"Don't buy anything in Hong Kong," warns Maurice Jonas, a volunteer tasked with ferrying eager members of the Asian Art Museum to and from their 20-minute appointments. "They all do, and it's always junk."
And so begins the museum's own version of Antiques Roadshow, called Contributor's Consultation Day, on a recent, dreary, wet Friday. Much like the popular television show that seems to exist in every country, hopeful amateur collectors present their purported treasures to experts -- in this case, the museum's curatorial staff -- who offers them information on probable origin, date and attribution.
In addition to information, the curators also dole out -- in the most sympathetic way they possibly can -- a whole lot of heartbreak. Without fail, every member offered up an item that had garnered an entire mythology, often cultivated by external players. In some cases, the item was a gift and the giver had implied, virtuously or not, that it was of great worth.
Joanne Meredith had long regarded the vase as valuable "because of who gave it [to me]," and, amidst her efforts to downsize, thought it might be worth reselling. While the vase is quite beautiful, Meredith learns it is also quite common.
Dr. Hiroshi Nikaido received the painting 50 years earlier as a wedding gift, and wishes to pass it on to his recently married son. "I was a favorite nephew, and he was a man of arts in our family," Dr. Nikaido says of the gift-giver. He had spent the past five decades believing the portraits were by a famous Japanese artist, but his wife, Mrs. Nikaido, had spent just as long contesting the suspicion. She objected to the regifting. "We can't give our son junk," her husband recounts her saying. The verdict was somewhat postponed, but it does look like Mrs. Nikaido was at least partially right. The artist was not the one they had been told, but as to whether or not it was "junk?" The staff promised to get back to the Nikaidos after further research.
Some participants were misled by the people who sold them the items, but incorrect information, which may in fact be deception on the part of a dealer, was very much in conjunction with the participant's own presumed expertise. The people who show up are actively interested in learning as much as they can about Asian art and culture. They join the Asian Art Museum so they can enjoy everything it has to offer: They see the exhibitions, attend curatorial lectures, frequent public programs, and peruse specialized publications on a regular basis. These experiences influence their hobbies and home décor, for better or worse. For these members, a reoccurring phrase is uttered, ever so gently: "The item is not of museum quality."
Curator Michael Knight inspects a ceramic figure belonging to Bob Oaks, a member and esteemed docent at the museum. Oaks notes that the figure is one of a pair he displays in the bathroom at home, but he wonders whether the items deserve pride of place elsewhere. Back to the bathroom it will go. Unfortunately, it was not of "museum quality."
Member Fred Sheng defended his Ivory figures after learning they, too, were not uncommon.
Curator Melissa Rinne inspected the fibers of a beautiful kimono, which lay on top of a stunning cape belonging to Jaxon Nobori, a particularly knowledgeable member. While the garments are not exceptional, Rinne was interested to hear that Nobori has "around 60 children's kimonos," which might make an excellent contribution to the museum's collection. She promised to stop by his home to view them within the year.
Geoff Dunn awaits a verdict on his recently purchased items. Dunn, who once worked in a gallery in New York, uses his acquired knowledge to troll Ebay, capitalizing on what he believes to be misidentified provenance. Mostly, he likes to "put things up on my walls," but of all the members, Dunn appeared to be the most confident in his items."I only bring good stuff," he asserts, confidently plopping down in a chair. As it turns out, his recent purchases, which arrived just two days before, were to return home with him -- with one exception. The two bronze plaques, most likely displayed outside a temple, were of interest. "We don't have anything like this," proclaimed Curator Melissa Rinne, to which Dunn generously replied, "They're yours." A registrar was quickly found, and the pieces were donated that day.
Of course, not everyone comes with such high expectations. Some members are simply tickled by the service itself and the opportunity to speak directly with curators. They have amassed a collection for the primary purpose of enjoyment, and simply desire basic background information but, more importantly, how to properly care for their items.
For one such member, Rinne offers a lengthy history of bamboo and the various ways the baskets were weaved before getting to the heart of the matter. "I'd advise you to use a gentle cloth, or even a duster."
Jim Godsey learned that he owns an incomplete set of woodblock prints. Among the notes Godsey received: do not display the prints at once, but rather limit their exposure to light by rotating them once a month.
All in all, most of the members may have left slightly disappointed in their possession, but not in the service, feeling fortunate to have received such extensive information and attention from the curators. Despite the news that he owned an incomplete set, Mr. Godsey, pictured above, was absolutely delighted with the experience. "I lived in Japan, and it was great to speak with someone who had as well, and to learn about so much. Now I know how to display them, and what to say about them."
The Asian Art Museum's Contributor's Consultation Day falls on the third Friday of the month, offered to members once a year, and is available at the $150 level. Visit www.asianart.org to learn more about the Museum.@Alexis_Coe on Twitter.