The eccentric and fascinating nature of a Tibetologist art dealer

How much does a person have to be fascinated by a certain place to dedicate his entire life to study it? Not to mention this certain place remained untouchable and unvisited for years until this person could finally get in? This is the story of Sjoerd de Vries, an eccentric and cheerful Dutchman who I met by coincidence during my daily strolls in Amsterdam.

For more than 40 years he runs the only gallery in the Netherlands specialised in the ancient art from Tibet, Nepal and India. How unusual is that, I asked myself? Well, it all started when Sjoerd, like most of the generation from the 70's, were going to India, Istanbul and Nepal to find the truth and the meaning of their lives, embracing adventures during the hippie times. "I became fascinated about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. In Katmandu, Nepal's capital, I came across Tibetan refugees and they are such wonderful people! When I finished my master’s in art history, I discovered it was possible to study Tibetan culture in Holland, so I immediately went to University again", explains Sjoerd.

Gallery Astamangala in Amsterdam

That decision led him to become one of the only six tibetologists in the country. Honestly, I would never imagine such an occupation like this could even exist! More intriguing, perhaps, was for me to realise Sjoerd's passion about Tibet was cultivated from a distance as foreign visitors were banned from the country in the 18th century (Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet and eased the repression only as recently as the early 1980's).

To be a tibetologist means to study either culture - as in the case of Sjoerd - or linguistics, as most of the Dutch professionals do who dedicate themselves to translations and texts analysis. "I can read and write a little bit in Tibetan, I can also speak it, but I am not able to have a discussion with The Dalai Lama about life after death or something!", laughs Sjoerd, while he proudly points to a picture of him by His Holiness' side, as he describes The Dalai Lama. Such an esteemed picture was taken when they met while Sjoerd was the curator of the Tibetan collection at the former Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam.

Having his own gallery was a smart move to Sjoerd. According to him, actually, it was his way out to find a job as no company was looking for a tibetologist in the Netherlands. "Good combination, I thought, although naive: when I see the pictures of the opening of my gallery in 1979, I think How did I dare?! It was just enthusiasm!". I believe he did very well: his beautiful gallery called Astamangala is located on a lovely part of the noble Keizersgracht in Amsterdam. Once I entered, I immediately fell in love with all the Buddha statues, gorgeous Tibetan paintings known as thangkas, ritual objects, rugs and textiles. I could decorate my entire apartment with these fantastic items.

Buddha Statue at the gallery Astamangala in Amsterdam
Sjoerd de Vries at his gallery Astamangala in Amsterdam

Being the only one in this métier guarantees Sjoerd little market competition, but it is an effort to cater to the demands of a specific niche of buyers. "You have to be a maniac if you are a collector of such a peculiar tiny part of the world, attracted to a specific small period of history or style, always wanting to possess more and more", he reveals about his clientele's profile, which 97% are from anywhere but Holland.

As the majority of his clients comes from abroad, the same goes for the sourcing of the art pieces he sells. Sjoerd explains it is illegal to export antiquities from Tibet and Nepal because of their national heritage. That's why he made his reputation throughout Europe having attended numerous auctions and becoming closer to private collector-sellers, for example in Germany and England.

To anyone who wonders how affordable it would be to buy some ancient art from Astamangala, well, my favourite one costs €9,000: a stunning seated Buddha from the early 16th century. But let me give you a piece of advice: frequently Sjoerd selects a few items to give them a new life and puts them for sale online (it can start from €200 for a pocket-size bronze statue). "Sometimes it's frightening to open a drawer and see all these things I forgot they were there because I bought too much!", he exclaims.

Buddha Head at Astamangala Gallery in Amsterdam
Buddha Statue from the 3rd century Gandhara at the Astamangala Gallery Amsterdam
Ancient Art from Nepal India and Tibet at the Astamangala Gallery in Amsterdam

I guess this is part of the magic of art dealing: falling madly in love with a piece; feeling desperate to have it; keeping it until it disappears in a forgotten memory; struggling, maybe, to admit it needs a new purpose of life; and finally, in a generous, yet commercially-wise move, give up the ownership thereby keeping art and its enjoyment flowing from one person to the next.

Without question this flow is the past and the future of all the objects Sjoerd collected and showcases in his space, but to my disappointment the same won't happen to the gallery itself: "I made a deal with myself. As long as I am able to physically climb the stairs of my gallery, I will continue here. Once I cannot do it by myself, end of the business. It's my gallery, my personality, my collection and I wouldn't let just anyone run the show".

Sjoerd hopes he will be able to sell everything before that happens. I hope it too, as his personal touch and soul are already engraved in every single detail of it. If it's not the case, he said to me, "my two daughters can do it and have a wonderful life then!".

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