Q&A | Mikael Kraemer, Antiques dealer: ‘Macau is a heritage gold mine, like a holy land of Asia’

Operating since 1875, the Kraemer family is one of the biggest names in the antique dealing world. Based in Paris, the family business specializes in 17th and 18th century French antiques, with a particular focus on the reigns of King Louis XIV through XVI.

Mikael Kraemer, a fifth generation art expert who serves as the family’s international ambassador, has found himself increasingly based in Asia over the past five years and in particular in Macau. Speaking to the Times this month, the specialist said that he has a great admiration for the territory and the lure of the city keeps drawing him back.

This is partly why he is involved, behind the scenes, in art and antiques exhibitions in Macau.

Currently, Kraemer Gallery is loaning several French antiques to the A Golden Way of Life – Très’Ors exhibition at MGM Macau.

The exhibition celebrates gold in art, jewellery and antiques throughout recent European history. Though the pieces on display date from the past several hundred years, the yellow, precious metal has held a special place in the hearts of countless ancient civilizations.

For Kraemer, gold is the “most precious material in the world” and his family knows its value better than most.

“To give you an example,” he told the Times in an interview, “my family is Jewish and had to hide during World War II and take refuge in the south of France. They needed some help and had gold coins with them that they could give to those people [who helped them]. I can tell you: A gold coin at the time of the war would have been very appreciated by those people.”

While the Kraemer family used their wealth to escape persecution, national governments were acting similarly. Enormous quantities of gold were evacuated by several countries ahead of the Nazi advance in World War II, so as to prevent it falling into the invader’s possession. The scale of these gold evacuation operations is testament to the important of the material even in the present day.

Kraemer sat down with the Times to talk about his involvement in and fascination with Macau, how the art world is maturing in the city, and why gold’s value is seemingly eternal.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – Your family has operated out of the French capital for nearly 150 years. Why did you choose to venture into the East?

Mikael Kraemer (MK) – I started [working in Asia] five years ago in Singapore with Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum, then at the 1881 Heritage in Kowloon, and later at the IFC in Pudong, Shanghai.

I remember that when I was training in the art industry, people always used to look at me like Kraemer Junior, the fifth generation. But when I started to live in Asia, I really became Mikael Kraemer, and expanded our company presence here, when nobody knew about us five years ago.

I see it like I am living the Asian dream; when everyone used to [want] the American one. I thought it was a smarter move to start from the East.

MDT – In the past five years, you have found yourself spending more and more time in Macau. What is the lure of this city for you?

MK – I have a very strong affection for Macau and its cultural history. Macau is developing itself into a real cultural hub in Asia. And they know how to do it because the Macanese are really in love with their city. And this will come for sure – very easily – because Macau is sitting on a heritage gold mine. The gold is still here, I can tell. It’s like a holy land of Asia.

The sedan chair, powered by human labor, dating from the 1770s

I am not able to mention the names of my clients – for confidentiality reasons – but my family has been operating for over 142 years in the art business in Paris and our first two Asian clients were Macanese. That’s Macanese from Macau. Only later did we have clients in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo, Singapore, and Thailand.

There is also a quality of life in Macau that you don’t find in that many cities in Asia. After you have been traveling, you are always happy to return to Macau.

MDT – There are many cultural hubs in Asia. Why Macau?

MK – My first time in Asia was in 2002 and I was travelling together with my parents and a friend of mine. We arrived at The Peninsula in Hong Kong and I said to the concierge: ‘It’s our first time here, we are looking to visit the city and we are interested in art and exhibitions. We are here for three days. What can you recommend?’

The concierge looked at me very surprised and said: ‘Mr Kraemer Jr., you are in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, there are no museums. There are only two things I can advise you on: shopping and restaurants.’

That was our first contact with Asia and we couldn’t believe it. In fact, we thought it was a joke. So instead we travelled to Macau and visited some of museums here.

The Macau Museum of Art is one of the best museums in Asia – after Beijing and Shanghai – it’s one of the best, but people don’t know about it. And there are others. The MGM ArtSpace team, managed by Christina Kuok, is the most professional team I’ve met in Asia.

MDT – Tell us about your involvement in the exhibition at MGM, A Golden Way of Life – Très’Ors, and why it is all about gold.

MK – Gold is the most precious material in the world. From the Incas to the Greeks to the present day, gold has always been considered [precious].

Paper currencies go up and down. The deutsche mark or the French franc; how many currencies from the 18th century are still with us today? My parents were born in the time of the old French francs, then it became the new francs, and then about 16 years ago it became the euro.

At the end of the day, gold might be the only thing with real trade value. Gold has eternal value and so to have a lot of gold in art makes sense. For a long time, we’ve had gold sculptures, some artefacts gilded in gold leaf.

Even though when you sell gold you have to pay a tax – it doesn’t matter – because you know this has real value that anyone in the world will be looking to buy. At a time of war or uncertainty, the price of gold will always rise.

MDT – The Kraemer Gallery lent some antiques to a recent exhibition at the Macau Museum of Art for Russian-born, local artist Konstantin Bessmertny. What is your connection with the artist?

