ART MARKET / Chinese whispers: The People's Republic is about to hold its first major antiques auction. It represents a cautious step towards open trade with the West, yet its exact contents remain a mystery

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NEXT month the People's Republic of China is holding its first large art and antiques auction, modelled on Sotheby's and Christie's sales. It is going to be a very odd affair in a country where, until recently, collectors were careful to hide their possessions for fear of being arrested as capitalists; buyers are expected to be foreigners. But it represents the first cautious step in the opening up of China's antiques trade to the international market.

By 1997 Peking must have established a trading structure within which the highly developed Hong Kong market can operate legally - otherwise Hong Kong, which has become the world's leading entrepot centre for Chinese art, will lose its trade to somewhere more accommodating, such as Taiwan. And the canny men of Peking do not want their old enemy to pick up this highly profitable business.

The auction is scheduled to last three days, from October 11-13, with viewing two days beforehand. In order to participate you have to sign up for the whole auction package which costs between dollars 1,500 and dollars 3,200 (pounds 750 and pounds 1,600) depending on the class of hotel, plus air fares into Peking. In addition to shuttle buses from your hotel to and from the auction, you get a gala dinner in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, a catalogue made of rice paper sprinkled with gold dust, an excursion to the Ming tombs and the Great Wall . . . and a visa, 'subject to approval by the competent authorities'.

The catalogue has proved one of the most daunting problems for the new China Art and Antique Foundation, which is running the sale in collaboration with the Peking Auction Market and the Peking Advertising Corporation. They have still not quite decided what they are going to sell; since the 2,100-lot catalogue went to press, the contents of the auction have been revised. The organisers were apparently worried that they were not offering sufficiently important objects. They have added some expensive jade carvings, reportedly worth anything from dollars 2m to dollars 20m, and a group of early excavated material - but nobody is going to know what has been added until they get to Peking.

The catalogue is written in Chinese and English but the entries are supremely uninformative. The 'coloured porcelain hat-stand with flower-and-bird design (20 pieces)', for instance, is difficult to envisage; the catalogue says it was made during the brief period when China was a democratic republic (1912-1949). It is 28cms high and estimated to fetch dollars 450-dollars 500.

The material on offer is not encouraging. It is roughly one-third contemporary Chinese paintings, one-third 19th-century porcelains and works of art and one-third very unimportant earlier pieces. The few items from archaeological excavations are of a type that are already freely available in the West; nearly all the 'antique' pieces date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and no great examples have been selected for sale.

One can envisage agonised arguments in the Cultural Relics Bureau, one party arguing for selling items that will attract foreign buyers and another party saying that the Bureau must not be seen to be selling the country's heritage. The second party has clearly won.

There are two kinds of catalogue, a black and white edition that costs dollars 20 and the de luxe version which contains colour illustrations, essays by Chinese notables and original calligraphy. Only 1,000 copies of the de luxe edition are being printed for registered participants only and are not for sale.

The bidding will be in US dollars with a professional auctioneer imported from Hong Kong, Hu Wenqi. He runs a small local auction house called Hong Kong Auctions, which mainly handles the late decorative wares that appeal to middle-class Hong Kong taste.

In Peking, he will take the sale in both Chinese and English, which will certainly slow things down. Indeed, it is difficult to see how he is going to get through the entire contents of the auction in three days. Some 2,100 lots have been catalogued for sale. A fast British auctioneer, taking a sale in English alone, will get through 100 lots an hour. That suggests that poor Hu Wenqi will be auctioning for more than seven hours a day.

The way the auction has got off the ground is extremely curious. Mr Peter Janssen, a Dutchman who publishes an insider newsletter on the automobile industry, claims to have originated the idea - he is a keen private collector of Chinese porcelain. While looking for information on the Chinese car market, he made friends in the Peking Advertising Corporation and managed to enthuse them with the idea of holding a Western-style auction. They roped in a deputy mayor of Peking who roped in the Peking Auction Market - which had mounted one very unsuccessful sale in 1988 - and the whole thing took off.

Peter Janssen is running the international marketing of the sale from Maastricht. He has recruited a Dutch public relations firm, BPC, which normally handles clients in the nuclear energy, transport and high-tech fields, to help him. 'It's the first time we've done anything with antiques', says Wim van Halder, the firm's director.

His offices are directly across a square from the Maastricht Hotel, where EC ministers are constantly in residence, and he often plays host to secret service observation teams. Last month he had an antiques delegation instead.

Peter Janssen had invited four high-ups from Peking to spend two weeks in Europe publicising their forthcoming auction and meeting museum curators and dealers.

Janssen explained that a foreigner's success in doing business in China depended on how high up the administrative structure his contacts were. His delegation had started as quite a low-level affair but at the last moment he had scored a bull's-eye with the addition of Mrs Wang Limei, deputy director of the State Cultural Relics Bureau. The bureau has charge of all museums, excavations and antique shops in China - including 1,500 museums and 10 million art objects, Mrs Wang told me.

She carefully distanced herself from the auction but did explain how it fitted into her country's new policy for trading antiques.

Until now, Peking has not permitted the export of any artefacts made before the death of the Emperor Chi'en-lung in 1799 without special licences from the Cultural Relics Bureau - and they have rarely been forthcoming. As a result, huge quantities of antiques - largely drawn from unofficial excavations - have been smuggled out of China.

More effort is now being put into arresting smugglers and the regulations on legal trading are being eased, Mrs Wang said. 'We intend to make more early material available to foreigners both through auctions and State shops.'

The proceeds of the sales will be spent on conservation of national treasures and the purchase of important Chinese art in the West. The point of the auction, Mrs Wang said, was to alert the international community that 'there is a legal way to buy antiques'.

Bookings can be made through the China Art and Antique Foundation, Ruitery 2A, 6221 EW Maastricht (tel 010-31-43-255414).

(Photographs omitted)