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Star dealer

By Liao Danlin Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-4 18:48:01

Preeminent dealer William Chak appreciates a blue and white Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) ashet at a 2011 pre-auction exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of Chak's Company Limited

Preeminent dealer William Chak appreciates a blue and white Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) ashet at a 2011 pre-auction exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of Chak's Company Limited

William Chak flies off to London this week for several Christie's and Sotheby's auctions.

Last week, he split his time between Beijing and Hebei Province, preparing for the next episode of the BTV show World Collection and helping a friend organize a porcelain collection for a private museum opening in 2014.

And as usual, every night Chak answers the hundreds of requests he gets on Sina Weibo, even though he sometimes nods off, phone still in hand.

This is the life of Chak as an in-demand antiques dealer and industry mentor. Originally from Hong Kong, Chak, 52, is now known and respected by antique lovers across all of China. Fans even have their own nickname for the dapper dealer: Zhai Shuai (handsome Chak).

An eye for detail

Having now been in the industry for 40 years, Chak has witnessed the changes and developments in the antiques markets. He sees the prices for antique porcelain today as normal, not inflated.

Last month, Chak bought a sublime blue and white "Palace" bowl from the Chenghua period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) at a price of HK$141 million ($18 million) for one of his clients at Sotheby's Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction in Hong Kong.

"I had the chance to meet that particular Chenghua bowl once in 1981 and it was sold for more than HK$400 million, the highest price that day, exactly the same as a month ago. What's the concept of 400 million in 1981?"

He finds the increasing number of auction houses to be a healthy growth as many of the international brands have rushed into China for a slice of the pie. However, no matter how many auction houses spring up, the number of quality items remains limited, he acknowledged.

Chak has appeared on World Collection since the program started in 2006. The show's trademark gimmick of smashing items that are deemed to be fakes has brought Chak and the show some controversy. The show discontinued this practice in July.

Chak emphasized, though, that they never smashed items of value, such as newer antiques dating from the Cultural Revolution period (1966-76) or true works of craftsmanship.

"What we crushed were things that were created to fool people," he pointed out.

Although some critics see it as a flaw that the program relies purely on experts, considering the technology that is now available, Chak is a believer in the traditional ways of appraisal - by sight.

In the years when he had the chance to travel to Europe, Chak was a regular at all the big museums in the UK, such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This, coupled with his 25 years owning Chak's Company Limited, his dealership in Hong Kong, has given him a fine sensitivity to the shape and body of different antiques. 

When discerning a fake from an authentic piece of art, the first thing he checks is the body. Next he examines the material and the pattern on the surface, then the foot, the stamp and the weight.

"No matter how technology develops, judgment by the eyes will still be very important," he said.

Stepping into the limelight

Chak's name recognition outside the antiques world skyrocketed once World Collection hit the airwaves.

"People call him dalao (big brother) for a reason," Qian Qian, a BTV staff member, told the Global Times.

Qian said that Chak was originally invited to be an expert for only one episode because he was a friend of host Wang Gang, but he wound up becoming a regular fixture on the show for the past seven years.

Chak made himself invaluable to the show from the very beginning by sharing his connections and coordinating with collectors to feature their objects.

"He was extremely busy at the time [that the show first started], but he helped us borrow the antiques, big items. He bought his own plane tickets, had his own staff, transported the antiques and did everything without any payment," Qian said.

Chak argues that he's been paid back plenty. The first two years, he simply wanted to do it for free in order to help out the show. But as the third year kicked off, he found that being on TV came with its own unique rewards.

"Once I was in a German airport waiting for my luggage when someone suddenly hugged me from behind and said, 'I love you.' It was this tall man who said he was a fan. That's a kind of pay back," he said.

Half of Chak's career is now devoted to his role as a public figure: appearing on TV, giving public lectures at Peking and Tsinghua universities and organizing the International Antiques Fair in Hong Kong every May.

Building a reputation

Chak first entered the antiques industry in the 1970s, when he started apprenticing at an antiques shop. He was just a teenager at the time, but wanted to help out his family.

He quickly picked up the basics, and when his mentor emigrated to Australia in the 1980s, Chak continued as a private dealer, then established Chak's Company Limited in 1988, which he still runs today.

Many of the customers who first knew Chak as an apprentice came in for his advice on Chinese porcelain. Chak gained a reputation for his sharp eye and tips on what to buy and how much to pay.

Going into the 2000s, as the number of collectors in the Chinese mainland grew, Chak became a sought-after expert.

His name spread quickly through recommendations and word of mouth, all based on credibility. This comes into play when a client may not be present at an auction, and has to trust that Chak will act in their best interests.

Chak recognizes that even credible art appraisers can mess up.

"Everybody makes mistakes. I still do, small ones," he said. "A lot of experts refuse to admit it when they make a mistake. I dared to admit it when I was wrong, though it is really painful." 

Chak recalled his last mistake, at a New York auction a decade ago. He mistook a vase for authentic because it had the right base, but the neck was wrong. He took his error very seriously.

"It's so painful that you want to stab yourself," he said. "I thought I might never touch antiques again."

His clients cover a broad age range. Many are second-generation collectors, following their fathers into the business.

Chak says his policy for picking clients is to become friends first. That's because certain circumstances require a dealer to really understand each client's preferences.

For example, Chak may be working with several clients but see only one item in an auction that merits a bid. He must use his understanding of his clients and their collections and aspirations to bid on the behalf of the person the object is best suited to.

"Being a dealer is not easy," Chak concluded. "You need credibility, the ability to make shrewd judgments and morality."
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