Joel Chen is fond of recounting how a perceived racial slight sparked his career as one of the city’s most influential antiques dealers. Drawn by a window display, he tried to enter a Melrose Avenue antiques store but was told it was “for trade only.” Convinced this was discrimination, he got a $6,000 loan with the help of his father, a jewelry wholesaler downtown, and set up his own shop across the street. “I went to Hong Kong and bought a pile of junk, knowing nothing,” he says.
From that unlikely start more than 35 years ago, Chen expanded into antiques from Europe and South America and has even embraced midcentury modern classics and contemporary design. His own home, a 1920s English Tudor in Hancock Park, is a showcase for the same mix of decades and styles, plus works by local artists. Many of the pieces migrated from JF Chen—a four-showroom browser’s paradise that totals 65,000 square feet in the Highland Avenue-Santa Monica Boulevard area and features everything from a Louis XIV desk to a pair of 1950s Sam Maloof armchairs. He, too, caters to the trade, but walk-ins are welcome. “We don’t turn anyone away,” he says.
Chen describes himself as an inveterate collector. “It’s a sickness,” he says of the times he’s bought something, sold it, and then paid a small fortune to repurchase it. He’s attracted to outstanding craftsmanship: Among his favorite finds are Japanese articulated animals, some intricately wrought in ivory by netsuke artisans (and no longer legal to buy or sell) and others rendered in iron by samurai armor makers; polychrome wood santos, remnants of churches around the world; and abstract ceramic forms rendered in milky white glazes. Chen, who was raised in Hong Kong and moved to L.A. in the early 1970s, enjoys living with these and other cherry-picked objects. “They bring back memories of my travels,” he says.
His early taste for Asian antiques is evident in his great room, anchored by a red leather Jean-Michel Frank-style sofa. Two Japanese screens serve as a regal backdrop for a 16th-century Chinese scholar’s rock and a late-18th-century Chinese eunuch figure. An ancient root wood chair from Japan provides a rustic counterpoint. High on Chen’s list of current interests are Danish and California furnishings, which are coveted in today’s market and well represented in his living room by Ole Wanscher rosewood cabinets, an oversize Per Weiss vase, and a Tanya Aguiñiga enameled-metal stool.
“I don’t need to buy anything else in my lifetime,” Chen says, hinting that he may be scaling back his collecting. “There are days when I purge my home of 15 pieces, and they go back to the store.” Only to be replaced when, inevitably, he discovers other fascinating curios he can’t live without.