Hong Kong's Antique Dealers Play It Safe, Loan Out Artifacts Before China Takes Over

In an elegant hotel ballroom, Anthony Lin, Christie's suave, Chinese-speaking director, brought the hammer down on the last auction before Hong Kong reverts to China on July 1.

Over at another plush hotel, archrival Sotheby's was also holding its last big sale before the handover. Among the many beautiful things going under the gavel that weekend were a few that would undoubtedly be illegal to sell if the auctions were being held in, say, Shanghai, instead of Hong Kong.

Capitalist Hong Kong and the Communist-run mainland approach the antiques trade from opposing directions. Beijing forbids the export of relics older than 200 years without a license. Hong Kong has no export controls beyond a few restrictions on gold movements and the sale of opium implements.

The Special Administrative Region, which is what Hong Kong becomes after the handover, will be a separate customs territory free to promulgate its own rules on relics, if it chooses. The new administration is busy putting together its new government and has not chosen to address the antique trade.

Zhang Wenbin of the Beijing-based Chinese State Bureau of Preservation of Cultural Relics said flatly this year: "Chinese law on the protection of cultural relics will not be applied in Hong Kong." That sounds reassuring enough, but as in other aspects of the transition, skeptics here are unwilling to risk their businesses or precious collections on promises.

Half of the exhibits at Singapore's recently opened Asian Civilizations Museum, for example, are on loan from well-known Hong Kong collectors. And it isn't just neighborliness at work. For collectors of rare antiques, lending works to a foreign exhibition is like obtaining a foreign passport; it is a hedge against the uncertainties of life in Hong Kong after the handover.

The major auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, profess to be unconcerned about the climate for future auctions after the handover. "Nothing under existing law prevents us from selling, say, 15th-century porcelain, and we see no future law preventing us either," says Colin Sheaf, a Christie's director in Hong Kong.

The two big auctioneers, which just wound up record spring sales in the territory, can afford to be sanguine about the future, as Chinese antiques make up a relatively small segment of their trade and not necessarily the most lucrative one either.

Most of their sales here are of expensive jade jewelry, contemporary Chinese paintings, rare postage stamps, and property in Britain. Both auction houses could still make a lot of money without selling anything older than 100 years.

But ancient ceramics are the bread and butter of local dealers. The shops along Hollywood Road and "Cat" Street (officially Lascar Way), the traditional focus of the antique trade, are packed with Han dynasty statues of judges or Tang dynasty ceramic horses. "I'm astounded at the amount of early Chinese artifacts now in Hong Kong," says veteran dealer Lucille Vessa, who has been watching the antique trade here for 26 years.

Local customs authorities confiscate smuggled antiques and return them to China when they find them, and the value of impounded artifacts has been rising from only $200,000 in 1992 to nearly $7 million in 1994.

The surge is probably due more to China's modernization program than to the impending handover. Ancient graves that are dug up to make way for rapid industrial growth are yielding tomb relics. And prospering farmers are happy to sell ancient chests or old wooden beds to make room for modern appliances. Many artifacts wind up in Hong Kong.

Most of the clay horses, camels, and statues that fill Hong Kong shops, even if they are not fakes, were mass-produced and have little archaeological or artistic merit, experts say. Moreover, Chinese collectors tend to disdain funerary objects, though they are popular with Western tourists.

"Most of the things you find in antique shops are not 'cultural relics,' " says Karin Weber, a dealer who specializes in Chinese furniture. "The really valuable things are mostly in museums or in private collections."

She is cautiously optimistic that her business will survive the handover. But many dealers are still nervous about the future. Some shops along Hollywood Road look as if they have been abandoned, boarded up with for-rent signs in the front. "One or two big dealers have sold out and moved away because they got worried," Ms. Weber says.

It may be a long time before they feel confident enough to come back. In the meantime, art museums from Singapore to Denver are expanding their Chinese departments, thanks to the insecurities of Hong Kong collectors.

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