Bargains galore in colonial sale of the century

Clear out: Auction of police memorabilia part of intense trade in nostalgia before handover as legal system suffers a blow

Forget the annual department store sales, Hong Kong's end-of-empire sale is offering never-to-be-repeated buying opportunities.

Today, for example, the Royal Hong Kong Police are auctioning off an assortment of 150th anniversary memorabilia. As the police force are about to lose their royal insignia and they are the only official body to still carry the old colonial insignia, interest in the auction has been lively.

"You won't be able to buy these after the handover", says Kamuel Chow, a former police officer who is responsible for the auction. "The Royal Hong Kong Police is part of Hong Kong's history. Now that will end, it's very sad, but that's how it is."

The police force was one of the first institutions formed by the colonial authorities. Their record is hardly unblemished, having been tarred by high levels of corruption. However today they like to think of themselves as one of the least corrupt and most efficient police forces in Asia.

They are also sticklers for tradition. Long after the rest of Hong Kong government adopted a new seal in 1958 the police stuck with the original symbol depicting a pig-tailed Chinese man and a black-clad European standing on the edge of the harbour with two clippers in the background. It is clear that they are there for the purpose of commerce - always the main purpose of the colony.

Buyers at tomorrow's auction will have a chance to scoop up 3,600 commemorative bone-China plates, specially produced police anniversary phone cards, first-day stamp covers and even custom-made holders for mass-transit railway tickets. Mr Chow is forecasting "huge profits" from these items in a year or two. He says "now is the real time to buy".

This is something more than a salesman's pitch. Prices are already rising for colonial souvenirs sold at previous auctions. The British garrison, which is fast winding down, has been the most aggressive seller. Most of its wares are of little sentimental value but even they received better than expected prices.

The market for government porcelain and cutlery bearing the crown insignia is even better. Last June a sale of these items raised over pounds 84,000 and there are reports of a brisk resale market emerging across the border in China where a nostalgia wave of another kind, for Mao-era Cultural Revolution mementoes, is also raging.

Unfortunately for potential buyers, that was the last chance to obtain Crown-encrusted tableware direct from the government. Items at present in use will simply be thrown away when the Union flag is lowered on 30 June. However it is a fair bet that the civil servants accustomed to taking their morning tea from chunky cups with a green royal seal will be ferrying the cups to their homes.

One of the most potent symbols of British rule are the old, red letter boxes. Some date back to the reign of George V. A job lot of boxes was eagerly snapped up by buyers such as restaurant owners.

The nostalgia vogue looks set to get more intense.

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