Eastern Exposure: Asia Society Celebrates Asia Week at The Plaza

The Observer was about halfway through our black rice and bok choy at the Asia Society’s Asia Week kick-off gala

Richard Chai, Shu Pei, Liu Wen, Phillip Lim (Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com)

The Observer was about halfway through our black rice and bok choy at the Asia Society’s Asia Week kick-off gala on Monday night when iGavel online auctioneer Lark Mason plucked our dessert spoon off the table and politely asked us to tell him about it.

Mr. Mason, a frequent appraiser on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, was enlisting us to play along in mock version of the show.

We found the spoon while cleaning out our dead grandmother’s attic, we lied. We have a feeling it’s important.

Mr. Mason turned the spoon slowly in his hand.

“Manufactured in China, in the 1930s, for American export. She probably received it as a wedding gift,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I’m sure it has a lot of sentimental value.” 

With a brief-but-warm hand shake (he’s a two-hander), the Asian arts and antiques expert had demonstrated how he goes about disappointing the thousands of Middle American treasure-hunters he encounters on the beloved program.

But in July, Mr. Mason had the unusual privilege of informing a Vietnam veteran in Tulsa, Okla., that he was in possession of the single most valuable lot in the program’s history: a set of Chinese libation cups carved from Rhinoceros horns.

“Used in China in the 17th and 18th centuries,” he explained to The Observer, adding that men gave them as gifts because they were believed to have magical properties.

The collection happens to be on the block at Sotheby’s tomorrow, just one of a slew of Asian-related auctions happening across the city.

We dared to ask how much.

“Between $800,000 and $1.2 million,” came the answer.

Drums fired off behind our heads, and a Chinese dragon dance began to weave through the room.

These are heady times for the Asian art community, as Chinese collectors topple auction records and Asian and Asian-American artists charm critics. Monday night the Asia Society and its supporters were basking in the glow.

Society president Vishakha Desai told us that in addition to honorary chair Michael Joo, she was proud of Sarah Sze, whose work is on display at the Asia Society until March 25.

“She has just been voted the most important artist by the International Critics Association and she’s going to represent the U.S. Pavillion at the Venice Biennale,” bragged Ms. Desai. “And we have her show!”

The Chinese-American artist happens to be married to an Indian-American Pulitzer winner, Emperor of All Maladies author Siddhartha Mukherjee. And the runner-up for that AICA prize? Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Have we, like the headlines say, entered an Asian century?

“The truth is, it’s a U.S.-Asia century,” Ms. Desai, dressed in a deep green sari, said. “The importance is as much to focus on Asia as the partnerships between Asians and Americans.”

And it’s not just about the booming art market.

“What we’re trying to move toward right now is the collaboration between Asian artists,” gala co-chair Stephanie Foster told us. “We have Asian fashion designers here, and Asian designers doing the tables.”

“It’s amazing that New York can encapsulate all that,” added Sotheby’s vice chairman of Asian Art Henry Howard-Sneyd. “This is one of the few places in the world you can do this.”

So we still have the competitive edge in parties, in other words.

By the time Donna D’Cruz donned her blinding, red Swarovski crystal-encrusted headphones and hit the DJ booth, the Asia Society’s young supporters, like Miami boutique owner Laure Heriard-Dubreil and her boyfriend, artist Aaron Young, had ditched the pineapple mousse cake and migrated toward the center table where fashion’s Asian-American all-stars held court.

“We all get clumped together,” said Korean-American designer Richard Chai, wearing a tuxedo and thick, plug earrings. “We’re all individuals doing different things, but with support for each other.”

“We get that a lot,” said Phillip Lim. “Hopefully over time it’s not about being Asian, it’s just the work.”

His date, Liu Wen, wore a white pantsuit with a demure high neckline and latex belt from his fall collection.

“You always have to balance sensuality with elegance and a little bit of fetish,” he explained.

Anna Sui made an early appearance, accompanied by model Jessica Stam. Elsewhere, first-generation supermodel Pat Cleveland pushed a raw, blended version of the salad course around her plate while couturier Maggie Norris, puffed on an electronic cigarette.

Vietnamese-Canadian photo blogger Tommy Ton could hardly believe his luck, that he’d been seated in between occasional subjects, Ms. Wen and Shu Pei, who wore pieces from Mr. Chai’s fall and summer collections, and his occasional boss, Style.com editor Dirk Standen.

Susan Standen, his wife, invited me at the Lanvin show,” he told us. “I’m their guest.”

For Mr. Standen, the night had just begun. After the party he was headed back to the office, where the second issue of Style.com/print was closing.

Mr. Standen said he thought grouping Asian designers together was somewhat arbitrary, but, he observed, they were all in good company.

“These guys are positioned to take over the world,” he said.


  Eastern Exposure: Asia Society Celebrates Asia Week at The Plaza