Lark Mason: Why Asian Arts Is Such a Complex Specialty

Asian Arts expert Lark E. Mason reflects upon his experience appraising an 18th-century Asian silk screen on ROADSHOW, the big surprise that came after, and what makes his area of expertise so challenging.
By Luke Crafton

Back in 2005, during ROADSHOW’s visit to Bismarck, North Dakota, Asian Arts appraiser Lark Mason made an incredible discovery: an extremely well-crafted 18th-century silk screen panel that was designed and decorated in traditional Chinese style. 

Putting an estimated value of $30,000 to $50,000 on the screen, Mason sent a very happy guest, Deanna, home with a new perspective on her treasure. Several years later, Mason was contacted by Deanna to sell the screen and arranged for it to be auctioned off during the fall of 2017.

Yet, this would be one auction Mason will never forget, as not only did the screen sell for much higher than his original ROADSHOW appraisal — but he made a significant new discovery about the origin of the screen as well. 

For the occasion of ROADSHOW's 500th Episode, we got in touch with Mason by email and asked him to elaborate on the challenges of mastering his specialty of Asian Arts.

Q & A with Lark Mason
What makes mastering your specialty of Asian Arts such a complex challenge?

Lark Mason: Art specialists must look at an object and based upon knowledge that we have from seeing tens of thousands of objects and reading many books over years of study make a guess. When I examine at an object I look first for its function, next its materials and construction, then its stylistic elements and symbolism, and finally for signs of use. I then come to a conclusion about the object. This assessment is always based upon our research, our knowledge, and our background. We look at an object and decide, does this form fit with the period that the wear and materials date it to? does the symbolism match the country and time period it is supposed to be made in? and does its use show through the condition of the piece. 

We look back in our own mental catalogue for similar examples and make an association. An Asian vase broken and repaired in the 19th century will have staples holding the pieces together. But there are living artists who know this and can copy the types of repairs that were been done in the 19th century.

It is not exact, it is a process. There are no apps to perform the in-depth examination that our role requires, and the scientific tests that we have are just a tool in our belt when looking at a piece and we all carry our different experiences with us. When we have rare pieces come to our Asian Art table or we have a doubt about a piece we almost always consult with our colleagues.

  1. The breadth of the field. In every major museum in the United States there are a myriad of curators and directors for various types and periods of art. As an example, most museums and auction houses will have a department for Ancient art, Modern and Contemporary Art, Old Master Paintings, European and American Sculpture, Musical Instruments, and Asian Art. The joy and challenge of specializing in Asian Art is that you are dealing with a multitude of cultures and countries that span thousands of years and encompass every single one of those other departments in their own way. To specialize in Asian Art you must know ancient Chinese bronzes from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), Korean ceramics from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 AD), and Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1603-1868 AD).

  2. Symbolism within all categories. Within East-Asian Art, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South-East Asia, there is an interplay in symbols between all of these cultures due to the complex geographic history of this part of the world. As an example, these cultures shared many of the same religious and cultural rites and ceremonies. These are most often associated with Buddhist or Hindu practices that came, most often from China to the next country and were adapted for that specific region.

  3. Market variability. The prices of Asian Art fluctuate wildly based upon the country and the type of art. To an untrained eye a painting from Japan could look like, be made of the same materials, and be of the same age as a Chinese work but due to various factors the Chinese painting might be worth 1,000 times what the Japanese painting is. In the same way you might have two Korean moon jars, both from the Goryeo Dynasty, both of the same material, same color, same form, but one is worth more than $100,000 and the other would be lucky to sell for $1,000.

 

Elaborate on your “probabilities theory” about the complexities and uncertainties of identifying and assessing Asian works of art.

Lark Mason: Art specialists must look at an object and based upon knowledge that we have from seeing tens of thousands of objects and reading many books over years of study make a guess. When I examine at an object I look first for its function, next its materials and construction, then its stylistic elements and symbolism, and finally for signs of use. I then come to a conclusion about the object. This assessment is always based upon our research, our knowledge, and our background. We look at an object and decide, does this form fit with the period that the wear and materials date it to? does the symbolism match the country and time period it is supposed to be made in? and does its use show through the condition of the piece. 

We look back in our own mental catalogue for similar examples and make an association. An Asian vase broken and repaired in the 19th century will have staples holding the pieces together. But there are living artists who know this and can copy the types of repairs that were been done in the 19th century.

It is not exact, it is a process. There are no apps to perform the in-depth examination that our role requires, and the scientific tests that we have are just a tool in our belt when looking at a piece and we all carry our different experiences with us. When we have rare pieces come to our Asian Art table or we have a doubt about a piece we almost always consult with our colleagues.


In his own words, Lark Mason talks about how he came to learn that Dee's screen was not Chinese at all.

 

BY LARK E. MASON

During the 2005 ROADSHOW in Bismarck, North Dakota, my colleagues and I spent most of the day on the Asian Arts table seeing objects that were brought home from trips abroad or from returning veterans who toured during the Korean conflict of World War II. At the end of the day, a guest named Deanna came to our table with a folded-up silk screen that was in tatters. Yet when the eight panels were opened, what I saw was breathtaking.

The screen was painted with colorful and vibrant figures in long robes in animated conversations, surrounded by a cloud-strewn sky populated with dragons and other fanciful creatures.

The style of the screen was Chinese, as was the subject matter. The backing, which hung in shreds, exposed Chinese newspapers used as padding material. The eight panels suggested that the screen had at one time been reduced in size, as Chinese screens typically comprise 12 panels. This was a fairly common occurrence for screens brought to the West because the original size was just too big for display in most Western houses.

Considering the damaged back and reduced size, that day in Bismarck we estimated the auction value of Dee's screen at $30,000 to $50,000.

Years passed, until one day I received a call from Dee, who was looking for help selling the screen. She agreed to meet and hand off the screen at an upcoming ROADSHOW event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in June 2017. I brought the screen to our office in Texas, where we included it in an online sale of Asian art scheduled for that October.

The screen was just as I remembered it — a tattered back and eight beautifully painted panels depicting the Buddhist vision of paradise. The subject matter, style of painting, and printed backing material all pointed to a Chinese origin, and that was how it was presented for the auction and throughout the viewing.

At the auction, Chinese painting specialists examined the screen, commented, and concurred with our assessment and estimate. When the day of the sale arrived, Chinese participants started the bidding, yet dropped out around $50,000. To our surprise, however, they were quickly replaced by Korean bidders, who came in at higher and higher bids.

At first we were puzzled by the Korean interest, but assumed they were bidding for a museum or temple. More Korean bidders emerged as the bidding topped $100,000 and kept going. Ninety-nine bids later, the screen sold for $562,500! When we spoke with the winning bidder, he explained that the screen was actually Korean — not Chinese — though it was produced in a Chinese style.

Our excitement at seeing the screen in Bismarck with its tattered Chinese inner lining had sent us off in a direction that we didn’t later question — until the screen sold. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Korean elements of the screen, but at the time, neither my fellow ROADSHOW experts nor others emerged to cast doubt on our catalog listing of a "Chinese" screen.

If the Korean bidders had seen the screen in person prior to the auction, we surely would have had a better clue. But needless to say, we’re delighted in the outcome, particularly since Dee found plenty of good uses for her windfall — and a once-lost treasure is now in Korean hands.

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