Art Market: Rare images of the Orient: What was everyday life in 19th-century China and Japan like? A collection of 2,000 early photographs, on sale at Christie's next week, offers a unique portrait of the East

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H KWAN LAU was only 13 years old when he started the collection of 19th-century photographs of China and Japan that will be sold at Christie's on Wednesday. His grandmother had a premonition of her approaching death and wanted a photograph of herself, her daughter and grandson.

The trio went to one of Hong Kong's oldest and best established photographic studios. But Kwan quickly became bored as the women got ready for the photographer. He started to rummage among old piles of paper in the back room. Beneath a counter he found an album of early photographs of China and several loose and mounted images. As he turned the pages, Kwan became fascinated by the photographs, which not only contained familiar images of street scenes but also opened up a world of old-fashioned costumes and activities.

The album of photographs he found that day in 1953 is included in Wednesday's sale and is valued at pounds 5,000- pounds 7,000. It is very worn and has no spine. The red morocco cover, inscribed in gold 'Amoy' and with a former owner's name deleted, is now loose, as are the pages in which 54 albumen prints are mounted. Dating from 1868-73, they depict views in Hong Kong, Foochow, Canton, Formosa and Malaya. In several, there are groups of Chinese people staring in puzzlement at the photographer. In a few, European visitors are accompanied by their Chinese servants. Some of the images are inscribed with the name of John Thomson - one of the earliest and best of the European photographers working in China.

Kwan was determined to acquire the album. It cost HKdollars 55, which the teenager scraped together after raiding his savings and borrowing from his mother. More photographs from the same studio followed the album into his collection before he started to range more widely. As his collection grew, Kwan searched the junk stalls in Cat Street, the famous centre of the Hong Kong antiques trade, and then started to look further afield.

Kwan's mother acted as banker and encouraged the enterprise, but his father disapproved - the Chinese have a superstitious fear of pictures of the dead. Kwan's father was a small trader dealing in silk, tea and rice who originally came from Canton and was a specialist in divination and astrology. One particular dealer who was interested in photography supplied many of Kwan's best buys. In the 1950s this dealer had only two clients: Kwan and Sir Alexander Grantham, who was the governor of Hong Kong from 1947 to 1957.

At the age of 19, six years after starting his collection, Kwan left Hong Kong to go to university in the United States. Subsequently, he worked as an architect and became a specialist in architectural acoustics, travelling the world and constantly extending his collection. 'When I turned 50,' he told me last week, 'I decided it was time to turn my attention on myself.'

To this end Kwan has become a Buddhist priest, an artist and a writer. Last year he published a book called Secrets of Chinese Astrology. The sale of photographs is intended to fund Kwan's new way of life. His unique collection contains more than 2,000 photographs which are grouped together in 87 separate lots, because 19th-century photographs of Asia are not yet valuable enough for Christie's to sell them individually. The lots are grouped as either pictures of similar subjects or by photographer, where possible. But early Eastern photography is still a field which has been little explored or studied. Nobody has sorted out which photographs were taken by whom, nor has their comparative rarity been assessed.

The sale at Christie's is the first specialised auction of its kind. In another 10 years, when the images have been studied more carefully and more books have been written on the subject, it is likely that some of the photographs that will sell cheaply this week will have soared in value. The problem lies in guessing which ones. Kwan only bought photographs taken before 1890 - before Eastman introduced the first celluloid film that could be sent to the manufacturer for developing. The first photographers had to develop their pictures on the spot - travelling complete with early darkroom equipment as well as heavy cameras and boxes of fragile glass plates for negatives.

The first cameras seem to have reached China and Japan in the 1850s, some 10 years after the photography was invented by Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot. While the best known early photographers were European, they soon had many local followers. There were essentially two separate markets for their products: a local one for portraits and a Western market for views and quaint images of local life. The life shots were often bought by tourists who wanted to amaze their families and friends.

The photographers who established studios in the East seem to have done a brisk trade in prints. Sometimes they would present them in ready-made albums and sometimes they would sell them individually so buyers could make their own albums. These individual albums often contain photographs of Port Said and the Suez Canal as well as China, India or Japan, since the visitors took that route as they travelled by boat to the East.

The tourist market seems to have disappeared around 1900, with the invention of celluloid film, allowing amateur photographers to take their own pictures, and the rise of the picture postcard. Before 1890, the only way to obtain a permanent reminder of an admired view or ambience was to buy an individual photographic print or a painting.

The Kwan Lau sale starts with early portraits. A picture of the Mongol general Ko-Lin, taken by the Chinese photographer Lai Chong in Shanghai in 1853, is thought to be the earliest dated Chinese Daguerrotype. An amateur hand has coloured the general's robes blue and picked out other features of the photograph in colour - the paint appears to have been sloshed on to the image as though a child has been at work. Yet because the image is so early this naive production is expected to fetch pounds 5,000- pounds 7,000 when it is auctioned. At that price, this early and rare picture is strictly for keen collectors and photography buffs.

For the general public, the early images of ordinary people and their trades are much more fascinating. A group of nine albumen prints of the 1870s to 1880s records wandering musicians in straw raincoats, opium smokers, basket weavers, Buddhist monks and a farmer being transported in a wheelbarrow ( pounds 800- pounds 1,000). Another group of six albumen prints of the same period ( pounds 300- pounds 400) records the cruel process of foot-binding: a tiny child is shown with her shoes kicked off and her toes already twisted under the foot. There is also a close-up of an old woman's bound foot - hardly recognisable as part of a human body. Two gruesome prints depicting executions, with severed heads still lying on the ground, are priced at pounds 200- pounds 300.

Felice Beato, an Italian, was the most famous early photographer working in both China and Japan and the sale includes superb examples of his work from both countries. Beato photographed the Crimean War, moved on to India to record the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny and arrived in China in 1860 to record the second Opium War, the capture of Tientsin and the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace near Peking.

In 1864 Beato went on to Japan, where he set up a company in partnership with Charles Wirgman, an artist who worked for the Illustrated London News. At that stage it was still deemed logical for the two processes, painting and photography, to go hand in hand. Five of Beato's albumen prints of the Opium War, including a view of the Summer Palace, are expected to make up to pounds 2,000. In Japan Beato developed the idea of having his prints hand- tinted with soft colours applied by local craftsmen. The technique was copied by many Japanese photographers. An album containing 38 of Beato's early views around Nagasaki and local lifestyle studies is a rarity and expected to fetch pounds 5,000- pounds 7,000 when it is sold.

A fascinating feature of the Japanese photographs is their imitation of the local woodblock prints which so inspired the Impressionists when they were first seen in Europe. Portraits were often taken against a painted landscape background and Kwan's collection includes photographs of tough young workers with tattoos etched on their torsos - often copied from prints. The sale of Kwan Lau's collection offers an opportunity to get in at the start of a fascinating new collecting market.-

(Photograph omitted)

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