“It all started from zero really,” says Giuseppe Eskenazi, the London-based East Asian art specialist, talking about how his father had set up a tiny London branch of his family’s Milan-based gallery in 1960. The plan had been simply to supply his cousin Victor’s “Oriental” art gallery. But after his father’s premature death, Eskenazi took over the fledgling business in his twenties and now — at a spry 83 — is marking his 50th year of shows in London and New York, with a loan of five masterpieces sold to and now borrowed back from a private family collection. (The show coincides with Asian Art in London’s 25th anniversary.)
Although his son Daniel, who joined the business in 1990, now runs it, Giuseppe Eskenazi is still to be found in the grand six-floor gallery off Bond Street from 8.30am to 4.30pm every working day. We meet in the light-filled third-floor library, which houses a fraction of the gallery’s 25,000 reference books. Few dealers will have devoted as much energy to preparing spectacular exhibitions and handsome scholarly catalogues as the smiling, courteous Eskenazi.
London was exceptionally attractive for art dealers back then. It had usurped Paris as the centre of the international art trade, thanks to low or no import, export or sales taxes and minimal bureaucracy. It benefited from outstanding museum study collections of Asian art, perhaps a dozen top dealers in the field and monthly auctions. The cosmopolitan, polyglot Eskenazis were anglophiles too: the family had been granted British citizenship in 1863 in Constantinople, where Giuseppe was born, in return for unspecified services rendered — said within the family to be for espionage.
London’s established dealers were, however, far from welcoming or generous, the exception being Sydney Moss. It suited them to buy works from him to sell at London’s flagship Grosvenor House fair rather than invite him to participate. As Eskenazi put it in his memoir, “When it rained and I needed an umbrella, I wasn’t offered one. When the sun came out, I was offered many.” It is one reason why he is probably the only leading western dealer never to have exhibited at any art fair. More pertinently, fairs, which he recognises would have enabled him to meet more people, do not lend themselves to the Eskenazi way of doing business.
“Japan was a big influence on me,” Eskenazi says by way of explanation. Its culture reveres early Chinese works of art, recognising it as the bedrock 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 to there on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese. You would sit with a dealer, and he would show you one piece and look to see how you were responding to it and wait for your questions. Then he would show you another piece, if he felt you were worthy. This could go on for days. If you bought something, you were a friend forever.”
He wanted this kind of close relationship with clients, to let them sit and handle pieces, to bring out books. You cannot do that standing in a booth. Japanese taste informed his own, too: from neolithic pottery and Shang bronzes of the 12th century BC to early Ming blue and white porcelain of the 15th century, which dominated the market in the 1960s.
What distinguished Eskenazi from his fellow Asian art dealers in London is that he wanted a gallery, not a shop. In 1971, he moved his premises on Piccadilly down to the first floor and into a sleek modern gallery. Where others had shelves stuffed with stock, he showcased a single piece in a display. Encouragement and help came from unlikely quarters. Art dealers Marlborough urged him to stage exhibitions. Peter Wilson, Sotheby’s mercurial chair, lent him a publicist for its inaugural show. It generated the first of many long queues of Japanese people snaking along Piccadilly.
These largely thematic shows, up to 10 years in the assembling, played to current taste but also broke new ground. The 1978 show of early Buddhist sculpture, for instance, was the first staged in the west since 1944. Another speciality was early inlaid bronzes. The company was one of the first to implement pioneering thermoluminescence testing, which determined the age of ceramics and cast bronzes in a market flooded with fakes. Its catalogues may also have been the first in the western art trade to include information in Chinese, thanks to Eskenazi’s wife, Laura.
Eskenazi has weathered numerous storms, not least the oil crisis and property slump of 1973-77. He was bold enough to buy and remodel its current Clifford Street building during the recessionary years of the early 1990s. He has a theory for his firm’s survival: “We are relentless. We don’t give up. If there is something we think is the best and really want, we will buy it, even though it may take some time to sell.” The record auction prices the gallery has paid over the decades — occasionally for the same piece — are legion.
Institutional buyers have always been its core clients: Eskenazi is proud to have sold to more than 80 museums, supplying more than 30 pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, for instance, and almost the entire Chinese collection of Japan’s Miho Museum.
The demand for Chinese art has not diminished over the years, even if the buyers and their tastes have changed. After the Japanese market collapsed in the early 1990s, Hong Kong and Taiwan were ascendant, followed by the US later in the decade. For the past 15 years, mainland Chinese buyers have pushed prices to extraordinary heights, initially for showy, technically complex Qing porcelains. The gallery has continued to adapt, with Daniel introducing ink paintings by contemporary artists, gogottes and Japanese baskets.
It needs to adapt to London’s diminished status too, says Eskenazi: “London is not what is was. There are fewer top dealers and, as a result of Brexit, the auction houses have either closed their Asian art departments or are staging more of their sales in Paris. The power is ebbing away from London but we are working hard to keep it.”
What has he learnt in his seven decades in the business? “In my early days, I could only see the surface of an object. As the years went by — as everyone who deals in art experiences — I could look into it, see how and why it was created.” He adds: “I can also now see rubbish straight away!”
‘50 Years of Exhibitions’ runs to February 3 2023, eskenazi.co.uk. Asian Art in London runs to November 5, asianartinlondon.com