Caveat Emptor In China
“When I paid US$400 for them at the Yichang Museum shop near the site of China‘s famous Three Gorges Dam,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis today, “they were a pair of mythical creatures carved from red stone with dragons’ heads and phoenix’s wings.
“Six months later, the red stone was turning white giving them the complexion of a couple of diseased goldfish.
“It’s caveat emptor in the wild east of China’s fast-evolving two-tier antiques market.
“In the past, when mainland China was more or less a closed country, antiques and other artworks leaked out through the former British colony of Hong Kong. And, even though Hong Kong is now an integral part of China, it is still home to a thriving antiques market, situated on Hollywood Road on Hong Kong Island. Here visiting collectors still find something to suit every pocketbook.
“There are expensive antique shops with splendid pieces in their windows, clearly catering for museum curators and serious collectors with a good deal of money to spend. But Hollywood Road and the streets on either side also contain a wide range of less intimidating shops and stalls offering all sorts of interesting Chinese bric-a-brac and artworks at more affordable prices.
“Some of these pieces come from mainland China, some from the Hong Kong houses of British settlers, merchants, and administrators. So, amongst all the Chinese artifacts, you also find antique English china, silver, and pictures. A curiosity worth hunting for are old, elaborately engraved share certificates from long-defunct Chinese companies once traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
“The Hollywood Road antiques market comes alive about midday and continues well into the evening. It is easy to find. From Kowloon, you take the Star Ferry across the harbor to Hong Kong Island. From the ferry terminal, walk straight up the hill, crossing Man Cheung Street, Connaught Road Central, Des Voeux Road Central, and Queens Road Central before reaching Hollywood Road.
“It is a popular place with signposts in English pointing the way as you get near. Communication with shop owners is easy because the standard of spoken English is far higher in Hong Kong than on the mainland.
“Visit the Man Mo Buddhist Temple halfway along Hollywood Road, with its tall gilded statues of the Buddha, hanging lamps, and prostate worshipers clutching bundles of smoldering incense sticks.
“Antique-hunting in mainland China is a more haphazard affair. Vendors are where you find them. I bought some old square coins from a dealer near the Badaling entrance to the Great Wall of China. His specialty, though, appeared to be the ornate cases in which Chinese scribes once kept the pens and brushes of their trade.
“A slight air of nervousness surrounds the antiques trade in mainland China, as if it were not quite legal. I was told it is illegal to remove anything more than 150 years old from the country. Dealers usually will offer a certificate stating that your purchase is younger than this, though on occasion I have suspected it was older.
“Anyway, customs was no problem when I left, and, in Hong Kong, they don’t seem to bother about certificates.
“On another occasion, I found a well-stocked little antique shop at the back of a distinctly ho-hum tourist gift shop. Here I bought a small ivory carving of a dancing Chinese lady that I suspect is older than the limit, though my certificate says otherwise. It has not changed color or deteriorated in any other way, unlike my dragons.
“There also seems to be a connection between the antiques trade and official Chinese museums, as the story of how I came misguidedly to buy those two stone creatures suggests. The group I was traveling with had just come to the end of a dull guided visit to the local museum at Yichangoi, when the English-speaking director invited us into a special room that was clearly not part of the regular public galleries.
“Here were displayed far more interesting antique pieces than anything we had been shown in the rest of the museum, including some large objects such as an ancient Chinese bed and several cabinets and trunks. The director explained that these were ‘surplus’ items that the Ministry of Culture had directed her to sell to tourists for dollars. Credit cards were accepted, and bargaining permitted. The storeroom contained many more similar pieces, she said.
“I reflected that when the Communists dispossessed the Chinese middle class, many antiques must have passed into the hands of the State and eventually ended up in local museum storerooms. Are they now being sold off as an act of official policy? Or was it a bit of creative free enterprise by the museum staff?
“We shall never know. But that is how I acquired my red-turning-white stone mythical beasts. A retired music teacher from Wisconsin bought a beautiful carved wine jug made of the same red stone. I wonder what color it is now.”