John Sparks Ltd Archive

Scope and Content

Administrative business records of John Sparks Ltd, dealer in Chinese art (London), comprising: stock books, 1902-1966 [JSP/01]; ledgers (account books), 1901-1966 [JSP/02]; daybooks, 1901-1980 [JSP/03]; cashbooks, 1900-1951 [JSP/04]; journal (accounts), 1906-1926 [JSP/05]; New York office accounting records, 1915-1923 [JSP/06]; administrative records, 1906-1991 [JSP/07]; warrants of appointment, 1954-1987 [JSP/08]; company catalogues and brochures, 1950s-1987 [JSP/09]; visitors' books (which additionally cover events held by Alistair Sampson Ltd), 1966-1998 [JSP/10]; proofs for company advertisements, 1950s-1991 [JSP/11]; scrapbook and press cuttings relating to the history of the company, 1899-1990 [JSP/12]; photographic material, including images of company premises and artworks 1919-1991 [JSP/13]; company signs and labels, late 20th century [JSP/14]; and records and photographs relating to the Dreyfus Collection of art sold by the company, 1920s-1970s [JSP/15]. The fonds also includes personal records of former John Sparks Ltd director Michael Gillingham, 1975-1997, including appointment books, notebooks and personal correspondence [JSP/16]; and papers relating to the Sparks family, 1826-xxxx, including a family scrapbook and civil registration records [JSP/17].

Administrative / Biographical History

John Sparks Ltd was a leading British dealer in Chinese art, trading in London between 1906 and 1991. The company bought and sold Chinese and East Asian works of art and antiques, including ceramics, metalwork, lacquer, hardstone carving and furniture. Goods were procured via dealers and agents, private sellers and public auction; and sold to private collectors, dealers and collecting institutions around the world. Sparks' clients included most of the prominent collectors of Chinese art of the twentieth century.

The art dealership’s precursor, the Japanese Fine Art Depot was established by George Elliot, in the mid-1880s, based at 15 Duke Street, Manchester Square, London. The Japanese Fine Art Depot and its premises were acquired in around 1888 by John Sparks (b 1854-d 1914), a former captain in the merchant navy, with experience of importing Japanese and East Asian 'curios' during his service working on commercial shipping routes in Asia. Under John Sparks, the Japanese Fine Art Depot moved to 17 Duke Street, Manchester Square in 1899, incorporating residential space for the Sparks family, and by 1901 the business was advertising itself as the John Sparks Oriental Art Gallery.

The early focus of the Depot under John Sparks was on the sale of Japanese fine arts, crafts and antiques, with a smaller number of sales of artworks of Chinese origin. Stock was acquired through Sparks' contacts with dealers in East Asia and Europe, including Samurai Shokai (Yokohama), Yamanaka & Company (London-Osaka) and Paris Tonying and Co (Paris). The dealership was involved in lending objects for public display, including the Japanese Exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, London in 1902. During the early 1900s, as the British market for Chinese art grew, the company dealt increasingly in Chinese ceramics and other artworks.

In July 1906, John Sparks Ltd was formerly established as a limited company, with John Sparks as managing director and Frederick James Abbott as secretary. The success of the business meant that John Sparks was able to buy out his company’s shareholders in 1910. In the same year Ernest (known as Peter) Sparks (b 1894-d 1970), the son of John Sparks, joined the firm. In 1911, the company relocated to a larger gallery premises at nearby 37 Duke Street, Manchester Square, London. Captain John Sparks died in 1914 and Peter Sparks assumed directorship of the company.

The firm opened an office in New York, USA in autumn 1915, with a gallery named John Sparks of London, based at 707 Fifth Avenue/55th Street. Spark's venture in America was suspended in March 1916, likely due to the worsening situation during the First World War, but the company resumed operations in 1919. The New York enterprise closed finally in 1923.

During the 1920s, Sparks developed a series of direct relationships with Chinese-based dealers, including Captain William Frederick Collins, Zie Soey Koo and T.T. Woo. In around 1925 Sparks entered into a business relationship with the Shanghai dealer Zie Soey Koo to act as a permanent agent in China, based at a store at 103 Chiao Tung [Jiao Tong] Road in the International Settlement, Shanghai; an enterprise overseen by Sparks' company secretary Frederick James Abbott. This 'Shanghai Office' allowed the company to further source and import stock procured from other Chinese-based dealers, including King Koo Chai (Shanghai), Lee Van Ching (Shanghai), Edward T. Chow (Shanghai),

In 1927 John Sparks, Ltd relocated to larger gallery premises at 128 Mount Street, Manchester Square, London. The company held regular exhibitions of artwork at Mount Street, including joint exhibitions with the Paris-based dealer C.T. Loo (1935, 1936) and an exhibition of the Paul Baerwald Collection (1937). John Sparks Ltd also participated or exhibited at a number of national and international art exhibitions and antiques fairs, including the Exhibition of Art Treasures (1928), Glasgow Exhibition (1930), Antique Dealers' Fair, Grosvenor House (1934 onwards), and the influential Royal Academy of Arts International Exhibition of Chinese Art (1935-1936). During the Second World War, exhibitions were held outside London at Temple Newsam, Leeds (1940) and Harrogate (1941).

