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Some Hong Kong art collectors nervous about China export rules

June 25, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ The antique Chinese cabinet glows butterscotch-yellow under Dr. Yip Shing Yiu’s loving hand, the 400-year-old huanghuali wood curving smoothly, flawlessly joined.

But it won’t last long in Hong Kong. Like many collectors, Yip is moving his treasures out before China takes over on July 1, fearing Beijing may apply its strict laws against exporting antiques.

Should that happen, ``If you want to move overseas, you cannot take it with you. You can’t sell it abroad,″ said Yip, who has sent his collection to museums in Denver, Phoenix, Washington and Singapore.

True to its free-market instincts, Hong Kong puts no restrictions on importing or exporting antiquities, but China prohibits the export of anything more than 200 years old.

China has promised Hong Kong it will be able to keep its legal code, customs system and rights of private ownership. But collectors are dubious.

Onie Chu, a Sotheby’s spokeswoman in Hong Kong, says collectors ``are not that confident in Hong Kong, so they make their own decisions.″

``But it is very personal. If they regain their confidence, they may return in the future.″

Also, she believes that at least some of the art is leaving Hong Kong these days simply for display abroad, and will come back.

Simon Kwan, a well-known architect and collector of ivory, ceramics, jade and gold, says he’s keeping his collection in Hong Kong. He sympathizes with those who aren’t, but expects they’ll bring back their treasures.

China has said or done nothing to suggest a clampdown; the nervousness in Hong Kong in the last days of British rule stems largely from fear of the unknown.

When the communists seized power in China in 1949, they declared a new era, rejecting the ideas and rich artistic heritage of the past.

During the frenzy of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung’s radical Red Guards smashed and burned antiques or forced owners to do it themselves.

Waiting on China’s southern rim was the British colony of Hong Kong, packed with refugees from communism. Hong Kong began collecting what China was rejecting.

Centuries-old jades, bronzes, gold, ceramics, paintings and furniture flooded into the wealthy colony.

A leading art magazine, Orientations, writes that Hong Kong’s private collections are so impressive that gathered together, ``they would easily fulfill the criteria for an important museum.″

``Hong Kong has been a collector’s haven because it wasn’t part of China,″ says Yip, a dapper 63-year-old with a merry laugh.

But from China’s standpoint, the vast majority of the treasures entered Hong Kong illegally.

``We all said: How the hell do I know where it came from? But obviously if it’s Chinese, it must have come from China,″ Yip, a British-trained dermatologist, said.

Yip’s 131-piece collection of furniture from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is considered by many to be the world’s best.

Prized for its simple, beautiful lines, a piece of Ming furniture can fetch up to $100,000 per piece at auction.

Kwan says art is more accessible in Hong Kong than in China.

In China, ``It takes you a whole afternoon to see three pieces. They are too security-conscious. ... Art is being suppressed,″ and that inhibits the learning that is essential to the collecting process, he says.

Among Kwan’s many treasures are a gorgeous turquoise-and-cinnabar inlaid hat ornament from the Six Dynasties period (265-589); early 20th-century paintings, and ancient glass.

Kwan sees a positive side to China’s prohibition on exporting antiques: If Hong Kong is a part of China, art from China can enter Hong Kong and stay here.

Sotheby’s, which runs an auction house in Hong Kong, is confident Hong Kong ``will keep its position as the hub of Chinese art in Asia,″ Chu said.

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