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Antiquated trade rules likely to ease as relic markets thrive

By Jasper Becker, South China Morning Post, Friday 30 March 2001

China is preparing to lift its tight controls on the trade and export of antiquities, a move which could undermine Hong Kong's central role in the business.

Since China will soon enter the World Trade Organisation, I think we will relax some of the restrictions, said an official from the State Cultural Relics Bureau, which supervises the trade.

We have had a few general discussions about this recently but have reached no conclusions yet. But I think we will relax restrictions in certain areas for certain relics.

Antique markets have already sprung up in every city in China and the laws introduced 40 years ago are obsolete and impossible to enforce.

Police no longer raid flourishing antique markets, such as Beijing's Panjiayuan. Yet, it is illegal to buy and sell many of the items on display because they were made before the end of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).

I am not supposed to be selling this, admits antique dealer Han Zhihua, pointing to a fine piece of Tang dynasty pottery of a plump dancing girl in his gallery. It is only legal if it is a fake.

Mr Han gave up a teaching job and now runs one of the dozens of galleries housed near Panjiayuan, the open-air market that is packed with treasure hunters at weekends.

The market's open spaces are lined with bric-a-brac vendors, from Gansu peasants selling crudely painted Neolithic pots apparently dug up in their fields to merchants selling Singer sewing machines.

Many of the best objects are sold privately and then exported abroad, or rather smuggled abroad, sometimes ending up on Hong Kong's Hollywood Road. Yet increasingly, many of the buyers are Chinese collectors and investors.

People now think antiques make good investments. Everyone knows bank deposit interest rates are poor and the stockmarket is very risky, said Shan Shui, of the Pacific International Auction Company.

Hundreds of auction companies have sprung up all over China, capitalising on the growing trade in the country's seemingly endless reserves of ancient works of art.

It is really developing fast. As people have become richer, more and more people are buying relics and keeping them at home, said Zhang Yuqi, of the Beijing Hanhai Art Auction Company.

Many newspapers have started publishing special pages and supplements devoted to collecting works of art. Even the People's Daily has begun reporting on some of the biggest and most spectacular art auctions.

Last year, Shanghai saw 123 pieces of Kuan Yao porcelain auctioned off for a total of 11 million yuan (HK$10.34 million), a record in China. A pair of unique tea cups with lids, the only ones of their kind, sold for 1.01 million yuan. These came from Aisin Gorro Qimeng, a descendant of Qing Dynasty Emperor Daoguang, who was born in 1968. The Kuan Yao porcelain was specially made for Ming and Qing emperors, and curators of the Forbidden City Palace Museum are often called in to verify their authenticity.

Many of the relics coming on to the market were held in private collections confiscated by the Government and returned after 1979.

Many of the relics I had kept in our family were taken by the government. My aunt was a big collector in Liu Lichang and her husband was sentenced to death for being a big capitalist, said Chen Zongyuan, who now makes a living writing books on collecting.

His works are avidly bought by a new generation of collectors who grew up ignorant of China's great artistic heritage.

Even things I gave away in my childhood are now worth a few hundred thousand yuan, he said. A vase made during the reign of Emperor Xuande [1426-1435] was recently sold in Hong Kong for three million yuan. I remember we sold this in our shop before 1949 for a few thousand yuan.

Relics are really the best investment. The prices keep rising. It is better than buying property or shares, Mr Chen argues. But you have to be sure it is genuine.

Real experts are hard to find. Connoisseurs like Xia Genqi, who is in charge of the Forbidden City's snuff bottle collection, have suddenly found themselves very busy. Snuff bottles which were sold for a few thousand yuan in the 1980s are now worth a lot. One snuff bottle was just sold at an auction in Tianjin for 300,000 yuan, he said.