There are those who would fall in love with new things, and those who are charmed by the Old World, and when it comes to antique trading, one of the key players in the region would be Ralf Ohletz Count von Plettenberg who has called Bangkok his home for decades. Recently, he decided to move again, and let go of some pieces from his extensive collection, with the help of his long-time friend Rolf Von Bueren of Lotus Arts de Vivre. That was when we had a chance to meet this antique connoisseur.
What is the very first item that you collected?
“It’s funny somebody asked me the same question this morning. When I was a student studying in the UK, of course, I lived on a student budget. For some reasons managed to put a few pounds aside and those days I used to go to Portobello road. And that object I remember very well, was a box. An inlaid box. I still have it. I guess this is the memory about the first thing I bought as a collection, because I like boxes. That was in the early 70s, so it was a long time ago. But I always look for an unusual element. I think that was one of my typical thing. I thought the box was interesting because it had different design aspects. Of course, as your taste level changes, you become more sophisticated, so I’m done with the boxes now but that was one of my first items.”
Can you give us a little bit about your background? Where you were born and why you work in Thailand for a long time?
“I don’t work in Thailand, I live in Thailand. I used to work in Thailand a long time ago. My parents wanted me to be a businessman but I was never good enough for that. So I ended up in hotel business and started as a chef. I went to Cornell. I went to Heidelberg. When you are in the hotel business, you have to go through very stages and understand the whole complexity of the business. In order to go to a certain school, you have to have training as a chef or as an accountant or front office. So I choose that. My first thing was a two Michelin-starred restaurant.
And not that I know how to cook today but that was a good foundation. Then I basically left Europe more than 40 years ago to come to Asia because Asia had a lot of opportunities, a lot of new hotels and the latest in our business. And Asia was just opening up, resort-wise and business-wise. So I never looked back. I have been going back to Europe quite a lot but never got to work, never for business, but now because my son has graduated last year from a school Bangkok Pattana, that’s why I was living in Bangkok. But about 30 years ago I was involved in a hotel called The Sukhothai. So I did work at one stage in Bangkok. I lived in Singapore for so many years but I have been travelling worldwide because I have hotels worldwide. So I lived in 4-5 different places.”
Which item shown here is the most hardly to discover or to find?
“I think it’s the one the front page of the catalogue. It’s very unusual, which is the wild boar which has four tusks, which is quite unusual because wild boars usually have two. Yeah. And these tusks are big and the boar is quite small. But in Europe the boar is very fat and the tusk is small. So it’s quite an unusual piece and it’s one of the biggest. And it’s quite an intricate piece. I came across it a long time ago because I had, for many years, a craftsman working for me in Bali creating all these things. I didn’t create that.”
You have a factory?
No, I have craftsmen, the workpeople who did things only for me. Sadly (the main craftsman) passed away a few years ago. And so I ended up with a huge collection of this thing which I did basically for myself. But now that I’m also reducing my house here in Bangkok and I have so many pieces. Rolf has been my friend for more than 30 years. We decided to let go some other pieces and the masterpieces. We have almost a thousand pieces. Here are just one hundred now. So I think we do it in stages.
And how do you work with Khun Rolf Lotus Arts de Vivre?
We are friends and I’m a customer, but I have purchased many of his items so there is a shared value there. And I couldn’t think of it because I’m not a businessman and such and I couldn’t think of anyone else selling it. Together and it fits in what he’s doing, one-of-a-kind pieces. He came to my house and selected this, and this and this. And so that’s what you see now.”
You’re traveling around and see a lot of objects. How do you choose what to buy?
“Well, I my business is very international. I work in different parts of Asia, Europe, previously in America and my hotels are all bespoke. We don’t just sit in a room, we sell a lifestyle package. So everything we do in these hotels is quite focused on the location and on the specific craft that’s available in the country. The Sukhothai, for example, you have a lot of elements to be used in the design. I’m not a designer or an architect. We use the elements that Thailand is well known for, like beautiful bronze, silk, teak wood, terracotta, celadon, all these elements you find as part of the design. And because I came in contact with those incredible craftsmen like in Bali, these guys will make incredible things. I started buying basic kris. I bought it, I didn’t make it. It’s an old kris but it was very simple.
