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Asian and African Art: Insight from Christie’s Experts

These Christie’s auction house experts spent years learning their specialty—take a tour through their curated worlds from the comfort of your own home

Christie’s auction house specialists Sherese Hei Yan Tong and Bruno Claessens have combined their passion for Asian and African art with many years’ experience of handling rare and precious objects. Here they share what they enjoy most about their chosen fields, and their secrets to finding superb pieces for your collection.

Chinese ceramic bowls from the Southern Song dynastythe
Chinese ceramic bowls from the Southern Song dynasty (circa 1127-1279) eschew elaborate designs in favor of undecorated simplicity. Image: Alamy

Chinese Ceramics

Sherese Hei Yan Tong, Specialist, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Christie’s Hong Kong, has been with the auction house for eight years. Here she tells us more about her lifelong interest in historical works of art.

Tell us a little about your time at Christie’s
After graduating in history in the United States I returned to Hong Kong and got a temporary job as a Client Services Officer and later an internship in the Client Development team at Christie’s Hong Kong. I became interested in working in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department, and equipped myself by studying for a second degree; the Christie’s Education Master’s in Arts of China.

How did your passion for Chinese ceramics develop?
I’ve always been interested in historical works of art that tell stories about the social context and material culture of the periods to which they belong.

What’s your favorite era of Chinese ceramics?
It has always been the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), known for its subdued and understated designs. While most people associate Chinese art with auspicious motifs such as dragons and phoenixes, Song ceramics are often undecorated and covered in a monochrome glaze of muted tones. To me, Song ceramics represent an unassuming aesthetic from a bygone era, unknown to most people in the modern age.

A Chinese ceramic vase from the Song Dynasty
"The simplicity of its form and rich hues in the glaze are mesmerizing," Hei Yan Tong says of this very rare Longquan celadon "kinuta" vase.

Do you have a favorite piece?
A stunning celadon vase realized HK$42,850,000/$5,500,637 at a Christie’s Hong Kong sale in 2018. Dated to the Southern Song dynasty (A.D. 1127–1279), it’s covered with a thick and richly textured glaze of a soft bluish-green tone reminiscent of jade.

What advice would you give readers who wanted to begin collecting Chinese ceramics?
Don’t rush into it. Get exposure to as many works of art as possible to “train the eye.” Visiting auction previews is brilliant as you can handle objects as well as see them.

A Kota figure, an example of African Art from Gabon
With their abstract representation of human features, which predate cubism, Kota figures speak to the artistry of their creators. Some, such as this one, are seen as guardians, called mbulu-ngulu. Image: Alamy

African Art

Bruno Claessens, European Director, African and Oceanic Art, is an Antwerp native and splits his time between Christie’s Paris and Brussels. He has been with the company for four years but, as he explains, his thirst for knowledge—and love for African art—began much earlier.

Tell us a little about your career path
I graduated from Ghent University as a historian in 2005. My passion as a collector of African art led me to become the assistant to a Brussels-based expert, Guy van Rijn, who I helped with his work on the Yale University Art Gallery–van Rijn Archive of African Art, the largest image database on the subject. I was its full-time archivist between 2010 and 2012. Before joining Christie’s in 2016, I worked as an independent expert, advisor, writer, and curator while running a popular blog on African Art.

Where does your interest in African art come from?
Reading The Adventures of Tintin as a young boy awakened an interest in non-European cultures. An insatiable curiosity, paired with a love for material culture, led to me picking up African art at flea markets where I was originally looking for old 12-inch disco records. My hunger for knowledge drove me to start building a reference library on the subject and refined my eye for authentic and original works.

The William Rubin Kota figure
The William Rubin Kota is currently on view at the Musée du Quai Branly—Jacques Chirac in Paris. The piece was once owned by beauty-empire queen Helena Rubinstein.

If you had to choose just one example?
In 2015, just before I joined Christie’s, the department’s international director Susan Kloman set the world record for a Kota figure, selling The William Rubin Kota for €5,473,500/$6,172,827 in Paris. Within the type it is an exceptional specimen.

If a reader wanted to begin collecting African art, what would be a good way to start?
Visit the major museums, including the Musée du Quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, in Paris. To get a feel for the market, subscribe to our auction catalogs, come to the sale previews, and ask questions, we are here to help.