An Art Dealer Forges His Path with Priceless Objects from Ancient China
Interview with British-Iranian entrepreneur Nader Rasti
“The Song Dynasty (960-1279) was one of the most influential periods in Chinese history. It produced some of the highest forms of Chinese art.”
Nader Rasti was born in the UK into a British-Iranian art collector family. When other kids were out playing sports, he was exploring ancient sculptures and art with his parents.
Later on, Rasti began working at Christie’s London, the renowned fine art auction house, where he eventually became Director of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department.
Now he runs Rasti Fine Art, a company that curates precious Chinese jade, hardstone carvings, and sculpture. Rasti recently presented a highly acclaimed collection of fine frescoes spanning the Song to Ming dynasties. For this issue, we had the chance to sit down with him to hear the stories behind the rare pieces in his collections.
How do you decide what type of collection you want to curate?
When I put exhibitions together, I don’t particularly go with the market or what’s popular. I try to highlight works that haven’t been appreciated enough.
For example, it took me about seven years to collect the frescoes and stucco pieces for my 2019 exhibition Arcane Realms – Buddhist and Daoist Art Collection. There are no other pieces like them because they’re unique to that time period. They’re a fantastic buy for collectors, especially since there’s a very limited number of them and they’re also remarkably well-preserved. Many frescoes from this period retain their colour because they were originally in temples, far from sunlight.
Do you have a favourite piece from this exhibition?
There’s a white marble head of a luohan (an enlightened being in Buddhist tradition). About 18 years ago, I sold it to a famous collector who is also a friend of mine. I pestered him to sell it back to me, but he refused.
A couple of years ago, we had lunch together. After a few glasses of wine, he said, “Okay, how about I sell it back to you?” Before he even told me how much he wanted, I said, “I’ll buy it.”
It’s one of my favourite pieces. It’s an incredibly good sculpture from the Song Dynasty. A lot of these pieces from that period were modelled on real people, so they have this presence that no other sculpture from any other period has. You feel as though someone is in the room with you.
There’s also another luohan head made of dry lacquer in the same catalogue. It’s even more real. There are no sculptures from any other period representing that lifelike quality as much as those from the Song dynasty. They’re special and hard to find.
The Song Dynasty (960–1279) was one of the most influential periods in Chinese history. It produced some of the highest forms of Chinese art, including many literati paintings.
Song ceramics, for example, are simple but beautiful. In fact, the simpler an object, the more difficult it is to execute. That’s because if you make a mistake, it’s more evident to the eye.
Any other special pieces that stand out from your collections?
There’s one Song Dynasty jade figure of a blindfolded boy. It’s made from black and white stone, and the artisan cleverly used the black portion to act as a blindfold covering the boy’s eyes.
I was at an auction in Japan a number of years ago and noticed this piece. But I had to get on a flight the next day, so I asked a friend to bid for me at the sale. The estimate was about $100 or $150. I gave him $22,000 just to make sure that I got it.
Somebody else recognized it, outbid me, and bought it. About eight months later, I opened up the Christie’s Hong Kong catalogue and there it was. The buyer had consigned it to the Christie’s auction for sale.
I was determined to have it even though it was going to cost much more than when I first saw it. In the end, I got it for $80,000.
Sometimes you regret leaving something, and then you go back and pay more for it. I usually think, “Well, it’s my own mistake. I have to pay for my own mistake.” It happened several times, actually. Sometimes, if you’re in a bad mood, you look at things differently. Your mood does make a difference.
Does the opposite happen and you find a bargain?
A jade animal catalogued as belonging to the 16th–17th centuries turned up at one of the major auction houses. I immediately recognized that it should be dated much earlier, to the 10th century. The carving was of a mythical beast, an unusual cross between a dog and a pig.
I was afraid that one or two other people would have noticed it, but they didn’t. I bought it at a very reasonable price and subsequently sold it to a top collector.
Jade art is less known to Westerners. Why does it grab your attention?
As a collector, you have to have a certain feeling for Chinese jade art. It’s not an easy area of study, because the artists repeated the same subjects and carvings over and over again, sometimes to deceive, sometimes as a mark of respect. It’s a particularly difficult area of study. You have to be a specialist, and it takes years to understand it.
In order to evaluate a piece of jade, you look at the type and colour of the stone (jade changes colour through time), its polish, and the style of the carving. All these characteristics have to come together for you to determine its age and quality.
What draws you to Chinese culture?
It’s something that came naturally to me. Initially, I was interested in Japanese and Chinese art, but now I focus mainly on Chinese art.
As someone of Iranian background, I found that the Chinese and Iranians sometimes copied each other’s designs. This was due to the influence of the Silk Road. For example, when you look at a 13th century Persian glazed pottery tile, you see Chinese dragons and phoenixes. Then when you look at 14th century blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, you’ll discover that the cobalt blue came from Iran.
In the earlier periods of Buddhist art in China, you can see the influence of Indian sculpture, since Buddha was from India. Over a long period of time, Buddhist art started to have a real effect on Chinese culture by helping to spread Buddhism.
How do you relate to Chinese philosophy?
My wife is Chinese, and she asks a Feng Shui master to come and arrange our living space at the start of every new year, even giving advice on where we should hang certain paintings.
At first, I was amused by this practice, but I can see that it balances my life. I seem to follow it naturally these days.