Auctioneer Lark Mason on His Decades-Long Fascination With Asian Art
Mason has logged 20 years in the online auction business—and even more as an expert in Chinese art.
2023 marked a significant milestone in Lark Mason’s career: his 20th year in the online auction world. In that time, his auction house Lark Mason Associates has established offices in Manhattan and New Braunfels, Texas. It has set sales records for artifacts such as historic Chinese scrolls and figures, while landing high-profile sales including the auction of Anthony Bourdain’s estate in 2019.
But Mason’s story has humbler roots. After experiencing his first auction at age 12, he found work with a local auctioneer in Atlanta, Georgia, before opening his first antique business during his college years in Tennessee. From there, Mason would log more than two decades with Sotheby’s, where he served as senior vice president in its Chinese Works of Art department, then director of its online auctions.
Today, Mason is an authority in Asian art whose expertise and reputation have attracted collectors from all corners of the globe. His collaborative work with Chinese furniture scholar Wang Shixiang, as on the 1990 book Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, has further solidified his standing among Chinese buyers. “We were fortunate to be in the Chinese furniture field when great discoveries were being made, records set at auction, museums expanded collections, and public interest exploded,” he said.
In 2003, he foresaw the potential of online auctions when they were still considered a novelty, launching iGavelAuctions to align with the economic boom in mainland China. The move not only expanded his reach but also connected Chinese buyers with American and European art markets. iGavelAuctions would become a hub for international buyers, particularly from China, looking to explore Western art auctions.
Beyond the auction world, Mason has been a regular on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow television series. The show has cemented his keen eye and expert appraisals of Asian treasures, as much as his distinctive style—a bow tie, tweed sports jacket, and horn-rimmed glasses.
As Lark Mason celebrates two decades in the online auction business, we caught up with him to find out what he values in art and life—and why.
What do you most value in a work of art?
The discovery of greatness. Objects encapsulate cultural and natural influences, materials, personal skills, life history, human interactions, and quirks of the moment that affect the artist during the creative process. When each of the components of the creative process nears “perfection,” greatness results. Examining the minutiae of what makes “greatness” is exciting as is sharing it with others.
Do you think there is something the general public needs to know more about when it comes to Asian antiques?
Asia is a big place which has few commonalities aside from geography. The primary market for most Asian works of art within the past century has been in the “West,” resulting in a tremendous number of great works of art located outside of Asia. Often the best source for owning or seeing Asian works of art is not in Asia, but in the U.S. or Europe.
What is your most treasured possession?
Our Chinese Huanghuali Ming Bed, which we’ve owned for nearly 40 years. I purchased the bed in Hong Kong in the late 1980s from Kit Fu Tam, one of the great behind-the-scenes dealers in Chinese furniture in Hong Kong. Kit found the bed for m; we saved some money and purchased it and transported it to NYC. When our three children were young, they all slept in the bed lined up like sardines. Now, we have it back.
What makes you feel like a million bucks?
Joining my historic preservation colleagues at a reception in one of the Newport Mansions for a trustee meeting of the Preservation Society of Newport County and being part of the incredibly talented and dedicated team responsible for these magnificent architectural treasures, ensuring that these will be conserved and restored for current and future generations.
Who is an overlooked artist who hasn’t yet gotten their due?
Not much is known of the many individual craftsmen in China who labored in the imperial workshops, whether those creating silk textiles or those carving lacquer. The heights of skill required for their work was astounding and yet not much is known.
What’s not worth the hype?
NFTs had a big dip which because expectations outpaced the market. The setback was necessary and allows a time for those in this market to regroup.
What is something small that means the world to you?
A medium-sized flint spear point dating back to around 8,000 B.C.E., which I found in Georgia when I was around 12-years-old. Our backyard included a fallow field near a creek and I saw it protruding from a furrow. When I picked it up, my curiosity was piqued and I wanted to discover more about it, which has been a constant feature of my life ever since.
What’s been your best investment?
I applied for and was accepted for Sotheby’s Works of Art Program in London in 1978–79. To pay for it, I sold my antique shop and used my savings to pay for my tuition. When finished, I was hired by Sotheby’s to work in the Appraisal Department in New York which began my career. It was by far my best investment decision.
What is the last thing that you splurged on?
Purchasing a Mercedes 1994 E300 Diesel “Elegance Package” Eurowagon. It was a practical choice. My father owned a Mercedes 190D (Diesel) and in 1960 had a head-on collision and escaped unscathed. I remember that 190D and since then have owned a number of older Mercedes.
What is something that you’re saving up for?
Restoration of our Mercedes 1991 TD350 Sedan and our Mercedes TD300 1985 Eurowagon. Both are works in progress. We don’t show these, we drive them. Both my wife and I love driving them. We have a 2023 Mercedes 2500 Sprinter as our work vehicle.
What would you buy if you found $100?
Likely nothing. Because I found it, I would probably give it away to our church. If I had to buy something, it would probably be groceries.
What do you think is your greatest asset?
I am deliberative, thorough in my approach to projects and persistent. I enjoy working on projects with people who are talented and excited by what they do and enjoy working with objects from the past.
What do you believe is a worthy cause?
Historic preservation. Art, antiques, and historic buildings and places convey information about the lives of those who came before us. Buildings and objects are repositories of knowledge and evidence of skill, craftsmanship, training, and hard work. These objects and places deserve to be woven into the fabric of our communities because they bring stories to life about people who used and developed their skills to create the world we inherited. What they left behind are more than buildings and objects—they transmit how others dealt with “life”—and the best of these are beacons for us as individuals and as a culture.
What do you aspire to?
I aspire to be better than I am.
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