Following the closing of the Jack Richards’ Decorative Arts Gallery in the Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne, leading New Zealand auction house “Webb’s” offered to arrange a series of auctions of selected items from Jack’s collection.
The third of auction series was held in Auckland on September 10th and as with the previous two auctions attracted both national and international buyers.
The introduction to the catalogue of the September auction included the following interview with Jack…
Firstly, could you provide some background on yourself, and your career?
I have had an active academic career in the Asia Pacific in the field of applied linguistics and language teaching. I worked primarily in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong-Kong, and the USA. In addition, a parallel career in the field of educational publishing. I published many books in my academic discipline, as well as books for students, the latter having sold over 50 million copies.
Many of our readers will recognise you from our auction, à la poursuite de la beauté The Jack Richards Collection of Lalique Glass, held last July. Could you give some insight into your fascination with René Lalique?
In the 1980s, on a teaching assignment in Cairo, I came across a Lalique vase in a local antique shop. This began my fascination with art glass, but particularly the work of Lalique. Over the years I gradually assembled a collection of over 100 vases, my favourites of which are kept in my Wellington apartment.
Rene Lalique is also known for his production of jewellery, perfume bottles and lighting, among other things, why did you focus on collecting vases?
I think the vases enabled Lalique to showcase his talents and creativity as an artist. Many of them are good examples of how he was able to choose a design that complemented the shape of the vase, and they make stunning display items.
Would you be able to give a brief background on how your collection started out? Was Lalique the starting point?
No, Lalique came much later. I acquired my first item, a piece of Chinese blue and white porcelain, as a student. Later when I worked in Indonesia and Singapore, I developed an interest in textiles and ceramics. My academic and publishing career has also taken me to many different countries including China, Korea, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico. In each country that I visited, I have been unable to resist exploring galleries and art centres to familiarise myself with local art and cultural practices.
Many collectors have a particular piece or experience that kick started their interest in a certain subject. Would this apply to you?
Yes, I think that has often been my experience. For instance, my interest in Chinese robes was prompted by seeing some magnificent examples that were displayed throughout the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong. A number of galleries in Hollywood Road had good collections of robes, and I bought quite a few from them. Some years later when I was exploring antique shops in Seoul, a dealer introduced me to traditional Korean robes.
Your collection is truly breath-taking in scale, materiality, and global diversity. Was this always a goal of yours?
Not really, it was simply a consequence of my own curiosity and the opportunities that were available to me through my work and travels. Had I had more opportunities to live and work in other parts of the world such as Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, I am sure I would have developed an appreciation of the arts in these regions.
From working on this catalogue, and part II of your collection, auctioned in March, our team noticed your interest in the Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods. What draws your attention to these in general?
I do admire the bold and simple design elements of Art Deco and also the naturalist elements in Art Nouveau, even though I have not had the chance to add many good examples to my collection.
A highlight of the catalogue is your wonderful collection of textiles. How did you start to build this element of your collection?
After completing my Ph.D. in Quebec City in Canada, I was anxious to live somewhere that had no winter seasons and was invited to teach for a year at a university in Central Java. The student population included many from Southeast Asia, such as Flores and Timor. These students often brought examples of traditional textiles with them to sell to help pay for their studies. In this way I came to understand and appreciate the extraordinary range of ikat textiles crafted in different parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Your textiles are quite diverse, not only geographically, but also in use. For instance formal wedding attire, military attire, to a firefighters robe. Was building the collection this way important to you?
Actually, most of the items I have collected over the years were acquired by chance. My guiding principle is simply — is it something that stands out in some way, visually and artistically? This could be a simple textile that I purchased for $20 in Guatemala, or something that I couldn’t resist buying and which cost me $20,000. Sometimes dealers have contacted me with something they think I might like. But more often I may see something somewhere that attracts me, that I think would complement other items in my collection.
In the catalogue, the traditional nature of the robes is then contrasted with several different contemporary Korean ceramicists. We love how they take traditional techniques, and place a contemporary spin on them, but what do you like about them?
Korea has a long tradition in ceramics and has influenced ceramics in other countries, such as Japan. Within Korea there are large ceramicist communities, who often blend ancient and modern designs. Some of them have a charming folk art character that gives them a special appeal to me.
Another highlight of the catalogue is the woodblock prints, especially those by Paul Jacoulet. What attracts to you this type of art form?
I knew nothing of Jacoulet’s art until I saw an exhibition of his prints in the Honolulu Academy of Fine Arts when I was living in Hawaii. I was instantly smitten, and later a dealer in Hong Kong began to source prints for me. Jacoulet has a unique style that draws on traditional Japanese features but makes them his own. He consequently built up a large following both in Japan and internationally during his lifetime.
In any of the topics we have discussed today, were there certain pieces you always wanted to acquire, to ‘complete’ the collection so to speak?
I guess I always wanted to acquire good examples of any particular art form that I collect. So if I came across something that would complement a particular category within my collection I would often see if I could find ways of acquiring it.
What advice would you have for those starting a new collection, or those building an existing one?
I never set out to assemble a collection as such, so the items I have collected are a somewhat random set of pieces. What I think links them is the reflection of skills and creativity of the maker, whether that be an amateur who dabbles in art as a hobby or an established artist with a specific agenda. Also, that they are all visually striking.
For someone wanting to put together a small collection of pieces, I would suggest starting modestly at first and collecting pieces that work well together. Over time, one develops a better sense of what is worth collecting and what is not. Over the years I have discarded many items that I liked but did not pass the test of time. On the other hand, some pieces that were acquired 50 years ago still gives me as much pleasure as they did when I first purchased them.
What prompted your decisions to part with many items from your collection?
Some years ago, to share my collection with the wider public, I funded the addition of a gallery to the Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne, which attracted the interest of many art lovers both locally and nationally. Recently, however, the museum felt that the space could be better used to showcase art with a more local connection. Instead of placing my collection in long-term storage, it seemed sensible to allow others to have the opportunity to own some of the items from it, hence the current series of auctions.
Lastly, if we were to ask to you to a pick a favourite from this catalogue, what would it be?
That is a difficult question, but perhaps the Deco sculpture – Lady with Deer – would be one of my favourites.