The Chow Collection

The Chow Collection

Stephen Chow

EST MMXII, BROOKLINE, MA

The Chow Collection acquires one new original artwork per month.

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Mission:

To collect objects of art that match or exceed in quality select oil paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from institutions like the Boston Athenæum, the Mead Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre Museum, and the Yale Center For British Art. Finding the portrait of Thomas Hill, Esq. by John Linnell early on, and finding a trove of literary connections through subsequent research, inspired me to collect hundreds of works over my lifetime. To ensure that each new acquisition improves upon the standards of the former--and, when more than one work by the same artist is acquired, it is not by association, but by merit, that such a choice is made--I leave no book unturned, no song unheard, no art unseen, that will be of help.

For two years I collected antiquarian books before realizing that I could find works by artists represented in major museums, albeit for much more than I was spending on books. Suddenly it became clear that unless I found the most beautiful of a type of work, my estimation of it would deteriorate over time. The books that I initially collected suffered from being deficient in their quality of materials, printing, binding, writing and typography. Rather than collect books at a higher level, I found that my background in oil painting made original art a field in which I could more easily find objects of the utmost beauty. As a result, collecting physical copies of music and books fell out of favor, and I was left to browsing recordings and books freely available online. These may turn into physical collections in the future, but for now all of the music and most of the books remain virtual.

Acquisitions Policy:

Paintings:

I will only buy oil paintings that have been painted on rigid panels, including copper, masonite, and wood panels. No stretched canvases--their durability is suspect, specifically the dangers of: paint flaking off the surface, severely increased risk of tampering, and the tautness of the canvas being sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. It terrifies me that paintings can disintegrate in this manner. Even if I find a painting that is clearly a masterpiece, I will be extremely leery if it is painted on stretched canvas. As a general rule, anything with stretcher bars are forbidden.

I dislike oval-shaped canvases.

In terms of subject matter portraits and figures hold the highest place because of their singular association with the divine. This includes allegories, historical scenes, and scenes with classical or religious architecture. Still life, landscape, and animal subjects are systematically avoided.

Because modern art has departed from tradition and cultivated beauty, it lies beyond the scope of my collecting interests. The antidote to fraudulent contemporary art is not criticism, but admiring, collecting, and promoting its stated enemies. A valuable collection of art manifestos can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_manifesto

Sculpture:

When collecting sculpture the nude forms of bodies are paramount, so when props or clothing must appear they should only: (1) provide structural integrity, (2) tell the story with the utmost economy, and then (3) get out of the way. The full-length figure is preferred.

The use of bronze or other metals on a marble statue, or using a mixture of two or more types of stone, is almost always grounds for dismissal. A single carved stone is preferred.

The Zhou Dynasty style bronzes that I am trying to collect are typically in an unwashed state with ornaments in repeating patterns. There is an appearance of symmetry that, upon closer inspection, reveals that every form is unique in a subtle way.

I dislike cast bronze sculptures of human figures in all traditions and cultures because they are not carved or molded directly by the sculptor's hands. I make an exception for the Zhou bronzes because hand-carved examples do not appear to exist.

Books:

Areas of interest include: poetry books, essay collections, letters, primary sources of eastern and western mysticism, and museum catalogs and books on art collecting. The books on mysticism interest me the most, because they suggest, like my favorite works of art or music, that there far more exquisite realms that exist than are suggested by mundane reality. The mystery of that, and the many suggestions that they are attainable, are irresistible to me. They claim to present better, albeit very challenging and disruptive, alternatives to how I currently live, and I wish to understand them as authentically as possible.

My current project is the creation of the Art-Lover's Enchiridion, the link to which can be found in the bottom right-hand corner of this site.

Photographs:

Whenever I can find them I collect photographs of the artists and subjects of the works that I acquire.

I also collect digital photographs of eminent people who have notable private study rooms. This collection serves as a way to examine their individual tastes in art, books, and interior design. It can be found online here: http://www.reddit.com/r/privatestudyrooms/

Music:

By browsing online recordings, I look for composers from the 16th and 17th centuries whose works are admirably performed by Baroque ensembles on period instruments. The instruments involved are mainly: Baroque violins, viola da gambas, harpsichords, viola d'amores, theorbos, and occasionally organs. With few exceptions I dislike Baroque performances with wind instruments, pianos, cellos, or voices of any kind. You can find my favorite recordings by clicking on the link to Pinterest at the bottom of this page.

Acquisitions Method:

1) Go to museum databases that photograph and catalog a large percentage of their holdings (MFA Boston, Five Colleges Collections Database, Rijksmuseum, Google Art Project, etc.) and keep a record of all the objects that you want. Do the same in person at local museums and libraries that you admire. Approach museums and libraries as if everything had a price tag, because most of them once did. Museums traditionally seek the best examples of any particular object, so they are your best resource for cultivating your tastes. For books, it is often better to examine the personal libraries of great men and women, so I would point you to a combination of LibraryThing Legacy Libraries and archive.org to find exemplary books to browse through. If you're looking to collect books for their bindings or typography, the auction sites will be of more use.

2) Go to auction websites and look up those objects in past lots to see what kind of market there is for them (Blouin Art Sales Index, eBay completed listings, Christie's past auction sales, Liveauctioneers past auction sales, etc.). Constantly write down everything about your favorite objects: distinctive materials that they're made out of, construction methods, associated time periods and cultures, associated artists, teachers, and students, subject matter, etc.

3) If you have been keeping good records, you will now have a huge supply of keywords with which to search for live auctions. On a site like eBay, I like to think of auction searching like an archaeological dig: the more specific and targeted your keywords are, the more effective you will be at sifting away the dirt. And there is a LOT of dirt. For every object that I think is worth collecting, there are about 3,000-5,000 objects that have to be brushed aside. It is safe to assume that a great many of the best objects in museums are found by culling for months or years at a time. You can expect to find the best objects now on eBay, because almost anywhere else the objects have been screened by curators in order to attract the largest amount of bidders, and do not have the benefit (for you, the savvy collector) of being hidden in the dirt from all but the most discerning. On eBay you must find the non-professional sellers who have great items but don't know how to market them--this is where the great finds for the lowest prices happen.

You must put yourself in front of tens of thousands of objects and compare them. You can start with the online image databases of all major museums. In some cases they represent 95% of museum holdings. Compare these museum-quality works directly to the paintings and sculptures on eBay. And also learn what it takes to create a terrible artwork, a mediocre artwork, a decent artwork, and a masterful artwork, and attribute value to how well it was made, how expensive the materials are, and what effect it has on you aesthetically. At this point I can tell if something is good as soon as it scrolls across the screen. However, it usually takes looking at 5,000 terrible objects before this happens. With all of those comparisons under your belt, you'll be able to recognize immediately when something is a copy of an old master, is made of fraudulent materials, or when the hand of a great artist is at work.

You have to have the patience to wait three, four, five years for something good to appear, recognize the rarity of the situation, and have the confidence to out-bid everyone else. The challenge is learning how to cast a large enough net that can capture at least one interesting work each month. I try to find at least three candidates, and choose from among them.

Part of the motivation for art collecting is to prove that it doesn't require vast fortunes to buy original art. I began to realize that I was overpaying for antique books, and paying very little comparatively for culturally and aesthetically significant original art. On top of this, the sector of the art market over which auction houses have no control is disorganized, scattered, and obscured. The collector who can navigate such treacherous and uncharted territory is at a great advantage, because the field is ripe for discovery.