So, I like to merge the Baroque era and the Asian element. The baroque era is quite a colorful, strong way, overpowering at times, and I combine that with the simplicity of an Asian object. And in it you create a complete new thing. Together it looks quite stunning. So that is what I like. I like to create something or I find something. For instance, in here there is a broken small owl all out there. I remember this very well that I bought it in London. The nose was broken and so nobody bought it. So I brought it to my craftsman and he made a complete new face and nose and gold suit. It has a new lease of life. And it’s a new object.
It’s interesting for me to get inspired and to create something and because that’s what I do in my business, I conceptualise hotels. I’m not a designer nor the architect. But I work with the great architects and designers together and I think the combination makes a good product that’s very unique.
I think that’s what you find in this collection because these are one-of-a-kind. You don’t find two of the same. It’s not mass produced. It can’t be reproduced. Very difficult.
So that’s what I like. I was always attracted by the one-off, the one-of-a-kind, the unusual. The special attention to a piece. This piece is one piece that’s it.
How do you work with the craftsmen?
I just give him the idea they create the object. You know I’m not a silversmith or goldsmith at all. And I said I want Something very baroque. I want stones, I want silver, I want it. And then he does it. So it’s his work but my work is his work. I give them inspiration.
You are like an art director.
“Yes, a bit like that. A bit like a movie maker. Mean I write the script but then you have all the people there are actors and the filmmakers and the go sound and then the muskets. So yes that’s right. I’m a script writer.”
Well that’s interesting. It’s not just an antique. You have an input to create something new.
“Yes, like my hotels. We create environments that are long lasting. Like The Sukhothai is 30 years old and still you walk in there and it’s beautiful. A classic. I like things that men do with taste. I like things that keep its value. And this is really why I like collecting. And it’s not about the value for me, it’s about the collection and what each piece represents which is nice. But there comes a time when you have too many. So. It’s good to let go and and Rolf has given me that opportunity to do so and I think there’s no better one because he understands what they do. They create one-of-a-kind pieces. And so apart from being a friend there’s also a shared value in the things so he understands.”
So any plan in the future to own museum?
“May be not a museum but since I have different homes and and home are all different. So when I’m in Germany I don’t have a German home,but it’s very much German influence. Still, when I’m in Asia I also have European objects here because I’m European and I don’t want to live in a pure Asian environment because I enjoy what Europe gives me. It’s my DNA. I also love Asia because that’s been my home for the past 30 years or so. So the combination of things creates a very nice, for me, environment that I enjoy living because I travel a lot and no business is like any other business. And so when I’m at home I can really relax because I feel at home. That’s me.
I don’t do this because I want to impress a photographer or anything and it’s because I like details and I like to have beautiful homes. And it’s my taste, you know. People come to My house and wow my goodness, too many things. Get rid half of the stuff. But that’s me. You know I’m not a minimalist. I like a lot of things. I like layering. And because when I when I’m in my house I get inspired by many things I look at something. I did this long time ago but I get ideas and I think that’s refreshing. You don’t just buy it because it has a value. For some people, some pieces have values, not because they are expensive but because they’re beautiful and because fo they way have been created.
And I think that’s the interesting part because taste and style has nothing to do with money. It’s just a feeling for you, either you have it or you don’t. And so I’m lucky I have a good eye and I can see something or the potential of something.
And it’s just a hobby. I’m not in the business. I never sold anything. So this is the first time really I sell something commercially. You know. And I’m happy that some people will come and we had some people here this morning who really focused on things because I knew what they’re looking at because it’s a conversation piece.
