Lifestyle

New Kirkland art gallery filled with Asian history

Gallery owner Jim Russell catalogs a new piece his business received from China.  - TJ Martinell, Kirkland Reporter
Gallery owner Jim Russell catalogs a new piece his business received from China.
— image credit: TJ Martinell, Kirkland Reporter

Ming’s Zen Gallery’s move to Totem Lake Malls in Kirkland marks what its owners hope is the final destination for their import business, which has been transported as often as the antiques they sell.

Although technically open, the gallery plans to have a grand opening on June 20. In the meantime, owner Jim Russell said they have opened their doors to anyone curious to see what they have to offer.

The gallery has moved three times in as many years and was recently forced to move out of Bellevue. The building on Main Street was set to be demolished to make way for condominiums and apartments. Eleven other businesses were forced to move out as well.

The gallery offers imported art, furniture and antiquities from Far East countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan. The items include modern Buddha statues to one-hundred-year-old Mongolian cabinets and Korean wedding carriages.

The gallery also offers a special opportunity for either Chinese immigrants or Chinese Americans to purchase items not available in their homeland. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, there was a massive effort by the government to remove all trace of capitalist, traditional and cultural influences. As a result, the military confiscated art, relics and historical artifacts.

After a long time building diplomatic relations with the Chinese government, Russell said they have given access to purchase these items, which have been stored for years in warehouses, which are also acquired by private auctioneers in China. Russell said the pre-Cultural Revolution art is popular among Asian dealers, as well as Chinese businessmen who receive authorization to import the items back to China.

Although customers can also find such artifacts on auction sites like eBay, Russell said he constantly checks the current bid and ensures that he offers it for a much lower price. For example, one auction site offers a polychrome wood figure of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, for $1.3 million. Russell sells the same statue, albeit from a different period, for $48,000.

In addition to China, Russell said they take trips to Japan and Taiwan four to five times a year, where they visit the countryside and cities and handpick each item they decide to take back and sell in America.

Russell, who owns the gallery with his wife, Doreen, said he first got into the import business after a trip to Korea with a friend from school in Los Angeles. Although the country was still in ruins due to the Korean War in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he said he fell in love with the people and culture. He also bought a few items and brought them home. He soon found himself traveling to other Far East countries, buying items, and then selling them back in America where he discovered there was a demand for it.

For Russell, the gallery also offers a rich history of the items in question to their customers, who he said tend to be well educated and well-traveled. All their items one-hundred-years-old or more are regarded as antiquities and are fully documented and certified. He said he has 2,000 catalog books for all the antiques in their inventory.

“I sometimes think half of what we sell is education,” he said. “The other half is the item.”

Cindy Curren, one of the managers at the gallery, said the decor they offer complements the cultural tastes of people not only in Seattle but on the Eastside.

“I think it has strong appeal in this area,” she said. “It mixes well. It’s almost part of the Pacific Northwest.”

Before moving to Kirkland, the gallery had operated out of Union Station in Seattle’s International District, where Jim Russell first opened the business in 1966. They later moved to Issaquah before settling in Bellevue.

When they discovered they had to move out of the building on Bellevue’s historic Main Street, Russell said they had difficulty finding an appropriate location that would provide the space they needed at the right price. Because the majority of his patrons come from Bellevue, Kirkland and Seattle, he was eager to keep the gallery in the area where it could be easily accessed. After looking in areas throughout the Eastside, Russell discovered Totem Lake Malls, which had a 21,000 square foot space available.

“In 48 years, we’ve been up and down like a yo-yo,” he said. “You just have to say you’re going to make it work and do what you have to do to make it happen.”

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