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Meet the Sotheby’s Star Who Wears Tom Ford and Can’t Get Enough of Vintage Japanese Photo Books

Nicholas Chow's interests are not merely art-driven—we asked him about his favorite watches, suits, foods and more.

Nicholas Chow Photography by Berton Chang
Nicholas Chow, the chairman of Sotheby’s Asia

Nicolas Chow is on a roll: The Hong Kong–based chairman of Sotheby’s Asia has been inking major deals and scoring record-smashing sales of ancient Chinese art for his auction house for years. But when the art aficionado isn’t helping to build the collections of others, he’s traveling the globe in pursuit of his own passions. Here, the peripatetic aesthete tells us what he’s after these days, from rare photo books to eyeglasses and unagi.

What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

My five-year-old son Aurelien is an early bird and he usually drags me out of bed to have breakfast. I take him to school, a lovely 10-minute walk from our place in Mid-levels, which affords us time for father-son bonding.

How often do you train?

Most days, I will do a short exercise routine in my bathroom—a few sets of push-ups, sit-ups, etcetera—between brushing my teeth, shaving my head and taking a shower. It is a very easy routine and therefore probably of no use whatsoever.

Where do you get your clothes?

I have been going to Lord’s Custom Tailors in Hong Kong for almost 20 years now, and they look after me very well. Otherwise, I occasionally buy suits and blazers from Tom Ford, or Isaia for a more casual look.

What’s your most important sartorial accoutrement?

I am obsessed with eyewear, and I have a weakness for thick, geeky frames, preferably ones that are handmade out of celluloid in Japan. Naturally, I am quite geeky about my geeky frames, and the slightest variation on a style can get me excited. My favorite source is Facial Index in Marunouchi [Tokyo], which has a great selection of frames by some of the best Japanese optical craftsmen, including Tai Hachiro, who makes fabulous retro frames, all superbly polished by hand.

A pair of Chow's coveted thick-framed glasses.

A pair of Chow’s coveted thick-framed glasses.  JoEimaGe/Shutterstock

Are you wearing a watch? How many do you own?

When I turned 20, my uncle gave me an old 1960s moonphase Omega that had belonged to my grandfather. It has great sentimental value, and it has brought me luck over the years, but it tends to break down. These days, I usually wear a Rolex Explorer, which is very solid and dependable, but I have no particular craving for watches.

Who is your dealer and what do they source for you?

I have a keen interest in vintage Japanese photo books from the 1960s and 1970s—the golden age of the photo book—a time when the book rather than the single print was considered to be the work of art. My favorite source is Komiyama-Shoten in Jimbocho, Tokyo’s vintage bookshop district. Keita Komiyama is among the most knowledgeable dealers in the field and always pulls out some obscure and exciting book that I have never heard of.

While not a watch person per se, Chow wears a Rolex Explorer for his day-to-day

While not a watch person per se, Chow wears a Rolex Explorer for his day-to-day  plo3/Shutterstock

What is your favorite dish?

I love unagi and have tried it at quite a few of the most famous restaurants in Japan. My favorite remains Unagitei Tomoei, in Odawara, a small town near Hakone. I used to go there regularly to visit the late Gorō Sakamoto, one of the greatest antique dealers to have ever lived. He would often have the restaurant deliver lacquered boxes of unagi to his house. Sakamoto would drink half a glass of hot sake and splash the rest over my eel. Ever since then I have eaten my eel this way.

What’s the most recent thing you’ve added to your own collection?

I just purchased a 14th-century marble torso of the Annunciate Angel by Sienese sculptor Agostino di Giovanni from Sam Fogg in Mayfair.

The most recent thing you regret not buying?

Everything happens for a reason and there always seems to be another great object on the horizon.

Chow's favorite dish: unagi

Chow’s favorite dish: unagi  7grwb/Shutterstock

If you could have any artwork in the world, what would it be?

The Egyptian Amarna period yellow jasper lips of a queen at the Met. For me it is without question the single most beautiful and sexiest bit of sculpture in the world.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?

Home—whether in Hong Kong where I am based, Lausanne near where I grew up and where my parents live, or Taipei where my wife’s family is based.

What is your favorite hotel?

Nihiwatu on the lost island of Sumba in Indonesia. A couple of Christmases ago we stayed at this eco-resort, which is surrounded by wilderness, so there is a genuine sense of being on the edge of the world.

Nicholas Chow

Nicholas Chow  Photography by Berton Chang

Favorite sport?

Sport is definitely not my poison and I have never had any talent nor interest for it. I remember when in high school we were asked to pick a sport to focus on specifically that year. The spots for each activity—football, tennis, basketball and so forth—were limited, and given my lack of interest in sport, I made a point of being the last to sign in. By the time I showed up, the last space left was “Art Clownesque” so I spent a year learning how to ride a unicycle, juggle and wear a red nose.

What skill do you possess that might surprise people?

Videography. When I was a teenager, a neighbor and I developed an interest in filmmaking and began shooting horror movies with an old Super 8 camera. At Christmas two years ago, I received a vintage Beaulieu Super 8 camera and started shooting and editing again. I have been making trailers for my own “Curiosity” sales, as well as for colleagues at Sotheby’s who occasionally let me loose on their pieces. There is definitely an underlying scent of horror to all these trailers—not everyone likes them.

One of Chow's hobbies and fascination is videography, sparked by a Super 8 camera he had when he was younger.

One of Chow’s hobbies and fascinations is videography, sparked by a Super 8 camera he had when he was younger.  Shoot74/Shutterstock

How do you find calm?

I tend to stay home in the evenings when I am not traveling. That is when I have time to work on my photographic projects. Hours can go by like seconds.

Who do you admire most, and why?

My parents. I have always looked up to them for their kindness and sense of integrity and they continue to inspire me.

Who is your guru?

I have many. For art and aesthetics, Andre Malraux, whose 1947 book Le Musee Imaginaire proposes a dialogue between works of art from all civilizations and ages.

Nicholas Chow

Nicholas Chow  Photography by Berton Chang

How much do you trust your gut instinct?

I trust my gut instinct above all else, apart from my eye perhaps, and a lot more than my brain.

If you could stick at one age, what would it be, and why?

I don’t tend to look back.

Drive or be driven?

Driven. I do not have a driver’s license.

Chow's drink of choice--whiskey, preferably peaty.

Chow’s drink of choice—whiskey, preferably peaty.  Evgeny Karendaev/Shutterstock

Spirit of choice?

Whisky, preferably peaty, and grappa.

Movies or theater?

I am interested in images, so my preference has always been for the movies.

Bowie or Dylan?

Bowie.

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