and E.T.Chow belonged to the first generation that put Ming porcelain at the centre of their operations. This was the taste that was picked up by the American collectors, the exception being Barbara Hutton to whom Chow sold a readymade collection of Qing. The year after the exhibition, 1947, the communists took over the city and Chow took refuge in Hong Kong. It made him politically nervous for the rest of his life. 


The exiles from Shanghai who arrived in Hong Kong in 1949 were vastly to stimulate the cultural and business life of the British colony. They bought a level of sophistication which transformed the city and eventually led to the setting up of international auction sales there in 1973 which in turn led to the auction mania that swept through Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s. The great French dealer, connoisseur, and historian, Michel Beurdeley, recalled first meeting Edward Chow in 1954 in Hong Kong. Chow lived in a beautiful house in Happy Valley overlooking the racecourse. After green tea came the quasi-religious ceremony of bringing out the pieces. Like great connoisseurs from the remote past, Chow divided his collection into two: one reserved for collectors worthy of the name, the other for the simply curious.

Beurdeley, certainly in the first category, was shown one of his most prized treasures, a Chenghua “chicken cup”. Chow actually owned four of these small wine cups over the years. There are only 17 known in the world, of which 12 are in Taiwan. Was the subject chosen by the Emperor himself? Nobody is quite sure but by the time of the Emperor Wanli they were already the most sought after jewels of Chinese porcelain. The reason for their fame is the brightly enamelled colours known as doucai which combine underglaze and overglaze colours in organic brilliance. Chow sold two of them to an English collector during his lifetime – Mrs Leopold Dreyfus of Baker Street, whom he dubbed “Mrs Chicken Cups”. One of these was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 8th April 2014 for HK$281m, the world record price for Chinese porcelain.

With rioting in Hong Kong in 1967, Edward Chow decided that Switzerland was the only safe place in the world and in the following year he moved his family there to a house with an idyllic garden and a view of Mont Blanc. The dealing continued and he became the main adviser to the great Japanese collector, Eiichi Ataka. In his memoirs Chow describes how the collector and his wife greeted him in the noblest fashion of the Japanese code, kneeling down on his tatami. It was in Switzerland that Julian Thompson, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and the most hallowed European specialist in Chinese porcelain, came to know Edward Chow. Julian told me how he was taken to see “the holy of holies in the bank, and the Ming pieces struck me as being of prodigious”.

When Edward Chow died he entrusted his collection to be handled by Thompson and Beurdeley. The sales that followed were by any standards a landmark. Parts I and III, Ming and Qing were held in Hong Kong while part II, pre-Ming and bronzes went to London. There were many sensations. Everybody wanted the guan and geyao flower shaped brushwashers with speckled glazes, which became the subject of a series of epic saleroom battles between Au Bak Ling and T.Y. Chao. Au also carried off one of the chicken cups but T.Y. Chao bought the astonishing early 15th-century rather Islamic shaped blue and white Moon Flask which is the only known example with dragons. “Collecting depends on what comes along”, Mr Au once told me but in that sale he proved that in the field of Chinese porcelain where rarity is everything, it depends as much on courage and persistence.

In the winter of 1988, some years after Edward Chow’s death, his family put on an exhibition in Geneva entitled Treasures from the Lakeside Pavilion which demonstrated the full range of what he collected. Over his lifetime Chow recorded every piece he owned and they numbered from 1 to over 8,000. Occasionally he would add in a comment such as “the skin of the jade is as soft and rich as mutton fat”. Edward Chow was an unforgettable figure to all those who met him and the leading dealer-collector of his generation. He once said “I have the best job in the world. I work and live amongst beautiful things. I have no boss and I have only myself to account to.”