Chinese wares

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Chinese porcelain pots, plates and plaques painted by Mr Zhai Xiaoxiang (pronunciation instructions later) will be the most tantalising bargains at the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair when it opens on 25 February. He will be there demonstrating his skill - the first Chinese senior master to visit the West and the only one still painting birds, flowers and bamboo in the traditional imperial manner.

Tantalising? Collector-investors will have to assess not only rarity value but taste. Other people's taste, not just their own.

The importer is Peter Wain, respected Shropshire dealer in oriental ceramics, committed Sinophile since his army days in Hong Kong in the late Sixties, and a master of Chinese etiquette: always accept a business card with both hands and read it before pocketing it, burst rather than give in to a sneeze, and keep hands away from face.

He will be escorting 53-year-old Mr Zhai (pronounced jai hsiaohsiung by those capable of saying h at the back of the throat) on a tour of the Stoke on Trent potteries.

His studio is not in the booming Shanghai economic zone, but at the imperial porcelain capital in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province - where the windows of the battered Lada taxis are wedged shut with screwdrivers.

A year's output by Mr Zhai will be offered for sale at Olympia - another stipulation by Chinese officials. It consists of some 50 pieces, with price tags totalling pounds 60,000. A six-inch high vase decorated with birds and flowers that took him three days to paint is pounds 500. Flower vases 15- inches high (two to four weeks), pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000.

Hitherto, Mr Zhai's wares have not been sold in homeland China but reserved for export, almost exclusively to dealers in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Supply is static. Of the eight senior masters in Jingdezhen, Mr Zhai is the only one who paints the meticulously precise flora and fauna. It will be decades before his apprentice becomes a senior master - and what style will he adopt then?

Mr Wain has introduced the more adventurous of his British customers - eight to 10 of them - to works by senior masters of the Twenties and Thirties (also to be shown on his stand at Olympia). But will they take to pots on which the paint is hardly dry? Since 1939 virtually no masterworks have been made.

The Japanese invasion and subsequent civil war stopped production for 15 years from 1939. Some retraining of master-craftsmen took place in the Fifties but during the Cultural Revolution (1968-78) signed works were ordered to be destroyed.

Well, will Westerners like contemporary imperial-style porcelain decoration enough to buy it? Mr Wain and I went in search of Mr Zhai's saucer-plate with fish. If Mr Wain were selling it, which he is not, he would ask pounds 1,500.

But, offered in a different context - you might pass it by, assuming it was mass-produced transfer-printed stuff.

"Would you pay pounds 1,500 for that?" asked Mr Wain, provocatively: "It's a lot of money for people to hand out for something they've not seen before. They will need to appreciate not only the rarity but the artistry of it."

Which explains why Mr Wain is not asking double the price for his hoard. "I don't want to frighten people off," he says, "But these ceramics won't be offered at this price again. Frankly, I feel quite bullish. I might be creating a market I can't satisfy".

Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair: National Hall, Kensington High Street, London, 25 February to 2 March. Entry pounds 5. (0171-370 8188/8186/8234).

Peter Wain: 7 Nantwich Road, Woore, Shropshire CW3 9SA. (01630 647 118)

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