What’s more important in breaking a world record—the mind or the heart? The world renowned antiques appraiser Lark Mason had both.
Mason’s sleuth-like acumen and his heartfelt passion for Chinese art and antiquities catapulted him to international acclaim when he sold an antique chair for more than $1 million, setting a new antique sale world record. He was working at Sotheby’s at the time, where he prospered from 1979 to 2003 as a general appraiser, a specialist in Chinese art, and the director of the online auction business. Mason has evaluated collections for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“I had someone come to me with a Chinese chair, but the design of the chair was a completely Western design,” Mason says of his record-setting prize.
Despite its Western design, Mason recognized that its construction was Chinese, and it was made of zitan, a type of Chinese wood. These paradoxes only spawned more questions—where was the chair made, and why?
“There was one location that was more important than any other location, the Yuanming Yuan,” he says, known as the “Old Summer Palace.”
“[The imperial court] brought in Western advisors, scientists and mathematicians who worked at the court, so they thought it fitting to have some of the furnishings in the Yuanming Yuan that would be Western-designed,” Mason says. The emperors wanted to convey that “they were an international people; they knew more than just what was within the borders of China.”
Mason deduced that this antique chair had been designed by Western cabinet makers, but made by Chinese craftsmen for the Imperial Palace, the Yuanming Yuan, in the mid-18th century.
Mason’s analysis and good fortune led him to what he describes as the most memorable experience during his career—working with the famous Chinese scholar Wang Shixiang.
Meeting with a master
The most influential year of Mason’s storied career was in 1988, just after he sold the Yuanming Yuan chair. Wang Shixiang, a famous traditional Chinese art scholar, had heard about Mason’s achievements, and contacted Sotheby’s to work with him. Wang wanted Mason’s help translating his book, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties, which remains today the preeminent publication on traditional Chinese furniture.
For a year in Beijing, Mason spent every day with Wang. The experience was intellectually stimulating and Mason was able to live within the simple harmony of life, a quintessential Chinese perspective.
The most memorable “was the simplicity of my everyday life,” he says. “Every morning I would wake … I’d eat breakfast, get on my bicycle, and ride to his house. Then I would sit across from him; we would listen to the birds singing, and I would just write.”
“I was experiencing something that was not accessible to most people, to sit across from someone who was a great scholar so attuned and connected to the past. By virtue of me being with him, I had that same sort of connection.”
Mason’s time with Wang Shixiang supported his belief that Chinese antiques, and the rich culture they embody, are very much a living legacy.
Transcending time and place
“Antiques are relevant,” Mason says. “Anyone with a sense of design and materials are drawn to Chinese works of art because a lot of the Chinese works of art transcend culture.”
The reason for Oriental art’s ability to transcend a particular time and place is multi-faceted, beginning with its design and purpose.
“With a lot of Chinese art, the focus was on fulfilling a functional need in the most efficient way possible while also communicating beauty,” Mason says. “They were using as few materials as possible to make the form that needed to be created.”
Ming dynasty chairs, for example, perfectly harmonize aesthetics with function, and are as relevant and understandable today as they were centuries ago. “Those could go into a contemporary gallery,” he says. “In their very essence, [they] are linear forms. The lines are so strong. You’ll see the wood framework that is holding this chair together that’s an engineering feat. It’s designed to be sturdy, to perform a function as a chair.”
The Chinese chair woodworker married beauty and engineering, being conscientious of proportion, making an ergonomic work of art, healthy for the sitter. For example, the artisan properly aligned the back panel, called the splat, at the centre of a sitter’s back, with armrests that slope downwards, mirroring the human form.
“That’s how our body works,” Mason says.
The chosen materials also have a deeper purpose, unique to Asian philosophy.
“The Chinese people are interested in the natural world that surrounds them,” he says. Asian craftsmen weren’t chasing trends of the day but instead were expressing universal, timeless truths within their artisanship. “There was a deeper connection to nature in many ways, in the essence of the forms that would transcend those immediate kinds of societal influences and changes that were taking place.”
Chosen materials, such as stone, lacquer, wood, or paper, would tie the observer to the natural world.
“I love the variety of styles [and] the variety of materials,” Mason says. “They’re communicating visually and tactilely. We touch them. They have different feels, and that’s part of the human experience.”
The Chinese craftsmen would even make innovations in engineering to give the functional work greater symbolism. For example, they would craft Ming style chairs that resemble bamboo. They would cut longer-lasting, durable hardwood into smaller pieces, join it in five sections, which makes it appear and feel more pliable.
“It’s to give an illusion that it’s bent,” he says. “[Bamboo] is so close to nature. It’s something that we live with, and it has all kinds of meanings within Chinese mythology in stories, representing different ideas of resiliency in the face of strong winds; they can withstand pressure.”
That deeper starting point is common throughout all traditional Chinese artisanship. A sculptor carves jade, for instance, and depicts “a miniature mountain of big boulders and a rocky cliffside with trees,” Mason says. “It’s trying to engage our imaginations and help us look beyond what is obvious and in front of us.”
Mason imagines a world where more people know about the sacred Chinese culture, filled with beauty and meaning. “I’m passionate about China, Chinese art and culture. This is a way for me to help bring attention to this culture I love to a bigger audience of people,” he says. “I love to make these beautiful art forms and this very vibrant, interesting culture accessible to people who don’t know about it.”