How Arthur Saito came to steward an Asian art collection
Published in 2019 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine on July 18, 2019
When Arthur K. Saito was just 5 years old, he was captivated by a small framed symbol hanging on the wall of his family’s home in California.
His parents were both immigrants, and his father, an artist from Japan, filled their house with paintings and statues from East and West: ceramics, woodblock prints, sculpture and breathtaking embroidered silk screens. The symbol on the wall that captured Saito’s attention was a Japanese calligraphy print of the Chinese character for tiger.
“It was beautiful because you could almost see the form of the tiger in the character,” he says. “From my earliest age, that is the most indelible memory I have.”
He pauses. “And the shame is I never knew what happened to it. I’ve been looking for something similar, but I’ve never come across anything quite like that.”
It’s not from lack of trying. Saito, a family law attorney who manages the Astoria office of Stahancyk, Kent & Hook, says one of the great rewards of being a lawyer is that it affords him the opportunity to find and purchase Asian antiques. His collection is now outsized and includes Japanese samurai swords and a full suit of armor.
Saito has a B.A. and master’s in history (from Pitzer College and Long Beach, respectively) and treats his acquisitions with reverence. He won’t even use his bare hands to touch the swords, since they are works of art crafted through a spiritual process of rituals—the oldest dating back to 1630—and are made of such pure steel that the acids and oils of his fingers would leave a mark permanently etched into the blade. His suit of armor—its skirt, bodice and every piece of chainmail handcrafted, and the helmet alone made of 32 individual steel plates—is likewise put away, kept safely in a chest, as he looks for the right person to restore it from the neglect of the last 300 years.
“I don’t view what I have as ownership but as stewardship,” he says. “I want to hold them. I want to appreciate them, own them, but my claim to these things is fleeting. With regard to all of the antiquities I have, my number one concern is I want these things I’ve collected … to go to somebody who will take care of them.”
He hopes that will be his nieces, who are currently 17 and 14. One day when they’re older, he plans to sit them down and talk about their heritage and what he sees in each piece.
He still remembers the first antique his late father gave him after he graduated from college: an ornate ceramic bowl from Japan, but like so much of the ancient arts, heavily influenced by the Chinese.
While Saito has acquired a few antiques from Japan, he mostly works with collectors in the U.S. “I find it amazing that a lot of the things that I collect now have been in the United States,” he says. “There are all sorts of stories about how these things ended up here, but they’re here, just like I’m here.”
He adds: “I’m really thankful for all this country did for my parents and myself and thankful that things I love collecting are here, in this incredible country largely made up of people who are immigrants, and that these immigrants bring their cultures to this country.” Saito feels that culture especially in Astoria, which was built by Ukrainian, Scandinavian and Chinese workers, the latter of which built the city’s Chinese gardens.
He sees his professional role as helping bring order to families at a time of crisis.
“From an Asian standpoint, family is important, and creating order is extremely important,” he says. “Custody battles are traumatic. Divorce is a terrible time for children, and the easier you can make it on a child, my hope would be that they wouldn’t be scarred as adults from the process.
“Both with antiques and with kids, what you do today is planning for tomorrow.”