Art Market: The new mandarins: To do good business in Hong Kong, writes Geraldine Norman, Western dealers must learn to satisfy scholars from mainland China

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The Independent Culture
THE COHIBA Cigar Divan, a little room in Hong Kong's Mandarin Hotel, decorated in the style of old Havana and devoted to smokers of the most expensive cigars, represents the front line of David Tang's marketing strategy. He has just acquired exclusive rights to sell Cuban cigars in Asia and confidently expects the continent to go up in smoke - there was a 20 per cent rise in tobacco consumption in China last year.

Mr Tang, 38, the anglophile son of an old Hong Kong merchant family, is a central figure in the Hong Kong social and financial scene. He exemplifies its free-wheeling entrepreneurial spirit, and he is also an art connoisseur. The China Club, which he founded two years ago on the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth floors of the old Bank of China building, is where the upper strata of Hong Kong's bankers and businessmen meet.

For the club he has chosen to mix the decor of a pre-war Shanghai tea house with contemporary paintings from mainland China. The economics of the 21st century will very probably be formulated at his blackwood and marble tables under lazily turning antique ceiling fans - financial power in the next century is widely expected to be concentrated in Asia. Mr Tang's cigar parlour and his lavish Eastern club demonstrate what a change there is likely to be when we move away from the American-dominated mores of the 20th century.

The club also demonstrates how intimately the local art world is bound up with the interaction between capitalist Hong Kong and mainland China. The building itself belongs to the Peking government; it was from here, the Bank of China headquarters, that mainland cadres would orchestrate anti-British demonstrations during the Cultural Revolution. Today, the bar of the China Club contains a collection of Maoist memorabilia - propagandist paintings, wood-block prints and sculptures of the period. The rest of Mr Tang's club provides the best show in town of contemporary Chinese oil painting; the National Exhibition mounted in Peking in 1991 was shown in Hong Kong in 1992 with his help and he bought the best of the paintings for the club.

On the fifth floor of the same building is a commercial art gallery called Hanart TZ run by Johnson Chang - he and Mr Tang are partners in this enterprise - which has become Hong Kong's top contemporary gallery. On the eleventh floor is the Tsui Museum of ancient Chinese art, a showcase for the staggering collection of antique ceramics, bronzes, jades and furniture formed over the last eight years by the Hong Kong billionaire Tsin-tong, or 'T T', Tsui. Mr Tsui is chairman of the board of Mr Tang's China Club, a trusted friend of the mainland government and a notable benefactor of the Victoria and Albert Museum; he paid for the redecoration of the V & A's Chinese galleries. Thus the China Club is simultaneously a centre of financial, political and aesthetic influence.

Hong Kong is now acting as the chief conduit between mainland

China and the capitalist West. Its bankers are handling a high proportion of the investment funds that are pouring into China and the booming Chinese economy - with 13 per cent growth last year - is being translated into even greater affluence for the local millionaires. In world recession, Hong Kong, with 13 per cent growth last year, is a rare centre of prosperity and is attracting the greedy attention of art dealers from all over the world.

I went there last week to try to discover what was happening in this new market on which so many Western hopes are being hung. For the first time Sotheby's and Christie's were holding their sales in the same week - Sotheby's has held sales in Hong Kong for 20 years and Christie's for five. What I found there was a strictly Oriental art market which shares very few of the enthusiasms of London or New York. The taste of Chinese millionaires is almost exclusively focused on Chinese art.

The sales that Sotheby's and Christie's had mounted were purposely geared to please local taste: both firms held sales of antique Chinese ceramics and works of art, of jade carvings, of jade jewellery, and of 20th-century Chinese brush paintings. Christie's also held a sale of contemporary Chinese oil paintings while Sotheby's had brought over a remarkable collection of Chinese snuff bottles formed by a Jersey businessman. Neither of them attempted to offer Western art - although Christie's had mounted a sale of mediocre Western paintings in Taiwan a few weeks earlier and, predictably, found almost no takers.

