Auctions like this have made the city a central proving ground in the global market for classical Chinese art over the last few decades. But the pace has quickened over the last year, with collectors like Steve Wynn setting records for prices, bidding up values and coaxing more antiquities out of private drawing rooms, and — less legally — across the border from mainland China. (The People’s Republic forbids the export of any artworks made before 1911.)
Just last fall an early Ming vase that had been sequestered in a Swiss estate’s private underground gallery for the better part of a century sold for a record $22.6 million at the Sotheby’s sale. Another local hero for rapid appreciation is a simple but vivid raspberry-patterned vase that Christie’s sold for $10 million to Mr. Wynn, whose casino in Macau has become a showcase for all kinds of classical Chinese art.
Next month, all eyes at the Sotheby’s auction will be on a simple, small, luminous celadon brush-washing bowl from the Northern Song dynasty that was last on the market 35 years ago. Only five imperial pieces from this era around 1,000 years ago remain in private hands; this one is expected to bring about $10 million. (For those interested in more modest investments, deals remain in the private galleries for less than $3,000, though buying into this market, too, takes expertise to weed out forgeries.)
But the auctions, which run roughly every spring and fall, are merely one aspect of the churning and ever-growing art scene here. Thanks to committed collectors and the museums and galleries they support, Hong Kong has become the best place in the world for ordinary art lovers to learn about Chinese works, from the broad sweep of the dynasties to the nuances of technique that distinguish one kiln from another.
If you are lucky enough to go during an auction, these events are free to anyone. They provide a special opportunity to get up close to rare and valuable Chinese art, and to learn and compare notes with more than 20,000 aficionados who converge to admire and to bid.
“It’s here you’ll see the rarest and finest pieces, often coming onto the market for the first time in years,” said J. J. Lally, a New York-based dealer of Chinese antiquities, who has been going to the Hong Kong auctions for more than 35 years. “Even if you’re not buying anything, everybody flocks to Hong Kong to see and hold new things.”
Yes, visitors have the opportunity to touch and maybe even hold objects that were once used by an emperor. “That’s the best way to get a feel for these objects, their weight and balance in your hand, the presence of the person who made it and the people who used it,” said Nicolas K. S. Chow, who runs Sotheby’s global Chinese ceramics and works of art department.
If you don’t happen be in Hong Kong during the sales, however, there are plenty of other ways to immerse yourself in Chinese art. The best place to start is the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Just across Victoria Harbor from the main island, this brick and concrete box has become a nexus of the mainland government’s efforts to showcase traditional Chinese culture since the handover from the British in 1997. Each new bequest expands its collection — now more than 15,000 items — which represents every major era and style of ceramics, from the earliest Neolithic urns to the final flowering of the Qing dynasty. Each piece is displayed in historical context, illustrating its place in a continuous narrative that tells us something about how people once lived and worked, and the beliefs they held. A miniature guard tower found in a third-century tomb, for example, gives silent voice to Han dynasty advice to always keep an eye out for brigands, even in the afterlife.
Across the room, a richly detailed 18th-century urn with Chinese designs and European enamels could be a one-piece history lesson on the encounter with the West and the not-so-new global supply chain.
After the museum, some visitors might be interested in exploring more uncertain waters. Hollywood Road, winding uphill about a half-mile between the Central and Sheung Wan districts, is home to dozens of antiques shops. Tightly jammed together and sprawling upward into three and four floors, these paneled, musty dens can be treasure houses, embracing everything from ancient funerary urns to terra cottas still dusty from the packing crate.
But it’s strictly caveat emptor here. Unlike the auction houses, these galleries typically do not have access to the battery of experts and technical resources that can prove a piece is authentic — a persistent issue in a part of the world where faking classical ceramics has been an art in itself for centuries. Clever fakes can fool even experts, and there is a brisk industry producing them for sale to the unwary.
To look in and perhaps do business, do not be intimidated by the buzzer entries, the private club vibe or the scowling older relative parked inside the entrance of more than a few shops. Informed questions about provenance or the validity of certain testing practices will often qualify an unfamiliar buyer as a fellow art lover.
