ART MARKET / An Italian orientalist in London: Leading dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi is defying recession by opening a dazzling new gallery in Mayfair - with three pieces priced over pounds 1m

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The Independent Culture
SMALL, curly-haired and charming, Giuseppe Eskenazi is beginning to fill out his double-breasted suits at the age of 54. He comes from a Milanese family which started dealing in Oriental art in the 1920s, and helped his father start a London office in 1960, buying material to ship back home to Milan. From his first-floor base in Piccadilly he climbed, gradually, to a position of pre-eminence in the world market.

Now, in a move that no normal businessman makes in a recession, he is opening a dazzling new gallery taking up the whole of a 19th-century house in Clifford Street in London's Mayfair. It looks like a small museum; the cost of refurbishment was more than pounds 5m. Indeed, the architectural complex is so outstanding that he has already been urged to part with it at a profit by Dr Nasser D Khalili, who needs a museum home for his Islamic collection.

The new gallery is a dream which has taken Eskenazi four years to realise. The original facade of the house has been meticulously restored. But inside, the building has been gutted and rebuilt from scratch. An atrium cut through four floors allows natural light to suffuse the centre of the building. The ground and first floors are entirely devoted to gallery space and use oak, sycamore and French limestone to provide a simple but neutrally toned showcase for Eskenazi's art. They are joined by an open stairwell, directly below the atrium. Above that are the offices: a Chinese floor, a library floor and a Japanese floor.

Eskenazi has used the same quantity surveyor and the lighting technicians who worked on the Sainsbury wing for the National Gallery. One of his building contractor's recent triumphs was the new Japanese galleries at the British Museum. Climate control, lighting and security are all at the frontiers of museum technology. 'It is taking us weeks to learn how to operate it,' Eskenazi admits with a wry smile. 'Somehow we've got to be in control before the contractors leave.'

He is planning a spectacular exhibition of Chinese art for the opening of the building on 8 June. 'It's mostly things we have had put away for years, waiting for some special occasion or catalogue,' he says. There are three pieces priced at more than pounds 1m. The grandest of them is an elaborately carved marble stele with Buddha and his attendants; it was made during the Northern Qi period (AD549-577) and much of its original polychrome decoration survives. In 1978, Eskenazi sold a similar stele to the British Rail Pension Fund, which had just begun investing in art, for pounds 150,000. They resold it at Sotheby's in 1989 for pounds 935,000.

The second of the special treasures is a ritual bronze food vessel, patterned with an inlay of malachite, malachite paste and copper wire; it dates from around the 5th to 4th century BC. But to my eye, the most dazzling of the million-pound objects is a four-inch bronze and silver seated ox, its back making a voluptuous curve as it stretches its head to the left in an interrogatory bovine fashion. It brilliantly combines realism and ornament.

The piece must have started life as a weight to hold down a mat or other textile; it is very heavy, with sinuous silver patterning inlaid into the bronze body. On its belly the ox has a slightly damaged inscription which seems to suggest that it belonged to a royal treasury; the only known ox of similar size, which was excavated in China in 1958 near Shou-chou, once capital of the Ch'u state, bears a similar inscription.

To open such a gallery with an exhibition like this in the depths of a recession is an extraordinary achievement. Two of his competitors in London, the leading Oriental dealers Sparks and Bluetts, have been forced to close. 'Times are hard,' Eskenazi says. 'It's no use pretending they are not.' It has been museum purchases from America and the Far East that have kept him going, he says. They represented some 60 per cent of his pounds 18.5m turnover last year - the third largest turnover of any art dealer in London, and more than most of the famous picture dealers.

He is a scholar, a connoisseur and a man of singleminded passion. 'I live through work,' he says. 'It's all I live for. It makes me tick. Being with art objects, that's what matters to me.' Actually his passion extends beyond his business, which concentrates on early Chinese art to about the 13th century. He and his wife collect contemporary art. And he loves antiquities; he flew to Zurich twice just to see the recent exhibition of antique art from Russian museums.

He was born in 1939, just before the family moved to England for the duration of the war. His uncle Vittorio, who had the Milan shop since 1925, joined the British secret service. When they returned to Milan after the war, Vittorio found the business in ruins and had to begin again from scratch. He specialised in Oriental art as interior decoration, and the shop in the fashionable Via Montenapoleone flourishes to this day in the hands of his son, Johnny.

Giuseppe was sent to school in England at the age of 13 and went on to London University to take a degree in physiology and chemistry. When uncle Vittorio or his father, Isaac Eskenazi, came to London on buying trips, he would tour the London dealers and auctions with them. When he graduated, he joined his father running the London office.

From the start, his primary interest lay in seeking out items of superb quality. 'I had time. I combed the country and the auction houses and I started travelling - to Paris, New York. No one was doing it at the time.' Milan was interested in decorative pieces, but not the superb or unique, and refused to back his purchases saying 'we have no clients for them'. 'You don't get the clients unless you have the goods,' countered Giuseppe. He succeeded in getting 30 days' credit from Sotheby's and started out on his own, outbidding everyone on anything he considered of top quality. 'Very often, the underbidder would come to me after the sale and I would pass it on at a small profit.' And taking a small profit on important art soon gained him clients.

He began travelling regularly to the United States in the late 1960s where he found major clients like the Rockefellers and Arthur Sackler - who funded the Sackler galleries at the Royal Academy, not to mention a museum of Chinese art in Washington. In 1970-71 he began to visit Japan and gradually became accepted by the leading Japanese dealers.

In 1971 he risked everything he had on refurbishing a gallery in Piccadilly and mounting his first, superb exhibition; happily, 80 to 90 per cent of the exhibition was sold on the first day. 'After that the business went from strength to strength,' Eskenazi says.

His success has rested on the support of a small team of three important people. His Tuscan wife, Laura, whom he married in 1963, has learnt Chinese in order to read inscriptions on his treasures; her brother, Luigi Bandini, came to work with them in 1969 and has had sole charge of the Japanese department since 1976; and Philip Costantinidi has been Giuseppe's assistant since 1972. -

(Photographs omitted)