Self-made collector and dealer Robert Chang is legendary in the field of Chinese art, with a reputation for flashy style and dramatic entrances. In this episode of A Life Less Ordinary, meet the man behind the sunglasses and find out the secret to Robert’s eight decades of success. Spoiler: it might be his lucky paddle.
Code name, Paddle 001. Enter Robert Chang, the James Bond of the Chinese art world. Or some might say he’s more of a Dr. No. Others call him the Godfather of Chinese ceramics. His secret weapon? A crystalline, razor sharp eye, honed over 80 years in the gritty antique trade and softened to velvet through the magic lens of his signature shades. At 92 years of age, the indefatigable doyen of the Chinese Art world can still spot an elusive hairline on an exquisite porcelain bowl faster than you can say ‘crack’. Not that he would tell you. And if he does, perhaps you ought to look again... has it just vanished? Robert’s ability to detect a gem of porcelain is legendary, so is his cunning to throw all others off the hot trail.
A visit to his Suzhou lair, called Zhang Yuan, or Chang Garden, will faze even the most jaded. This is an eastern wonderland built to reflect the personality of Asia's most flamboyant art dealer and collector. Handsome as ever, Robert Chang dons a boldly striped jacket as crisp as the fresh bills of cash he keeps on hand. Sunglasses are de rigueur lest you be blinded by the brilliance of the 22-karat gold that glitters throughout the house. The inner walls of his garden are covered with brightly painted frescoes that tell stories of his imaginary life as a Qing dynasty emperor. Most tourists visit Suzhou for its beautiful rock gardens and Robert's garden is indeed accented with large grotesque rocks, but his are covered in gold, silver and lapis. The inside of the house is richly adorned in a hybrid style inspired by the two most sumptuous palaces ever built: Versailles and the Forbidden City. On the walls hang mostly portraits of our dapper host, including one by Chen Yifei depicting Robert, all smiles, posing in front of a painting of lotuses by Zhang Daqian.
Robert Chang’s ability to detect a gem of porcelain is legendary, so is his cunning to throw all others off the hot trail.
Robert Chang’s collection of Chinese ink paintings ranks among the finest in the world and includes masterpieces by the greatest painters of the 20th century: Zhang Daqian, Qi Baishi and Fu Baoshi. His first love though has always been for works of art, on display in vitrines, particularly for the finest Imperial porcelain, cloisonné and jade carvings. He has assembled and occasionally dispersed a few illustrious collections over the last decades and his pieces have set new record prices at auction. The proceeds fuel this all-consuming treasure hunt that continues to take him around the globe every year. Auctioneers in Hong Kong, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Beijing will not wield their gavel until Robert Chang has made his theatrical entrance, center aisle, and has taken his favorite seat at the front row, paddle 001 at the ready. The auctioneer opens the bid on an immaculate white jade vase, the plaything of an erstwhile emperor, and Robert raises his hand, with an immediate counterbid from someone behind him. A frenzied war ensues. Somewhat irritated, Robert pauses, turns around, lowers his shades emphatically, examines head to toe the competitor, small fry he concludes, and shouts out a winning bid vastly in excess of the last. The hammer comes down and the room erupts in applause. Robert makes a dramatic exit down the center aisle, as another trophy enters his pantheon of treasures.
Robert Chang grew up in Shanghai, the son of reputed antique dealers who profited from a booming market in the late 1920s and 1930s. With the chaos of the civil war raging in China in the late 1940s, young Robert, a middle school drop-out with an attitude and movie star looks, packed a suitcase and arrived in Hong Kong with $24 in his pocket, occasionally sleeping on the streets when he could not afford lodgings. His formative years were spent on Hollywood Road, the unforgiving pulsating heart of the trade, where a fatal mistake on an object, from lack of knowledge or lack of sleep, could herald utter ruin. Many of his family’s longstanding clients soon moved to the city and, by the 1960s, Robert Chang ran five antique stores. He had become the golden boy of the Chinese art trade. When Julian Thompson, the late chairman of Sotheby’s, brought groundbreaking auctions to the city in 1973, his first port of call was Robert who supplied hundreds of pieces to his early sales.
Auctioneers in Hong Kong, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Beijing will not wield their gavel until Robert Chang has made his theatrical entrance, center aisle, and has taken his favorite seat at the front row, paddle 001 at the ready.
Today, philanthropy has become an important occupation of his and he has generously donated vast holdings of his collection to the Suzhou Museum. For Robert Chang, ninety is the new fifty and he remains at the top of his game. His notoriously rich baritone laughter echoes as he strolls leisurely around our auction preview, while delighting us with anecdotes of times past, hardly glancing at a fine enamelled porcelain dish here, a Ming blue and white vase there, oh and that little bit of nasty crockery on a low shelf. Not the hint of a flutter on his face betrays that he has just spotted a sleeper.
– Nicolas Chow, International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art