The idea of coinciding their sales came from Christie's, who tagged their auctions on to Sotheby's well established dates. Their decision was based on the assumption that a group of sales would encourage bidders to fly in from Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia: not to mention Europe and America.

Local auctioneers, who have sprung up over the last few years, also mounted sales and many galleries put on special shows.

In the event, the strategy backfired. Singapore and Taiwanese buyers did their bit but the Japanese didn't turn up at all. Most of the sales were a struggle, with the exception of the snuff-bottle collection at Sotheby's - a field where prices are comparatively modest - and the jade jewellery.

In the Hong Kong market, antique ceramics are the big earners, the equivalent of Impressionists in the West, and on this occasion Sotheby's could only find buyers for half the sale - Christie's did slightly better by holding a shorter sale one day earlier. It was the worst result for Sotheby's since they began to hold auctions in Hong Kong. It shows that when there is a world-wide recession in the Oriental porcelain market, even Hong Kong is not rich enough to buck the trend - at least, not for run-of-the mill material.

Hong Kong's unique combination of enormous wealth and great connoisseurship can still lead to exceptional prices for rarities, however.

Sotheby's hoped that they had just such a piece, a 16-inch waisted jar, or meiping, with two leaping five- clawed dragons carved around the sides against a backround of copper- red waves. They dated this piece to the reign of the Ming Emperor Yonglo (1402-1424).

Only one other intact copper-red decorated piece of the Yonglo period is known to survive, a vase of identical form and design. Such was the rarity and distinction of the vase that Sotheby's actually dared to suggest in advance that it might become the most expensive piece of porcelain ever sold at auction. They estimated HKdollars 15m-25m (roughly pounds 1.3m- pounds 2.1m); the previous high was pounds 1.8m paid at a Sotheby's auction in 1989 for an eight-inch, Song dynasty bowl used for washing paint brushes. But on this occasion no one was prepared to put in a bid.

According to Hong Kong dealers, faith in the accuracy of Sotheby's cataloguing was undermined by the first ever visit to the auctions by scholars from mainland China. The billionaire collector Mr Tsui had purposely opened an exhibition at his museum to coincide with the auctions. It was devoted to porcelains excavated from the waste heaps beside the imperial kilns belonging to the Emperor Chenghua (1465-1487) at Jingdezhen, the famous centre for porcelain manufacture. There was such careful quality control at the time that exquisitely finished pieces were thrown out and smashed, and archaeologists have glued the pieces together again.

Mr Tsui had invited all the leading mainland scholars to his exhibition: from Peking, Shanghai and from Jingdezhen - and, of course, they went round the sales.

Nothing like Sotheby's copper- red vase had been unearthed at the imperial waste heaps of Jingdezhen. Connoisseurs began to shake their heads and suggest that the piece might have been made 100, or even 200 years later than Sotheby's had suggested. And that meant that no one had the courage to bid.

In the event, Christie's got the top porcelain price of the week. They sold a magnificent 14th-century blue and white jar for pounds 750,000. The jar had been bought by a Japanese collector at a London sale in 1988 for pounds 605,000. Although he appears to have made a profit in sterling, when the prices are translated into yen he turns out to have made a loss. The market is still going through a tough period in Japan; quite a lot of the porcelain in the Hong Kong sales had been consigned from there.

The other big factor in the Hong Kong market is the activity of smugglers. In the early 1980s so many tombs were being illegally excavated in mainland China that huge quantities of pottery, especially of the Han (206BC- AD221) and Tang (AD618-906) periods, were pouring out to Hong Kong and on to the West. The market in this kind of material collapsed worldwide and it remains difficult to sell - unless it is superb quality.

But dealers in Hong Kong told me last week that the supply had virtually dried up over the last three years; mainland police were very active and the smugglers were not going to risk getting material out for which there was little market in the West. Only the greatest rarities, almost certainly excavated near Xian, were now being smuggled to Hong Kong. Such pieces date mainly from the Spring and the Autumn periods (770-476BC) and from the Warring States period (475- 221BC), and include carved jades, lacquer and bronzes.

