It should have been just another day at the office for TV’s Antiques Roadshow presenter Lark E. Mason in 2002. But one of the pieces that someone brought in for a free appraisal didn’t just pique his interest, it almost completely overwhelmed him. It was all he could do to maintain his composure.
Of course, it’s the stuff of daytime TV, the finding of a valuable antique in the cellar or the loft packed away in an old box. That old blanket turns out to be a valuable American Indian artifact. The disregarded teapot is identified as a rare piece of 18th-century porcelain. The muddy-looking painting emerges as the work of an Old Master.
The truth is that such finds are as rare as hen’s teeth. But on that 2002 episode of Antiques Roadshow it was clear to see that Mason had been presented with something he considered to be truly outstanding. So overcome by emotion was he that for a few moments he was barely able to speak.
And Mason was no wet-behind-the-ears appraiser. This was – and is – a man with many years of experience under his belt. Mason is a recognized expert on Chinese antiquities. He spent more than a decade as design teacher, including a spell at the New York School of Interior Design. He worked at Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art Department in New York for 24 years, rising to the position of senior vice president.
Mason left Sotheby’s in 2003 and founded a successful company, iGavelauctions.com. He continues his academic pursuits as an adjunct professor at New York University. And of course he’s been an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow for 22 years.
But on that day back in 2002, for once the eloquent Mr. Mason was at a loss for words. The segment started off well enough with a lady of mature years explaining that her grandparents had acquired the piece in question, a marble statue of a lion, while in China early in the 20th century.
The lion’s owner went on to explain that she’d inherited the piece, and a family friend with some knowledge of Chinese art had taken a look at it. He thought that it was very valuable and probably from the period of the Ming Dynasty.
Mason started out well enough, “Okay. Well, I’ll start out by saying when this came up, I could barely…” At this point the normally unflappable Mason’s voice broke. And now his emotion was even making the lion lady nervous. The question now was whether Mason would be able to regain his composure.
But ever the consummate profession, after a struggle, Mason managed to get himself back on an even keel. “It’s fantastic. This is truly… Sorry, I’m a little worked up. This is among the finest examples of Chinese art that we have seen on the Roadshow. The carving is beautiful. The workmanship is stunning,” he continued.
Obviously highly impressed, Mason continued to praise the work. “The carver who did this was truly a master. You can see the muscles rippling under the surface. It’s the finest quality marble you can get. It’s truly magnificent,” he told the owner.
But Mason had one important correction to the information that the owner’s friend had given. This was not a piece from the era of the Ming Dynasty. “This dates from the golden period of Chinese art, which is called the Tang Dynasty, between the sixth century and the ninth century,” Mason pointed out.
The Tang Dynasty was a Chinese imperial house that lasted for some three centuries from 618 to 907 is, as Mason said, regarded as the golden age of ancient Chinese art. It was a time when all branches of the arts blossomed including music, literature, dance and painting. Sculpture too enjoyed a period of great creativity and skill as we can see from the splendid lion appraised on the Antiques Roadshow.
This flowering of arts and culture can partly be traced to the contacts that the Tang Empire had with other peoples, notably those of India and the Middle East. The invention of block printing also meant that the written word was available to spread ideas and information.
Much of the sculpture of the Tang Dynasty was religious in nature. At a time when Buddhism was the prevailing faith, many carvings of the Buddha were made, and these ranged from life size to exquisite miniatures. The fabulous wealth of many of the Buddhist monasteries funded this prolific period of artistic production.
Especially renowned are the statues carved directly into limestone cliff faces at the Longmen Grottoes, many of which were created during the Tang Dynasty. The grottoes have had UNESCO World Heritage status since 2000, and the citation for the award called the carvings “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity.”
Apart from sculpture, pottery was the other form of three-dimensional art that flourished during the Tang period. The tombs of the ruling elite were frequently decorated with earthenware figures and often featured vividly colorful glazes. The Tang era is also well known for its production of fine porcelain.
But back to our marble lion. On the Antiques Roadshow Insider website, Editor-in-chief Larry Canale described the lion as one of the two most memorable items that had ever appeared on the show. The other was a Navajo blanket with an estimated value of between $350,000 and $500,000.
The episode that featured the lion had been filmed in 2002 in Albuquerque. Canale remembered that, “Mason was visibly moved, both before taping the segment and immediately afterwards. It was such an important piece – one he never expected to encounter in New Mexico – that he got a little choked up. It totally caught him by surprise…”
Subsequently, writing in Antiques Roadshow Insider in 2003, Mason noted how perfect the piece was. He described how it was “smooth and unmarred by damage.” And he pointed out that the detail of the carving was as clearly defined as the day it had left the master craftsman’s workshop. But what value would Mason put on the marble lion?
Here are Mason’s own words, “I told the lion’s owner that its value might be a bit more than expected: around $250,000.” Canale recalled, “But the lion’s owner took it in stride. She was as cool as a cucumber, even if she was as astonished by the value as Mason was by the lion itself.”