John Sparks Ltd was reincorporated as a limited company in January 1937. The Japanese occupation of International Settlement in Shanghai in 1941 during the Second World War led to the closure of the Sparks office in Shanghai; however the company continued to be trade with many of its Chinese contacts; and after the Communist Revolution In 1949, continued with its business associates in Hong Kong, including Edward T. Chow.

From around 1960 the company was under the management of Peter Vaughan (b 1911- d 1987), who became Company Director following the death of Peter Sparks in 1970. Vaughan was succeeded as director by Michael Gillingham (b 1933-d 1999).

In the increasingly competitive international market for Chinese art during the 1980s, the company, under Gillingham, sought to remain viable by increasing its capital base through a 1989 agreement with dealers Michael Willcox Limited of Maidenhead and the private investor Roger Plant. The recession of the early 1990s led to financial difficulties for the firm. Financial support from the company's backers was removed leading to the company ceasing trading and its closure in 1991. The company's remaining stock was sold off at auction at the broker Christie's in December 1991. The Sparks' office at Mount Street was acquired by Alistair Sampson Ltd, for whom Gillingham later acted as a consultant.

During its operation, John Sparks, Ltd was awarded the royal warrant of appointment as antiquaries of Chinese art from Queen Mary [Mary of Teck] (1926); King Gustaf VI of Sweden (1954) and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1987).


Hancock, Liz, 'John Sparks, Sea Captain and Dealer in Japanese and Chinese Art', CARP: Chinese Art Research into Provenance [website], 2013, (accessed October 2018)

Huang, Ching-Yi, 'John Sparks, the Dealer and Chinese Art in England, 1902-1936', PhD thesis, SOAS University of London, 2012 [Classmark: Thesis 3443].


The John Sparks Ltd archive is sub-divided into seventeen record series:

JSP/01 Stock books

JSP/02 Ledgers (account books)

JSP/03 Daybooks

JSP/04 Cashbooks

JSP/05 Journal (accounts)

JSP/06 New York office accounting records

JSP/07 Administrative records

JSP/08 Warrants of appointment

JSP/09 Catalogues and brochures

JSP/10 Visitors' books

JSP/11 Advertising proofs

JSP/12 Scrapbook and press cuttings

JSP/13 Photographic material

JSP/14 Labels and signs

JSP/15 Records relating to the Ruth Dreyfus Collection

JSP/16 Personal records of Michael Gillingham

JSP/17 Sparks family papers

Access Information

The John Sparks Ltd archive is open for consultation in the Special Collections Reading Room, SOAS Library during its opening hours, subject to the following restrictions: records containing personal data relating to clients of the company have been closed under data protection legislation, with agreement of the depositor, for the assumed lifetime of these data subjects (84 years following record creation). Two photograph albums [JSP/13/02/02 and [JSP/13/02/03] are closed due to poor condition, awaiting conservation.

Restrictions Apply

Acquisition Information

The John Sparks Ltd archive was officially deposited at SOAS Library on long term loan by the board of trustees of the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art in December 2017.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Some records within the John Sparks Ltd archive were subject to external conservation work in 2016 and 2018.

Archivist's Note


Conditions Governing Use

Self-service photography is permitted in the reading room for non-commercial, personal research purposes. For permission to publish please contact Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library in the first instance.

Copyright in records previously held by John Sparks Ltd is believed to have transferred to the Crown, bona vacantia, following the dissolution of the company in 1991.

Appraisal Information

Duplicate records and publications removed and returned to the depositor in 2018, including multiple copies the catalogue, 'John Sparks: A Celebration' [JSP/09/01/03]; multiple copies of sales brochure, 'Chinese Birthday Cups’ [JSP/09/02/01]; multiple copies of proofs for company advertisements [JSP/11/01 and JSP/11/02]; multiple copies of object labels [JSP/ 14/01] and multiple loose photographic prints of artworks [JSP/13/03]. A bound copy of ‘Illustrated London News’, Vol. 24 (January 1854-June 1854) found with the John Sparks Ltd archive was deemed to be ephemeral and returned to the depositor in 2018.

Custodial History

In 1991, following the winding up of John Spark Ltd, the company’s archive came into the possession of its last Director, Michael Gillingham. After Gillingham’s death in 1999, the Sparks archive was sold at auction in 2000 at Sotheby's [reference: 40/688/11] and purchased by the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, University of London. The Sparks archive was subsequently stored at the Percival David Foundation's premises at 53 Gordon Square London. In 2008, following the closure of the Foundation's offices at Gordon Square, the Sparks archive was transferred to the custody of SOAS Library, where it was held on temporary deposit between 2008 and 2017.


Not expected

Related Material

Papers of Augustus Pitt Rivers held at Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury contain correspondence between archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers and Captain John Sparks, Japanese Fine Art Depot, concerning the sale and identification of artworks, 41 letters (1889-1898) [Ref: Letter Series, B426]

Papers of Kenneth Clark held at the Tate Archive, London contain correspondence between the art historian Kenneth Clark and John Sparks Ltd, 6 letters (1949) [Ref: TGA 8812/1/2/6120-6125].


The following works are about or are based on the use, study, or analysis of the John Sparks Ltd archive. Huang, Ching-Yi, 'John Sparks, the Dealer and Chinese Art in England, 1902-1936', PhD thesis, SOAS University of London, 2012 [Ref: Thesis 3443].