(This is part 2 of 3. – Part 1 can be found here.)
The Red Peril
In 1949, when the communist took over mainland china, many more antiques made their way to Hong Kong. This was the 2nd time time, when the flow of antiques pouring out of China would spike. Dealers like Charlotte Horstmann left and even the famous Gustav Ecke left China around this time for Hawaii, though surprisingly his collection was split up and left through third parties.
The flow spiked once again a third time, during the turbulent years of the cultural revolution (1966 until 1976) as antique scrolls, jade carvings and other treasures flooded across China’s southern border into Hong Kong, smuggled out by refugees hoping to escape the red guards.
What was left (and not destroyed), was seized by the red guards and stored in official state warehouses, as private citizens were forbidden from owning such things.
China Trying Double Play HONG KONG (AP) — Communist China is trying to take over the lucrative antique and curio market in Hong Kong, while at home its teen-age Red Guards are destroying millions of dollars worth of antiques as symbols of the old capitalist ”
The Red Guard rampages on the mainland may be the only thing that will save the rest of us from bankruptcy.” said one non-Communist Chinese antique dealer Saturday.
“We still get a few good pieces from old Hong Kong families and once in a while, a piece from Taiwan, but the Reds could flood us right out of business with the millions of authentic pieces available on the mainland — providing the Red Guards don’t destroy them all or prompt the people to bury them for safekeeping”
The biggest Chinese Communist-owned antique and curio store in Hong Kong — the Chinese Arts and Crafts Co. located in the heart of Hong Kong’s business and financial district — confirmed that it will open a new store early next year in the Kowloon tourist area.
Six other mainland-owned department stores in Hong Kong are adding new curio and antiques departments or expanding old ones. Daytona Beach Morning Journal – Nov 28, 1966
And as economic policies began to change further in the 1980ies, even more antiques began to pour across the border.
At Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, Chou said she has never seen so much art coming out of the mainland. “It’s the first time, and it really surprises us,” she said. “There’s only one thing that can explain it. They’re poor (in China), and they need the money.”
As the turmoil of the cultural revolution ended, some of those Chinese who emigrated to Hong Kong, then returned to China, and used their prior relationships and connections to purchase and export pieces back to Hong Kong for resale, at times with the help of corrupt mainland officials. In 1986, 5 employees of the Hunan provincial branch of the China National Arts Export and Import Corp, were sent to jail and a Hong Kong businessman fined $125,000 for smuggling more then 21,000 cultural relics from China.
They were said to have signed 12 contracts with the Hong Kong merchant, whose name was not disclosed, in order to supply him with porcelain and woodcraft antiques.
The 80’ies Boom
During this time, local Hong Kong based collectors were busy building their own private antique collections, which would later further cement Hong Kong and Hollywood road’s status as an antiques powerhouse. And though Sotheby’s London began auctions of Chinese antiques in 1922 and Christies in 1966, it was really during this 1970’ies-80’ies period that Hong Kong began to really take off as a major antiques center.
Rare, unknown and unique pre-ming ceramics and other artifacts began to appear in larger quantities in Hollywood Road galleries. More and more western dealers began to frequent the shops here buying for their galleries back home.
And in November of 1980, the Sotheby’s sale of Edward T. Chow collection in Hong Kong and London for a record breaking 20.1 million dollars, is considered a major turning point in Hong Kong’s antiquities market. Of course fears of supply drying up were at the same time, paradoxically coupled with ever increasing supply of new items.
According to this 1986 article, Hong Kong was at the time flooded with ancient pottery from China. During this period, bronzes, ceramic vessels and jades from Neolithic times to the 14th century began to pour into Hong Kong.
Burial objects from tombs all over China have become the latest casualty in China’s rush toward capitalism, as ancestral tombs get dug up for the vases and statues they contain. Some of the contents eventually end up in Hong Kong.
These were good days for the Hong Kong antiques trade. Buyers purchased not just for enjoyment but also for investment as well, and were mainly a mix of expats, overseas buyers and wealthy locals. Of course, museums got in on the game too.