To see Chinese artifacts of a completely different era, walk down the well-worn stone alley off 57-59 Hollywood Road to Vintage Hong Kong for a selection of colorful clocks in plastic and Bakelite from the 1960s, made in Shanghai to go with the space age, with no regard at all for United States patent and trademark law.
Enthusiastic local art patrons have left their mark in a number of smaller museums. The Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong is celebrating the Year of the Dragon by convening more than 200 dragons of fortune, wisdom or imperial authority. Most of these rare works came out of the cupboards of private donors, some of them from the reclusive, secretive Min Chiu Society, which has played a key role in preserving classical art.
The ritual of drinking and preparing tea has inspired more than 600 works at the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. Within verdant, lively Hong Kong Park and a favorite spot for the more adventurous wedding parties, the former home of the British commander in chief presents works ranging from the archaic and homespun to the reverent and even the playful and ironic.
Finally, peek in to the K. S. Lo Gallery next door, where you will find seals — official and personal stamps for signing documents and art — that have been used to arrange marriages, buy estates and cast spells, offering another glimpse into a culture that believed the human touch on a piece of clay could give it the power to change lives.
IF YOU GO
The auctions are held every spring and fall at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centrer (26 Harbour Road, Wan Chai).
Sotheby’s Spring Exhibition and Auction will open for viewing on March 26, with auctions for Chinese classical works on April 4 (sothebys.com). Christie’s Spring Exhibition and Auction will take place from April 24 to 30 (christies.com).
The Hong Kong Museum of Art (10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852-2721-0116; www.lcsd.gov.hk/ce/Museum/Arts).provides an energetic, accessible introduction to Chinese art. The classical galleries can be seen in a few hours, but taking in the modern exhibits and the sculpture garden as well can occupy the entire afternoon until closing time, 6 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on Saturdays.
That’s the right time to end up on the museum’s spacious waterfront plaza facing Victoria Harbor, overlooking the towers of Hong Kong Island. The view is even better from the Lobby Lounge of the old Regent Hotel (now the InterContinental) next door. But after dusk it’s best from the nearby Star Ferry (www.starferry.com.hk), from Tsim Sha Tsui pier just west of the museum. To either pier, Wan Chai or Central, it costs up to 3 Hong Kong dollars (about 40 cents at 7.5 Hong Kong dollars to the United States dollar).
Other museums include: The Museum of Tea Ware (10 Cotton Tree Drive, Central; 852-2869- 0690; www.lcsd.gov.hk/ce/Museum/Arts/en/tea/tea01.html); the Art Museum, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shatin, New Territories; 852-3943-7416; www.cuhk.edu.hk/ics/amm); and University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong (90 Bonham Road, Pokfulam; 852-2241-5500; hku.hk/hkumag/main.html).
Among the Hollywood Road galleries, these are mentioned by Chinese antiquities experts as especially well-informed, welcoming and trustworthy: Joyce Gallery (123 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan; 852-2545-1869; joycegallery.com), and Tai Sing Fine Antiques (12 Wyndham Street, Central; 852-2525-9365).
Jutting into the harbor, the convention center nudges up to a cluster of big-name, costly but somewhat generic hotel restaurants. To rub shoulders with a more lively crowd for artisanal cocktails, it’s a short ride into Wan Chai to the Pawn (62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai; 852-2866-3444; thepawn.com.hk). Take the unmarked, surreptitious-looking winding staircase set into a renovated pawnshop with generous balconies for watching over the night scene.
For a more elegant than usual dim sum, it’s a short walk up Johnston Street to Fook Lam Moon (35/45 Johnston Road, Wan Chai; 852-2866-0663; fooklammoon-grp.com/en/hongkong/home.asp).
Downhill from Hollywood Road, many of the local antiques dealers can be found midday at the Ka Ho Restaurant (Queen’s Road; 1/F; 328 Queen’s Road Central; Sheung Wan; 852-2815-8133).
DONALD FRAZIER writes the Eastern Exposure column at forbes.com.