ART MARKET / The great stones of China: Among Hong Kong collectors Brian McElney insists he is small fry. But the exhibition of his jades is the best we will see. Geraldine Norman reports

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The Independent Culture
HONG KONG probably has a higher density of art collections than any other city in the world. With its brand new skyscrapers soaring into the sky, reflecting the capricious fantasies of the world's greatest architects, it has succeeded in packing more people and more wealth into a small space than has ever been done before. And these people have had first pick of the art that has, for the past 10 years, been pouring over the frontier with mainland China for sale in the West.

With the British handoverin 1997 looming, the art collections, along with other material wealth, are being moved to safe havens. Yet, as collector Brian McElney puts it, 'Hong Kong is still a treasure chest.' And he ought to know. McElney is one of the few collectors who have decided to bring their art collections to Britain. Last year he opened the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath to which he has given 650 Chinese works of art, including ceramics, bronzes and lacquer, and loaned another 350 pieces.

This summer, in collaboration with a Hong Kong-based friend, Angus Forsyth, he has mounted an exhibition of Jades from China at the museum - the most important exhibition of Chinese jades to be put on anywhere in Europe for more than 20 years. It features some 350 carvings ranging from China's Neolithic period, around 5500 BC, right through to approximately AD 1800. Apart from those donated to the museum by McElney last year, the jades all belong to McElney or Forsyth.

Private patronage on the scale of McElney's new museum is virtually unheard of in Britain. McElney, 62, is a British solicitor who spent his working life in Hong Kong where he rose to the top of the tree, becoming senior partner of Asia's leading law firm, Johnson, Stokes and Master. Forsyth was briefly his assistant, before moving to another firm. McElney is, however, quick to point out that he counted as relatively small fry among local collectors. 'When I was working I spent about pounds 100,000 a year on collecting,' he told me. 'People like Simon Kwan, the architect, spend around pounds 1.5m.'

He went on to explain where the collections are now being stored. 'Most of the rich collectors of Hong Kong have bolt-holes in Canada,' he said. A few collections are also finding their way to California and Australia. Britain is not missing out entirely - though our plans to introduce VAT on art imports will be a big discouragement, McElney believes. Christie's fine-art storage space at Nine Elms, in London, is proving popular with Hong Kong collectors and several of McElney's friends have discussed the possibility of leaving their collections with his new museum. 'I've had collectors offer things on loan but I couldn't take them because of lack of storage space. If I can find secure storage elsewhere, I could take them and do rotating exhibitions.'

It was a sunny, summer day when I visited the Bath museum, and the golden stone of the handsome 18th-centuryhouse glinted against a blue sky. McElney has found a perfect location, just opposite the Assembly Rooms. I found him hovering over showcases of jades, worrying about the labels and what he calls 'didactics' - instructive texts explaining the objects' history. A tall, white-haired figure, he was wearing a tweed jacket and cavalry twills, the kind of clothes English gentlemen were wearing when he left England for Hong Kong in 1958. The museum, however, is bang up to date, with computers, a video display and a shop.

Over lunch, McElney confided the curious story of how his collection had landed in Bath. It was the start of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1967 which first alerted him to the danger of keeping his art works in Hong Kong. His father, formerly a doctor in Hong Kong, was living in Canada at the time and McElney arranged to store his collection with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria 'to make sure it was safe from the Red Guards'. From then on, he sent a consignment to Canada every two or three years and the museum would put things on show as they saw fit.

As retirement neared, however, McElney decided that he wanted to see his collection in a British museum - he wanted it housed as a unit with himself as a curator. He talked to the Victoria & Albert, the British Museum and several other galleries, without success. So he decided to go it alone. He found a handsome house in the centre of Bath and persuaded the local council to let him turn it into a museum. He shipped his collection over from Canada, and gave the Greater Victoria gallery his collection of contemporary Chinese paintings as a consolation prize.

'My purpose is to pass my knowledge on to the next generation,' he explained. 'I've seen more genuine objects than almost anyone living. I was shown everything significant that passed through Hong Kong from 1958 to 1992.' For the first year the Bath museum exhibited the collection that McElney had given it, together with his loans. The current jade show is his first specialised exhibition - and a real blockbuster. McElney and Forsyth have written a 400-page catalogue with 430 colour illustrations which sells at pounds 95.

Over the past 10 years excavations in mainland China have revealed that jade became part of the country's daily life far earlier than had previously been imagined. Jade ornaments have been found in graves dating back to around 5000 BC, where it had previously been doubted that jade was used at all in the Neolithic period. Enthusiastic collectors are now talking of a 'Jade Age' (4000- 2000 BC) having preceded the Chinese Bronze Age (2000-500 BC).

It is typical of the crazy times we live in that the first exhibition of the newly discovered Neolithic jades to take place in Britain should comprise pieces smuggled out of mainland China into Hong Kong and then bought by two British solicitors working there. They are mainly very small and wrought into disc-shaped ornaments, axe heads and primitive animal figures. Such pieces have reputedly flooded into Hong Kong through unofficial channels - along with an equal volume of brilliant fakes. McElney believes that he and Forsyth have managed to avoid those.

Jade is the magic stone of China which the local craftsmen carved into rich ornaments and ritual vessels. From the earliest times to the present, the Chinese have valued jade beyond gold, silver or any precious stones. Confucius (522- 479 BC), the philosopher whose dictates structured Chinese social order for more than a millennium, identified jade with the five human virtues: kindness, integrity, wisdom, courage and purity. He condemned the nouveau riche of his day for going around 'clanking their jades'; the properly behaved scholar-gentlemen should merely tinkle, he said.

The threat that 1997 poses to wealthy Hong Kong residents is sending the jades onwards round the world, to Britain, to Canada, to Australia. My crystal ball tells me, however, that within 20 years China will become richer than the rest of us and buy them back.

The Museum of East Asian Art is at 12 Bennett Street, Bath (0225464640).

(Photographs omitted)

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