MK – Konstantin and I met three years ago through [mutual] Russian friends in Hong Kong and since then we have always talked about doing something together. I really like his way of speaking about art as well as his talent. Everybody told me: ‘If you go to Macau, you need to meet with Konstantin Bessmertny. He is the best artist in town.’

Konstantin asked me if he could borrow some of the French antiques related to gambling from my family’s collection. I said I was more than happy to help with this. We had gaming cards, chairs and some [miscellaneous] artefacts like candlesticks.

When I arrived and saw the installation, all the pieces were put on top of each other like a pyramid. He didn’t ask me, ‘can I use it like this or like that’, he was given a carte blanche, meaning that I closed my eyes, letting him do whatever he wants. I loved it, I really thought that his creativity and imagination was perfect.

I like Konstantin’s way of dealing [art]. He is not after the speculative investment that most collectors look for today. I think he has a philosophy or view about the world and about art and I have admired [that] for a long time now.

MDT – From your experience working in Macau, is there a market for antiques here?

MK – Yes, there is a market, and we need museum directors, art curators, art historians, interior designers, brokers, and many others that make up ‘the art family’. Auctions are doing very well here and they bring new record prices. This is good for us because we can sell at higher prices.

So, there is a market, but I am afraid there are too many speculators [in it], and those speculators may face sooner or later a nasty surprise.

A good friend of mine, from a very old dealer family, once said: ‘On the day your painting isn’t worth anything, you don’t love it anymore.’ And it’s true.

This is why I always advise that if you buy a piece of art, buy it because you love it.

Most of the Chinese art collectors do not resell [their purchases]. They buy with the idea of transmission to their children and their grandchildren. This is the best way.

MDT – How does working with an Asian or Chinese customer base differ from your experience in the West?

MK – It is a great time to be a French [person] living in Asia.

I would not have been able to do in Paris what I have been doing here. Everything in France takes more time and has to go through so many processes of validation.

Of course, it’s also very important when you sell to a Chinese collector that you have all the proper documentation to import into China. One day they may need to bring the piece to Hong Kong […] and they will need the documents.

[But] in Asia, I have direct access to the top people – the owners or CEOs – and they make the decision. Then the people below them executive it. So things result from a drink, or dinner or conversation. We shake hands – often not even signing a contract – because there is trust [between us]. So far, I have not had a single disappointment here.

Kraemer collection loaning antiques to MGM

A Golden Way of Life – Très’Ors is showing at the MGM Art Space until September 3, as part of the Le French May Silver Jubilee Celebrations. The exhibition invites the public to explore a collection of over 250 gold creations and artifacts, all of which were made between the 17th century and the present day.

Mikael Kraemer and the Kraemer Gallery have contributed several historical pieces to the exhibition, including an original edition of the world’s first Chinese-Latin dictionary, a personal travel box of King Louis XIII, and a sedan chair that most likely belonged to an aristocratic family in 18th century France.

Positioned by the entrance to the exhibition is the sedan chair – a portable covered chair powered by human labor – which dates from the 1770s. It was created to transport high-ranking individuals such as royalty and high aristocracy.

Kraemer said that the original coat of arms of the family would have been printed in the middle of the sedan chair.

“During the French revolution, they wanted to stay more discreet and so removed the family crest,” he told the Times. “You can tell it was a [wealthy] family because the piece is so beautiful, but we still don’t know which [family].”

Another gold-adorned, historical item from the Kraemer collection is a personal travel box that once belonged to King Louis XIII.

Made almost entirely of leather and “stamped with the coat of arms of France, with the L [for Louis] surrounded by the crown, the necklace of the holy spirit and the cross of the Order of Saint Michael… Only the king himself could use this piece.”

According to historians who worked to identify the piece and connect it to the French king, it was probably used for carrying writing equipment.

“Louis XIII liked to write himself, and we know of many letters written by him,” said Kraemer. “I like to say that this was like his personal laptop computer.”

A third piece, the Chinese-Latin dictionary, belonged to a 19th century Jesuit who traveled from France to China and learned the Chinese language along the way.

The very first of its kind, according to Kraemer, the dictionary was published in 1742 and is divided into three columns for the ease of its users. The middle column contains the Chinese ideograms, with the left column providing an accompanying guide to their pronunciation. The column on the right shows the Latin translation.

Although work on it was started in 1702 under the patronage of King Louis XIV, its 400 pages took around 40 years to compile at an astronomical cost of 16,000 gold coins.

“This would be a lot of money [in today’s terms], but three hundred years ago this might correspond to the price of building the Eiffel Tower or something similar,” said Kraemer.

There are just 12 known copies of the book in the world, down from the 200 copies made at the end of the 18th century. One is held in the French National Library, another in the Vatican Library, two or three in private collections and the rest with universities in Britain and the U.S.

“This piece belongs to me personally, and I am currently looking for a museum in China to welcome it as a permanent donation.”

Kraemer says he is looking for the “most appropriate” museum to donate it to, probably in Beijing or Shanghai.

“No Chinese museum has a copy… which is nonsense,” said the antiques collector. Daniel Beitler

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