Dealer Profile: Erik and Cornelia Thomsen

Editorial Staff Art

  • Erik and Cornelia Thomsen

  • One of a pair of six-panel screens, Japanese, Edo period, seventeenth century. Ink and color on gold-leafed paper, 65 by 133 inches. Photographs are by courtesy of Erik Thomsen Asian Art, New York.

  • Suzuribako (writing box), Japanese, Meiji period, c. 1900. Black lacquer with maki-e decoration on wood; height 1 ½, length 8, width 7 ¼ inches. The ink stone represents a full moon above autumn grasses.

Erik Thomsen has learned Japanese twice. The first time he was a child living in Kyoto and Shizuoka Prefecture close to Mount Fuji, where his parents were missionaries in the 1950s and 1960s. “My brother and I were the only foreigners in school,” Thomsen recalls, and he and Hans, younger by a year and a half, naturally absorbed the language in school and in the streets, and just as naturally let it go when they left for Denmark, when Thomsen was ten. The second time he was at Middlebury College, in Vermont, where he and Hans wanted to see if they could revive their Japanese fluency by taking one of Middlebury’s intensive language courses. “Only the muscles remembered,” Thomsen says: their vocabulary and grammar had vanished, but their accents were perfect. It required three intensive summer courses for them to regain their fluency.

After the third summer, Thomsen decided to fill an apprenticeship at the Tanaka Onkodo Gallery in Tokyo. “I just saw it as an opportunity to be immersed with a Japanese family and to improve my Japanese,” he recalls. “I was planning to return afterward to graduate school in Heidelberg, Germany, to continue my studies in Far Eastern art history and to finish my master’s degree in German literature.”

Instead, as the first Westerner to apprentice at a Japanese gallery, he got an immersion course in Japanese art and in the ways of the country’s small clan of art dealers. Auctions, attended exclusively by dealers, took place daily. “I looked over the things for sale in the morning and watched them go in the afternoon,” he says.
That closed society of local dealers could not be more different from the global market Thomsen operates in today. Sitting in his gallery on the second floor of a meticulously restored Manhattan town house, overlooking East Seventy-fourth Street, he talks about the open atmosphere he found when he moved his family and business in 2006 to New York from Germany, his base of operations for the previous thirteen years. “We love the energy here, the feeling that anything is possible,” he says.

With dark blond hair and a spare six-foot-four frame, Thomsen must have cut an odd figure among his mentors in Tokyo, but he was already accustomed to being an outsider. Born in 1956 in Chicago, where his father, a Lutheran minister from the middle of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, was studying theology, Thomsen spent his high school and college years in Colorado. By the time he arrived in Germany for graduate study, he was an American student who spoke English with a European accent and perfect Japanese.

Thomsen’s experience in Tokyo, however, had convinced him that his future was as a dealer in Japanese art. He bought his first pieces in the mid-1980s while shuttling between Japan and the United States. In 1993 he moved to Germany to be better positioned to look for the caches of porcelain and works of art that the Japanese had produced for the European market around the turn of the seventeenth century and again in the late 1800s.  Six months later Thomsen met his wife, Cornelia, an artist. Raised in East Germany, she had as parochial an upbringing as her husband’s was cosmopolitan. Two months later they were married, and since then they have worked together and exhibited at art fairs in Europe and the United States.

Thomsen’s focus on Japanese screens developed as he found their business increasingly gravitating toward the United States. In 1998 he and Cornelia came to New York for their first Asian art fair. Dealing directly with American collectors was exciting, and soon the Thomsens were flying to the United States six to nine times a year to attend shows from New York to San Francisco. After first renting gallery space on East Eighty-third Street they moved to the Seventy-fourth Street space two years ago.

Dominating the main room of the gallery is a seventeenth-century screen depicting scenes from The Tale of Genji painted with pigments of ground malachite and lapis lazuli. Enriched by the patina of four centuries, the colors’ depth and lambent glow exert a strong pull.

Screens have been particularly popular in the United States, not only with museums and collectors but also among younger clients who want art in keeping with the modernist sensibility that has dominated interior decor for a decade now. “Japanese art in general has a freshness that attracts younger buyers,” Thomsen says. “The paintings in particular have a clean, uncluttered look and a clever use of negative space that goes well in a contemporary setting.” Cornelia’s idea of exhibiting works by contemporary artists has also brought a younger crowd into the gallery. A show in the fall of 2008 of thirty works by the modern ceramic artist Sueharu Fukami left Thomsen with only three pieces unsold.

The Thomsens had arrived in New York at a time of enormous change in the Asian art market. The markets for Japanese and Chinese art had long been yoked together in the city’s prosperous and frenzied Asia Week festival, the centerpiece of which was the International Asian Art Fair. Since the early 2000s, however, the mainland Chinese, with few other avenues for investment, have bought up art from their homeland, establishing startling new prices for everything from antique jade to avant-garde paintings.

The overheated market for Chinese art has spelled the end of the Japanese-Chinese partnership. Two years ago several top Chinese art dealers pulled out of the International Asian Art Fair, blaming the high exhibition fees. In 2009 the fair was canceled altogether, and this March for the second straight year, prominent Chinese dealers will gather in the Fuller Building on East Fifty-seventh Street, while the Japanese Art Dealers Association will present works in a museum-like setting at the Ukrainian Institute on East Seventy-ninth.

By comparison, the Japanese market has been the picture of stability. Having experienced its own bubble and crash in the 1980s and early 1990s, it has been on a steady rise. And while there are concerns that exports of Chinese treasures are being badly mismanaged, Japan’s cultural affairs agency, the Bunkacho, has been monitoring exports from the country since the 1950s. “The Bunkacho puts you on firm ground,” says Leighton Longhi, president of the Japanese Art Dealers Association of New York. “A museum doesn’t have to worry that the piece is going to be a problem later.”

The relatively modest advance of prices has also given museums “a lot of bang for the buck,” Longhi says. For a million dollars, a museum can acquire a top-flight Japanese screen that will cover twenty-four linear feet of a gallery wall. At a recent auction at Christie’s, a near million would have secured an untitled Robert Rauschenberg sketch measuring 11 ½ by 10 ¼ inches.

Not that auctions for Japanese works have lacked drama. Two years ago, Christie’s sold a medieval sculpture of a seated Buddha for $14.3 million to a Japanese buyer. More interesting, Longhi notes, were the last few bidders in the hunt—a mix of Westerners who collect in a number of fields, a testament to the broad appeal of Japanese art.

It is for this reason that Thomsen found himself last October at the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show in New York, the only Japanese dealer with a booth. Nonetheless, he says, “I made a lot of sales to first-time buyers of Japanese art”: once again out of his element, but perfectly at home.

Paul O’Donnell writes frequently for Antiques.