'The heritage people in China make a distinction between excavated pieces and material stolen from museums,' one dealer told me. 'They turn a blind eye to excavations but they shoot anyone caught stealing from a museum.' One of his colleagues, he said, had even been visited in Hong Kong by the mainland police; they had taken back at gun point a porcelain collection stolen from a museum.

Chinese scholars have studied and loved old ceramics and antiques for many centuries and the tradition has been continued wherever refugees from mainland China have settled and prospered; there are Chinese collectors of Chinese art in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, America, Canada and Australia. Those who collect old art tend to be true connoisseurs; there are several study societies to which the collectors belong in Hong Kong.

Collectors of modern paintings, however, are quite another breed. They favour contemporary art. where there is nothing much to learn; all you need do is follow your own eye. Chinese collectors of contemporary art, like their counterparts elsewhere, love to gamble on the rise and fall of reputations.

Within the paintings field there are two very distinct markets. For more than 1,000 years Chinese painters have worked in ink and water-soluble colours on paper or silk; this traditional technique is known as 'brush painting'. Oil painting, by contrast, was only imported from the West in the early years of this century. The first Chinese art schools modelled their teaching on 19th-century Paris, with an accent on high finish and realism.

A boom market in modern brush paintings got going in Hong Kong around 1987. The 1990s has seen a slight setback since mainland China contains a million or so gifted artists, most of whom can turn their hands to a convincing fake. Top artists such as Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957) are now so extensively faked that no one is sure of a picture unless it was recorded in the artist's lifetime. Sotheby's had a resounding success with a large brush painting of five 'Galloping Horses' by Xu Beihong - his horses are familiar to everyone in the West from numerous calendars. The painting had been bought from the artist in 1942 and had not changed hands since, so its authenticity was assured; it made pounds 277,000, more than double the presale estimate.

The oil painting boom, in contrast, is only two years old. Christie's mounted the first auction of oil paintings in Hong Kong in September 1991; they offered a collection brought out of mainland China by a New York based Chinese art consultant called Lawrence Wu and prices went, quite unexpectedly, through the roof.

The king of the oil painting market is a brilliant self-publicist from Shanghai called Chen Yifei (b. 1946). He paints large, highly finished vignettes of life in pre-war China. Christie's had a lamplit scene of lovely girls gathered round a table called 'Warm Spring in the Jade Pavilion' this time round and sold it for pounds 139,000, just short of the HKdollars 1.98m record they established for the artist in 1992.

Mr Chen made a name for himself painting propaganda pictures during the Cultural Revolution but has now adopted capitalism with equal enthusiasm. He lives in New York. He visited Hong Kong for the sale and told me that he was using the earnings from his paintings to finance a new career in movies. He had already made a highly successful dream sequence about old Shanghai, he said, and had signed a contract that day to make a film about a musician from Wuxi.

The contradictions between traditional life in China, the communist era and the impact of Western capitalism are perhaps what give contemporary Chinese painting its special appeal. The paintings promoted by the dealer Johnson Chang, and bought by Mr Tang for his China Club, belong to the very latest generation - post 1989 and the Tianmen massacres. They identify two closely related styles, Political Pop and Cynical Realism; in both cases, the artists use the propaganda images of Maoist China in a style that is closely related to Western Pop, adding an extra - and chilling - dimension of human interest.

It is perhaps very healthy that such images should hang over the millionaire businessmen who frequent the China Club while they prepare for 1997, the year that Britain hands Hong Kong back to mainland China. Most of them have already made plans for an alternative life style should things go wrong: they have homes in America, Canada or Australia.

'We have been nicknamed 'spacemen',' one of them told me, 'Because we spend so much time shuttling to and fro on airplanes.' While many art collections have already left Hong Kong, the collectors mostly exude considerable optimism. There is a mint of money to be made out of developing mainland China, they point out; some, at least, of the proceeds will be spent on collecting art. -

(Photograph omitted)