The Zentner Collection, a purveyor of fine asian antiques, has been an Emeryville family-run business for nearly thirty years. While Emeryville has changed dramatically over this span, their love of asian art and family has not.
Operating along Horton Street nestled between a growing assortment of Biotech, Cannabis and other small manufacturing businesses, Zentner has witnessed an incredible transition in our city. During this time, they’ve been able to weather this change while building a thriving family business.
From Davis, California to Tsu, Japan
The story of The Zentner Collection began at UC Davis where Robert “Perry” Zentner met his eventual wife Jenny. Perry grew up in nearby Berkeley while Jenny originally hailed from Lodi. Jenny was an Art History major and had already developed an appreciation and knowledge of Asian Art. Perry was a structural engineering student but shared her interest in art through travels with his family.
After graduating in 1978, they both worked for a bit to pay off their student loan debt before venturing abroad. Perry worked in his respective engineering field and Jenny as a nurse.
Perry accepted a two-year assignment working overseas on the construction of an offshore gas platform off the coast of Tsu, Japan. Tsu is a historic shipbuilding town on Japan’s East Coast and known for large-scale projects like this. “They treated us like movie stars,” Jenny noted saying they among very few westerners in the town.
Jenny became friends with a bilingual Japanese neighbor who she spent her afternoons with and who helped her navigate and communicate with the locals. Jenny spent her days exploring the region and became familiar with the frequent art auctions held within town. She quickly amassed a collection of over a hundred items that she intended to use to decorate their vacant home back in El Cerrito.
The Zentner’s were provided a shipping container as one of the perks of their temporary relocation that they filled with their new treasures and sent back home.
Sausalito Flea Market
After filling their home with their new possessions, they used the second level of their home and car port as storage for the others. The items that they opted not to decorate their own home with, they decided to sell at the Sausalito flea market. “Zentner Antiques” was born and they soon began importing additional antiques to meet the rapidly growing demand that Jenny notes may have been fueled by the popular mini series Shōgun.
They began expanding their collection by adding Chinese collectibles and branched out further to include Korean collectibles. “It was the right time to do what we were doing,” Jenny noted.
They became familiar with importing protocols and developed relationships and business contacts that gave them a competitive advantage. They eventually outgrew the storage in their home and rented a warehouse on Magnolia in Oakland. They in turn outgrew this space and began hunting for a larger warehouse that brought them to Emeryville.
Zentner Collection Business/Family Expands
The time was shortly after the 1989 earthquake and Emeryville was amidst a huge exodus in manufacturing businesses and the town was flush with empty warehouses. They settled on their Horton Boulevard home noting it was quite a bit larger than they needed at over 35,000 square feet. The space had been previously used as an ice house and then for a window frame manufacturing company called PIMCO.
Around this time, the Zentner’s had their only child Robert III. Robert was basically raised in the warehouse where he napped in a Japanese tansu (cabinet) and navigated the delicate antiques on his tricycle. “I never broke anything though,” Robert chimed in.
Robert III recalls fond memories of growing up in the city during a time most current residents would have a hard time picturing. “I remember when Horton was a dead-end [at Powell]. We’d let our dog wander around the street because there were no cars.”
Robert also learned the work ethic that maintaining a small business requires. “We’d be here until 8 or 9 every day and then they’d scoop me up from my bed in the corner over there and we’d eat and go home.”
Passing the “Tōchi”
After decades in business and nearing retirement age, the Zenter’s were considering liquidating their inventory and cashing out. It was about this time that Robert was finishing school and contemplating his future. “I wasn’t positive, but I had an inkling I might come back,” he recalled.
Robert was working as a flight instructor after studying aviation in college. It was a profession he was inspired to pursue by his grandfather who was a pilot for Pan Am. He notes he never wanted to be a commercial pilot and spend so much time away from the family though. “I was in a serious relationship and I knew being a pilot wouldn’t be compatible with that.”
Robert stepped in to take over leadership of the day-to-day operations of Zentner.
Robert wants to maintain what his parents built and doesn’t want to tamper too much with a business formula that his parents have built over the years although he does want to see a little evolution and inject some of his own ideas including adding more amourment pieces and public gallery space.
“I actually had a dream the other night about doing this for another 30 years and I woke up with a sense of calm. I was really content with the idea. My parents never pressured me to do this and I want to provide my kids the same choice and opportunity.”
It’s Robert’s job now to anticipate what’s next for the business and adapt. To further explore the online market but perpetuate the client relationships that made his parents business successful.
Largest Collection in the U.S.
The Zentner Collection boasts the largest for-sale Asian art collection in the US with more than 350 antique painted screens, 4,000 Japanese prints and our country’s largest collection of antique tansu storage cabinets.
Zentner is open to the public from Wednesday through Saturday and Tuesday by appointment only. Call them at (510) 653-5181 or browse online at ZentnerCollection.com.
Special Iwasaki Tsuneo Exhibit
Zentner will be hosting a special exhibit featuring the works of recently deceased artist Iwasaki Tsuneo through January 15th. More information at zentnergallery.com/exhibitions.