“We would like to have these objects,” Julie Chou Ling, the curator of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum’s exhibition department, said in an interview. “Our museum collection is rich, but still there have been some gaps,” she said. “This is a good time to buy. The price is down. Later, there may not be this chance. The objects coming out now are in very good condition. They are very beautiful.”
Local professionals like doctors and lawyers also continued to collect and build their own collections. Serious collectors like T.T. Sui amassed stunning collections. Dealers made a fortune, selling to western bankers, overseas dealers and museums. Margins were extraordinarily high. Scholarly publications such as Journal of the Classical Chinese Furniture Society were published seasonally.
After the escalator was built in 1993, the area continued to develop even more, bringing more travelers and tourists.
Of course, Hong Kong’s role as the gateway to China took on a more “grey meaning.” In the summer of 1994, in the countryside outside the village of Xiyanchuan in Hebei province, looters broke into the tomb of Wang Chuzi, a tenth century military governor. Using crowbars and chisels, they removed ten marble sculptures. Six years later in 1999, a well known Hong Kong auction house listed one of the marble reliefs for sale at auction in New York. In this particular case, the Chinese government petitioned for the items return and they were. Hong Kong’s function as a smuggling point clearly contributed to its commercial success.
Customs and Excise Department statistics recorded just 25 cases involving the smuggling of antiques, artefacts and cultural items between 1991 and 1998, after which there was not one case on record. Items on Hollywood Road and Cat Street were often better then what could be found in the museums.In the remaining 999999 million other cases, items slipped under the radar. China -> Hong Kong – > London/New York became the “antiques” silk road. Smugglers brought in items via land in trucks, planes, high speed boats or fishing, shipping containers and even via swimming. Even criminal gangs were involved in this business.
Some collectors who went direct into China, still used Hong Kong as a transit & business point. Known as “Pay for goods in China, take delivery of goods in Hong Kong,”customers pay part of the money for goods as a deposit in advance after they have seen the goods in China. Local dealers in China can help them to smuggle the goods to the hotel that they will stay at in Hong Kong, as well as collect the rest of the money for the goods from the customer.
Throughout this period, and going back as far as 1950 (may 24th 1950 provisional methods on the prohibition of export of rare cultural relics and books), China had export controls and regulations based on laws enacted in 1982 (1982 CRPL and amended in 1988 and 1991 and the 1997 Criminal Law, 2002 Revised Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics (“2002 LPCR”)). However despite harsh penalties, smuggling via Hong Kong remained rampant at times with the aid of local government and military units on the China side. And a quirk in Hong Kong’s law meant that selling these “stolen goods” was legal as long as they were “already here.” Many pieces ended up in Museums.
“If they (people in China) smuggle, it’s their business. We would like to have these objects,” Julie Chou Ling, the curator of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum’s exhibition department, said in an interview.
The Hong Kong Handover
As 1997 approached, there were fears the mainlanders would shut down shipments from Hong Kong post hand-over via export controls. It’s rumoured that some collectors took their most valuable pieces out of Hong Kong for this reason, while others chose to put their collections on “overseas tour” during this period, like Au Bak-ling. No one knew what would happen after the handover. Half of the exhibits at Singapore’s recently opened Asian Civilizations Museum, for example, were on loan from well-known Hong Kong collectors
However fears of a change in laws never came to fruition and the antiques trade continued. Business continued to boom. Overseas buyers and collectors continued to visit Hong Kong on annual buying trips. There is a great quote in the book “No Babylon: A Hong Kong Scrapbook”
Most appealing of all was Hong Kong’s summation of everything one had come to expect of the east. It was the orient in microcosm. condensed, instantly accessible, and rendered safe for even the most nervous of explorers. Without actually needing to venture any deeper into continental landmass barred to outsiders, one could have claimed to have visited China – if only briefly knocking on its doorpost.
Hong Kong was really the gateway to China with few outsiders venturing in. A true treasure hunters dream. Pieces continued to pour across the boarder into Hong Kong. No matter if it was purchase, stolen or smuggled. Direct flights to Hong Kong made it even more easier to take buying trips and the industry continued to flourish.
And China’s heritage continued to drift away via Hong Kong
Next Up (coming soon).
Part 3 of 3: The Decline
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