By David Rosenfeld
From the outside, I.M. Chait Gallery looks unassuming. Located on a side street off Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, vines of ivy climb across a sun bleached awning that bares the gallery’s name. Underneath it guests ring a buzzer for entry.
While just a few sandwich boards on the street mark the Sunday auction, those inside know well this is one of the best places on the west coast to find Asian antiques. With $10 million in annual sales, the gallery holds more than 20 auctions per year where it sells entire estates or a single item to more than 100,000 potential buyers. Among its largest sales was a Chinese porcelain vase from the Ming Dynasty for $1.3 million. In March, the gallery took in $2.3 million in sales in a single week during which it sold a 15th century bronze Bodhisattva sculpture for $350,000.
On a recent visit, owner and creator 68-year-old Izzy Chait leads us on a tour of the 20,000 square-foot facility like a man overseeing the loot from the adventures of Indiana Jones. Among a room full of antiques there’s a collection of saber-toothed tiger skeletons, a woolly mammoth head from Siberia, a cast of a T-Rex skull and a collection of opalized snail fossils among hundreds of other treasures that encompass room after room in this sprawling complex. Chait, with his long white hair gathered in a ponytail beneath a trademark fedora, is clearly at home among the treasures.
“I know a little bit about everything,” he says with a smile. “How much is something worth is a question that’s really hard to answer. It’s worth what someone is willing to pay for it.”
Pinpointing a suggested selling price, however, is a large part of the service the auction house provides. To that end the company employs researchers who sort what comes in as part of estate sales or other collections that are sold on consignment.
“Sometimes you miss something, but not often,” Chait explained.
Not long ago they sold an inlaid iron pen box from Persia for $20,000 to an on-line bidder in Turkey. Rather than being from the 18th or 19th century, the box was probably from the 15th or 16th century.
“The most important thing is that you don’t make that mistake the other way around and say something is worth more than it actually is,” Chait said.
Brentwood residents Chait and his wife Mary Ann have been running the gallery, which holds auctions roughly every other Sunday, for the past 45 years. Chait started building ties in China in the 1970s long before the Internet and eBay so that today he is one of the foremost experts on Chinese antiques, even among the Chinese.
“If you’re in China and you have a collection and your family wants to sell something, you’d lose face if you sold it in the town you lived in, so you’re better off to sell it in Europe or America,” Chait explained during a pause in our tour. “I’ve been the person they go to when they want to sell something.”
Chait is also an accomplished jazz and blues singer, having recorded eight albums. He can be found on a semi-regular basis at Vibrato Grill Jazz on Beverly Glen near Mulholland Drive. The band plays largely cover songs with some originals mixed in. During April he performed a Frank Sinatra tribute at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, and he recently recorded a music video set to a Bob Dylan song he and the band recorded. Chait is so musical, in fact, he always likes to have a piano around, such as the one in the side room to his office at the gallery. Back when Chait first started collecting he was making a living as a singer. But he put all that aside to concentrate on the business. It was 15 years ago when he picked it back up again.
These days, he still travels to China but not as often. On a recent trip Chait appeared on a popular Chinese television program as one of three experts evaluating Chinese antiques. The host had also learned Chait was a singer, so in front of 50 million viewers he hands him a microphone and asks him to sing something. Not one to disappoint, Chait belted out a quick number to the appreciative crowd. It was a nerve-wracking moment, but not unwelcomed for a man who loves to try new things.
Following our interview, he and Mary Ann were on their way to a dance recital in San Francisco. Over the past few years, they both took up competitive dancing with respective partners and it’s only now they are competing together. The couple married in 1975 after having known one another in high school.
“We have been partners in a full sense of the word the whole time,” Mary Ann said. “We grew the business together, but he’s the one. I just helped.”
The pair’s three sons are also involved overseeing various departments.
“Izzy is very strict and they were raised to do the right thing,” Mary Ann said. “They did not get away with much. We used to drag them to China several times a year and do research projects when they got yanked out of school.”
Today, I.M Chait Gallery/Auctioneers is one of the world’s premier auction houses of Asian antiques and a go-to source for buyers all over the world. In addition to the live auction at the gallery, bids come in through a secure web site. Behind the scenes at Chait Gallery, the staff are largely Chinese speakers because so many of their buyers are Chinese.
“When China opened up about 30 years ago to the west, after Nixon’s famous trip, Americans went crazy buying all this stuff from China and bringing it in,” Chait said. “China was just getting over the trials of the cultural revolution and a lot of people were selling things. Now they want their things back that are really good quality, and they want them back especially from America where they know they’ve been out of the country for a while so it’s probably not a fake. In China most everything is fake.”
Chait first gained a love for Asian antiques during his time in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in 1966 and 1967. He worked as a cook but recalls sheltering often from incoming mortar rounds. One of his fondest memories were trips into town where he recalls a fondness for the culture.
“I felt like there had been times in my existence that I had been there before, not necessarily this lifetime,” Chait said. “The place was beautiful and the people were so nice. I felt camaraderie with the people, the culture, the languages, the food, and everything about it.”
Back in Los Angeles where he attended UCLA as an anthropology student, Chait studied Buddhism and made a living singing in nightclubs. As a hobby he also collected interesting antiques he found in back alley shops around the city.
“I decided I should sell some of this stuff and start doing shows,” he said. “So I did gun shows, swap meets, the Rose Bowl, the Glendale antique fair and people were buying this stuff. I was already making a living so I opened up a little store and was selling mostly small things like Chinese jade, and it just got bigger and bigger to the point where here we are 20,000 square feet later.”
Robert Snukal met Chait about 35 years ago when he ran a small antique shop in Santa Monica. While there were many antique shops in Los Angeles at the time, few concentrated on Chinese pieces like Chait did. The two shared a passion for collecting and soon became fast friends.
“It’s been a hobby for me, but it’s been the center of his life. He looks at something across the room and knows what it is. Iz has been doing this for a long time and so he’s very academically sound,” said Snukal who in particular collects antique Chinese porcelain and ceramic.
“It’s been interesting to watch the business grow and see the way it’s changed,” Snukal said. “When it became clear that you had to have a different format than the standard antique shop, Iz started doing auctions as an adjunct to the antique shop. Eventually he just concentrated on that.”
And to think it all began with a simple love of stuff.
“I really enjoy part of the aesthetic wave length or feeling you get from an object. There’s a message that’s carried through an object just like in a song,” Chait said. “I never forget an object. I might forget people sometimes, I’m sorry to say, but I never forget an object.”