My friend Ken is dead. Neither chick nor child. Eighty-six. Forty-five of which we shared as friends. I met him for the first time at the equator. Confirmed bachelor. He collected porcelains. Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Khmer export porcelain and pottery of the 17th century and as far back as the Han dynasty. Once in a while he agreed magnanimously to sell a piece to me. Not just like that. He kept his pieces hidden, like a jealous lover would hide his mistress. He had a harem of porcelains. Invisible, in a rosewood cupboard. Behind Chinese lock and key. Once in a while he opened his treasure trove for me and let me hold a piece. Feel it. Stroke it. Because without touching and feeling you cannot judge the provenance and quality. Often he ran his ring around the edge of a bowl. To show me that a crack or a repair can be heard. Then it was put back into his cupboard and locked. This ritual was repeated a few times during several months. Only rarely were my supplications answered. When, at long last, the sale came about, he behaved as if he were making an organ donation. One little pot would cost me some 500 Malaysian dollars. Because the pot was older than Ming, it had to be rewarded for its staying power.
Forty years ago, he resigned from the Firm. He moved to one of the poshest suburbs of London, in the green belt. In order to pay fully in cash for the cottage and the acre of land on which it stood, he sold one single piece, a Yuan blue and white. I must admit, it was his most beautiful. From his cottage, he supplied Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London. Important museums around the world, especially in the United States. The Avery Brundage Museum in San Francisco. Honolulu, Boston, Washington. Sometimes, I recognized one of his pots in a Sotheby catalogue, under the heading “The Property of a Gentleman”.
He was born a simple man and remained so all his life. We telephoned at least once a month. In the cheap hours. He then described his important purchases to me. Confidentially, of course, in a muted voice. In terms he had taught me. Hui hui ch’ing, which means Mohammedan Blue. Or Parker Blue. Orange peel glaze. Or ‘the piece is perfect, it’s as beautiful as a fake.” Or: 350,000.00 dollars. But this he never said in those words. He said: ‘ Threehundred and fifty youwess.
By this simple approach, he gave me a good feel for the nature and value of oriental ceramics.