It was with great shock and sadness that the Chinese art world learned of the sudden passing of Robert Kleiner. A gentle, humorous man, universally liked and respected, his loss will be felt particularly keenly by collectors and dealers of snuff bottles, for whose world he has been for more than thirty years one of the pillars, whether - in his early days at Sotheby’s - putting together auction catalogues of exemplary clarity and reliability, or later, as a dealer, serving on the board of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, and producing a continuous stream of single-owner sales catalogues, immaculately researched and presented. His knowledge in his chosen field was formidable, but just as important he was exceptionally generous with it.
Forgoing a career in law, Robert entered the art world as an expert in the Chinese Art department in Sotheby’s, London, at an exciting time at the end of the seventies and start of the eighties when the auction house was just beginning to spread its wings globally, with ambitious new owners in New York, and recently-opened offices and a regular sales schedule in Hong Kong. Robert became a director of Sotheby’s Hong Kong and travelled there frequently during the eighties, both to catalogue the sales of imperial porcelain and carved jades, and to gather material to bring back for the London sales. Many of the sales were taken by Robert himself, as auctioneer. It was in Hong Kong that he met and came to know the coterie of local snuff bottle collectors, including the legendary figure of George Bloch, who together with his wife Mary was in the process of putting together a truly enormous collection of superb bottles. Along with Hugh Moss and Robert Hall, Robert became a key advisor to the collection, and it was Robert who wrote and produced the first catalogue of their bottles, to accompany an exhibition at the premises of Sydney L. Moss, Ltd in London in 1987. As the leading expert in the field of snuff bottles within the auction world, Robert also worked on important single-owner sales in other parts of the world, for example, the Alice B. McReynolds Collection which was sold in two parts, in Los Angeles and New York in 1984 and 1985.
In 1989, while remaining a consultant there, Robert left Sotheby’s to establish his own business, giving him the freedom to focus his attention more exclusively on snuff bottles. Judiciously, he selected premises at 30 Old Bond Street, located halfway along the well-trodden path between Sotheby’s and. Christie’s.
As a dealer Robert was as active as he had been at Sotheby’s, and ably assisted by his devoted wife Maggie and - increasingly as she grew older - his daughter Victoria, he participated regularly in several notable art fairs. His stand on the balcony of the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair was a favourite stop for collectors not just of bottles, but of small-scale Chinese art of all kinds, including jade carvings and Tang pottery miniatures. More recently he and Maggie had enjoyed taking part in Fine Art Asia, Hong Kong, and Masterpiece, London. It is a measure of his standing, and of the gentlemanliness of the tight-knit snuff bottle world, that Robert was also frequently called upon to act as a pre-vetter for dealers participating in other fairs, such as TEFAF Maastricht.
My earliest and fondest memories of Robert are from the time I joined the Chinese department in Sotheby’s in 1984, almost entirely innocent of any knowledge of Chinese art and thoroughly over-awed by the grandness of the institution. Meeting Robert, I knew at once that everything would be all right, and over a very short time his natural kindness and skill as a teacher became apparent, as he patiently dealt with an endless stream of annoying beginners’ questions, Then, as always, he cut a dapper figure, with his pin-striped suit and large-knot tie or bow-tie. He possessed an apparently inexhaustible supply of superlatives. One of his favourites was the word “tremendous”, which he would bestow in rolling and apparently non-ironic tones upon the diminutive bottle he held, characteristically, between index finger and thumb with the other fingers splayed, as he lifted it to the light and angled it appreciatively this way and that. Only at the last second would he tear his glance from the bottle, look over and smile, and the eyebrow would go up.
For me, as I am sure for many people who came into contact with him as a teacher, Robert’s memory will live on not just as a treasured colleague or friend, but as a voice in the ear directing our attention to some tiny but crucial point of expertise. His knowledge - at least a part of it - lives on in us.