For my business, all of my hotels are not the typical branded property. You walk in there, like The Sukhothai, and meet this surprise. I live what I do and I do what I live. My business is what I enjoy. And that’s why I never work.”
Have you ever worked with Thai craftsmen?
“Oh yes, of course. There’s one across the road here called Promote Art Resources. We’ve done a lot of work together for my hotels, mainly in casting bronze items and bronze tables and knobs and also things. There are a lot of interesting skills, but it’s getting less because it takes time. This is also what I told Rolf, based on his items it is not just an object you’re looking at, sometimes you need to see because everything is measured in how many hours you’re working a day. Sometimes it’s also worthwhile to put these the hours it has taken to produce a new object. It takes a lot of time and patience.
This is difficult to find because now we live in a fast-moving world, and younger generations don’t have the patience and the time because interests are changing you. Everything is so quickly and so fast with the Internet. Why I think of the older craftsmen? That’s what they did in a way. If you look in Indonesia, the farmers created this this craft, the arts of carving wood and making baskets all in the rainy seasons when the rice was planted in. So, what are you gonna do then, right? This is the same in Europe. They do farming, but in the winter they make cheese.
But nowadays of course farmers do other things you know so the focus has shifted and and you see that clearly in the quality of items. And that’s what I like, for me I don’t do it commercially. I like something to be beautiful and it has to be a one-off thing. And sometimes I never asked that guy, but this has taken months to do. There’s not something to put together quickly. And you can see everything is so delicate. So I like that not everybody appreciates this. Perhaps. But that’s what I enjoy in and I’m happy to share this with the Lotus Arts de Vivre clients now because it just have too many things.”
Like you mentioned that now we live in our fast changing world. How do you see craft and craftsmanship for the next generation?
“Nowadays, it is all about comfort level. First of all the threshold for luxury has changed. In the old days, luxury was watch. Why only the Swiss can make watches because it’s a very specific. Why not Chinese? Because the Chinese are more into this electrical engineering, you know, when it comes to this the Chinese are the best. They make phones, like iPhones. But why the Swiss don’t make phones? The Swiss make the best watches which are very refined. Why can’t they make phones? Because it’s two different disciplines. And so and I saw a very interesting comparison which was made by Tim Cook the head of Apple. He was asked when Trump came to power and because of the trade war here and there. Now you’re going to move all your factories to the US? And he said no he can’t because if he advertises for a technical engineer or computer engineer, he gets one thousand applicants in the US. In China, he gets one hundred thousand, because they have certain skills to do that.
The value for luxury is changing because people don’t appreciate certain things that take forever to make or whatever. So other values come into place. But customization and one of a kind always has this place. You might have the same idea for a car. Mercedes-Benz, that’s it. Five hundred. But if it’s the same car, same engine, same everything, same chassis, but with the green-yellow interior. Everybody wants to have their customized things. And so that makes a difference. There’s always room for personalization. It will be a different execution. Machines can do a lot of things, but the hand crafted elements will be less. And because it will be too expensive. If you put this all into time it takes to produce, you won’t be able to pay. The guy takes two months or whatever to do this.
So luxury is not the same, because luxury is really the air quality. It’s to make sure that you are well, and when you get older you will function well. So people put money into other things and just typical values to sleep well. To eat well. Peace of mind. These are new values today that is much more appreciated and because we live in a very hectic world the pressure. You know I mean we never heard of a word of burnout 10 years ago. There was a new word.
The difference being holiday and working is now very murky because you don’t need to go to an office and on that they can do work from anywhere. So these ideas of holidays, working and free time is all now mixed up. And we need to create in our business something which is more related to service. I think services become more and more an important part of luxury today. And because not many people have a house with four or five staff, not cooks and maids some whatever. This is the old luxury, the new luxury is convenient luxury means you go have a big apartment but you can order a cook. The way we experience things and and items like this will always has to have a value.”
Shop the collection online at Lotus Arts de Vivre’s website.