College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Touching Beauty

At Christie's, expert Athena Zonars values and sells Chinese art.

By Susan Seligson

Athena Zonars (CAS’82) does a walk-through of the warehouse rooms tucked away in Christie’s gleaming New York headquarters skirting Rockefeller Center. It’s a month before one of the famed auction house’s eight annual Chinese works of art and ceramics auctions, and Senior Vice President Zonars has recently been named that division’s senior international director.

She points out a shelf arranged with archaic bronze bowls with earthy iridescent patinas, some of the pieces dating back to 1600 BC. She nestles a delicate water bottle, part of an eighteenth-century Chinese scholar’s desk set, crafted in a “super rare” glaze; its distinctive pale blue is described in Chinese as “sky after rain.” Hundreds of beautiful objects, many with a notable provenance, sit tagged and ready—Ming and Tang Dynasty plates, an array of carved white jade figurines, a twelfth-century jade bowl. Cradling it as if it were a newborn infant, Zonars runs her fingers over the deep yellow glaze of a vase shaped like a butternut squash. To a nonexpert it may not look particularly rare or especially Chinese, but it is an eighteenth-century imperial vase believed to be one of just two of its kind in existence. At auction it is expected to fetch $1 million.

“I have to find out what's out there; I assess the market conditions; and I determine of each piece, is it worthy?” —Athena Zonars

Having worked at the 250-year-old auction house since an internship in the wine division got her in the door just after her BU graduation, Zonars no longer gasps at dollar amounts. A day earlier at a Christie’s Old Masters paintings auction, a Botticelli panel once owned by John D. Rockefeller went for $10.4 million, and despite ups and downs in the market over the last decade, 2012 proved to be the house’s most profitable year ever, netting $6.27 billion and setting records at every turn. In 2001, her division set a world record with the sale of a “highly important Massive Bronze Ritual Wine Jar, Late Shang/Early Western Zhou Dynasty,” for a staggering $9,246,000. This is not Antiques Roadshow.

But it’s the beauty of the work that hooked Zonars and has captivated her since BU’s Art History 101, a defining moment. The onetime sociology major’s introduction to Asian art was a College of Arts & Sciences course taught at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts by Vishakha Desai, now president emeritus of the Asia Society. “She completely inspired me,” says Zonars, who has become an internationally respected expert in her own right, routinely quoted in the New York Times and other publications.

As anyone who’s ever hefted one of Christie’s lavishly produced catalogs knows, every auction reflects not just stunning works of art, but compelling narratives of the people driven to acquire them. Christie’s authenticates, values, and sells Chinese art to museums and collectors who comprise the small-but-growing world of people passionate about it. Zonars is one of only a handful of people in the world who have risen to a level of respect and confidence that makes her synonymous with the field. The Chinese art sphere is “so broad and so huge,” says Zonars, whose career high point was handling the 700-piece Falk estate collection that included a fifteenth-century Ming jardinière, Shang Dynasty bronze wine vessels, and a Song Dynasty (960–1279) celadon bowl. “I’m still finding great works of art to sell,” she says. She may view 150 possible auction items in a day and must decide of each, “Is it a good representative of its type? Has it retained its integrity? Has it been restored, which could lower its value?”

In putting sales together, “my job,” Zonars says, “is to do three things: I have to find out what’s out there; I assess the market conditions; and I need to determine of each piece, is it worthy?” Very rarely, a valuable piece may surface in someone’s attic, but Zonars mostly handles collections that have been amassed meticulously and ardently, collections like those of the late Falks, Pauline and Myron, beloved in the Chinese art world and admired by Zonars since she toured their majestic home as a student.

Her calling embraces all the senses, especially touch. “It’s a tactile art,” says Zonars, who utterly lacks pretense, despite her travels in a gilded universe. On her climb up the Christie’s ladder she did a stint in the warehouse, which was where she learned the importance of handling the work. “Weight is a big thing,” says Zonars. “You know after holding a dish” if it’s an authentic Ming dish or Ching vase. She studies “the way the light hits a glaze, the way the object has weathered—its abrasions, cracks, the chipping, the patina, the crackling, the way something is discolored, or when you see really good, honest scratching. I’m not a doctor but what we do is similar,” says Zonars. “He looks at a patient and knows right away what’s wrong; he’s seen 400 cases.”

Christie’s Asian division has semiannual auctions of Chinese works of art in New York, Paris, London, and Hong Kong, and Zonars attends them all. The auctions proceed as they do in the movies, except that the auctioneer speaks slowly. “It’s not a cattle auction, and he wants everyone to know what’s going on,” says Erin McAndrew (GRS’96), Christie’s vice president and head of communications for the Americas. “And the auctioneer doesn’t say ‘going, going, gone,’” adds Associate Vice President Sung-Hee Park (CAS’02), public relations manager, who sometimes works the auctions taking phone bids. In addition to the traditional raising of paddles, pre-auction absentee bids, and bids called in from around the world, 20 to 25 percent of bids are now placed online, and the auctioneer must keep track of all of these while keeping a close eye on the paddles. Bidding wars can last up to six minutes. McAndrew recalls Christie’s agreeing to retract just one bid, by an online bidder who claimed her cat jumped on the keyboard.

Errant cats and tight production deadlines notwithstanding, the process is impressively smooth, auction after auction. “There’s great excitement, there’s risk, there’s competition,” says Zonars. “Every collection is different.”