Asian art expert And TV personality Lark Mason makes the move from the Big Apple to the Lone Star State and our San Antonio chronicler John Bloodsworth learns the secrets to Mason’s artful success
This bustling burg of New Braunfels, with about 70,000 inhabitants on the picturesque Guadalupe River, settled in 1845 by German pioneers, is home and high-tech business headquarters to one of the world’s most respected experts in… Asian art.
Lark Mason, who spent 25 years at Sotheby’s, 18 of those years as a Chinese art specialist, has been a major Asian art point-man on the popular PBS TV series Antiques Roadshow since the show went on the air in 1996. Mason has now moved his family and operations to Central Texas from his longtime base in New York City. “We are no longer New York residents,” Mason said. “This is our home. We’re Texans now.” His wife and business partner Erica chimed in, “Our apartment in New York now seems kind of like a hotel room.”
In 2003, Mason left Sotheby’s, where he had evaluated collections built by the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Onassis, and soon created iGavelauctions.com, an international art auction platform that gave him and associate sellers the opportunity to reach a knowledgeable international audience for the sale of fine art and antiques. With Erica and 27-year-old son, also named Lark (“The name, short for Larkin, goes back to the early 19th century in my family,” the elder Mason said), he runs one of the most successful and forward-thinking online art auction houses in the world from an 1880s converted German barn behind a white clapboard main house in a quiet neighborhood shaded from the Texas sun by massive old pecan trees.
Reasons for the move include a vibrant Texas business climate, proximity to some major clients in Texas and the surrounding states, and less restrictive sales regulations than in New York. And there is one more factor that went into the decision to move to Texas, maybe the most important. “You want to be around your grandchildren,” Mason said. “When you raise three children in New York City, you’d think that at least one of them would settle there. But one went to California and the other two settled in Texas. We weren’t familiar with this area, but young Lark liked it. We came to see the town, and it looked perfect. There are all kinds of things for kids — and adults — to do in a small town, yet it’s also near two big cities (Austin and San Antonio).”
In April 2014 Lark Mason Associates, Mason’s consignment auction service, sold on iGavel an 18th-century painted Chinese hand scroll depicting eminent Chinese generals for $4.2 million, a record price for a work of art sold at auction on any online venue. It contributed to iGavel’s 2014 sales totaling $19.5 million. “We sell very high-end items to audiences who do not have the opportunity to see them in person,” Mason said. “They trust that we have the expertise.”
On a breezy late October afternoon, wind chimes making music high in the pecan trees, Mason was still exhilarated from an auction the day before that had resulted in sales of $2 million, including a rare pair of 18th-century Chinese vases from the Imperial household that went for $950,000. In its dozen years, more than a quarter of a million unique art objects have been sold by an international group of associated sellers on the iGavel platform, including nearly 2,000 items at prices over $10,000. Lark Mason Associates, known for its spring and fall Asian art auctions, also offers European and other decorative arts on iGavel.
Recently, in Mason’s Texas barn, a treasure trove of conversation pieces from French giltwood torcheres to a Peruvian silver coffee set to an English naval dirk were on display for a group of long-time Texas clients and invited guests before going online for auction. It was a rare opportunity to bring selected objects from storage for an Autumn Festival Exhibition of Asian and European Works of Art offered in back to back online auctions by Lark Mason Associates. In February 2016, Mason is planning an auction of early Texas and California paintings. “A large portion of our business, maybe 50 to 70 percent, is in China,” said young Lark, a graduate of Abilene Christian University who lived for two years in China, where, he said, “My Mandarin got really good!” He stated that the company is shifting more into the decorative arts and other areas to be less dependent on the Chinese market. Before the elder Mason, author of a general treatise on Asian art and translator of “the bible” of books on Chinese furniture, became an expert in Asian art, he was “a generalist.”
“It comes from my background of buying and selling objects,” he said. Mason’s mom owned an antique shop in Doraville, Georgia, and he developed an interest in old objects as a boy of 10. “My parents took me on buying trips with them,” he recalled. By 15, he had his own stall at an Atlanta flea market. “I would load up my parents’ Country Squire station wagon with all my stuff to sell, and they would drop me off early in the morning and came back to get me later,” he said. At 20, after a move to Tennessee, he opened his own shop, Arcade Antiques, in a historic building on the town square in Cookeville.
Along the way, Mason earned a degree in English from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and an MBA from Tennessee Tech University.“I had always aspired to work in the international art market, but I just didn’t know how to do it,” he said. His opportunity came when Mason was one of 45 out of 800 applicants accepted to Sotheby’s Works of Art program in London in 1978. “It was a tough training ground covering almost every art period and style. There, I was introduced to Chinese art at the British Museum,” explained Mason. “I was astounded at the way I could experience an object the same way that someone had experienced it 500 years earlier.”
Although he had only taken one art history course in college, Mason thrived in the program, and Sotheby’s hired him the following year. It was the start of a 25-year relationship. Mason began as an appraiser, working with museums and galleries and private collectors, then stepped up to senior vice-president of the Chinese art department, and finally, foreseeing the value of the Internet in art sales, he was appointed director of online auctions. Which eventually led to iGavelauctions.com.
Of course, Mason was never resistant to mixing art with technology. In 1996, Boston’s WGBH-TV approached Sotheby’s about a new TV show. The idea was to bring a traveling troupe of art experts to a city and invite people to bring their family heirlooms in for evaluation. Who knew Aunt Minnie’s Navajo blanket was worth $100,000? The show was “Antiques Road Show,” and Mason was one of the initial appraisers, with an expertise in Asian art. After 20 years on the show, Mason has earned the status of veteran appraiser.
“The first year, nobody came,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Well, I guess this show’s not going to work.’ But then the next year, when we went to a city, there were thousands of people lined up around the block with their treasures. Over the years, we’ve had 10 million viewers.” Mason says the TV show “started a new phase in my life.” When Sotheby’s developed an online auction in 1998, he was “one of the people initially involved in it.” By 2003, Mason says he had “done everything I wanted to do at Sotheby’s,” which he praises for “allowing me to pursue my passion and make a career of it.”
But after 25 years, it was time to leave. So he founded iGavel, based on the Sotheby’s blueprint, which is a platform based on good photos, in-depth explanation, thematic sales and user-friendliness. “We solve problems for people, and answer questions definitively in areas where maybe [bidders] don’t have access to this kind of expertise, ” Mason explained.
Now, the trailblazing Asian art expert has set his sights on Texas, where he’ll surely make an impression on art collectors and appreciators across the state. And Lark wouldn’t think of living anywhere else for all the tea in… well, you know.