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editorials - September - October 1996

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WITH ONLY FOUR issues of ARTS OF ASIA before the change status of Hong Kong, I am more and more being asked by overseas correspondents what effects this is likely to have on ourselves personally and the art market out here generally. Writing to me on July 13th as part of an exchange of letters, Mr John Sanderson of New York said, "No one can fail to understand your courage in deciding to stay, or leave. The place we call home is a precious part of who we are. It's in our bones, no doubt. You seem destined to a change of "home", even if in Hong Kong. The experience of such a change, I imagine will be mixed with some sadness, as any important change in our lives would be." I do thank Mr Sanderson most warmly for expressing so aptly my own feelings.

As speculation on the effects of the change on the Far Eastern art market becomes more topical, I myself have appeared recently on television and radio with various commentators to answer their questions. I have also, for our readers, interviewed leading members of the main auction houses as well as several prominent art dealers and collectors to help with my own assessments. Appropriately you will find in the Collectors World section a review of part of the coming Autumn '96 China Guardian auctions in Beijing: its subject, the political art of China in the thirty year period, 1949-1979. That such an auction can now take place in Beijing, indicates a reassessment of the period, which is sufficiently distant to be looked at more openly-even in the Chinese capital.

First and foremost, Beijing up to now has not issued a firm statement on the future rules on the import and export of "cultural relics" in Hong Kong. However, last autumn, when Mr Philip Ng, (1) Regional Managing Director for Christie's in Asia was in Beijing, he met with a few members of the Cultural Relics Bureau, including Director Zhang Deqin and Deputy General-Director Ma Zishu. They were all of the opinion that the laws of China on cultural relics will not apply to Hong Kong. In which case, import and export of antiques from Hong Kong would be freely allowed. Though, they strongly stressed that the clamp down on smuggling between China and Hon Kong will be intensified.

Philip Ng joined Christie's in 1994 after a twenty-six year career in IBM which included various management positions in Singapore and the Asia Pacific Region. He was the Chairman and Managing Director of IBM Singapore from 1990 to 1993. He had a rather optimistic view of Hong Kong when he talked to me "China wants Hong Kong to work as a financial and economic centre post-June 1997. It is in China's interest to show that Hong Kong will continue to grow and succeed. There are quite a few major issues that China and Hong Kong must overcome to ensure this success. I believe changing the cultural relics laws Hong Kong will not be high on their priority. It is unlikely that China will focus on this issue until a couple of years or more later.

"China officials I have met have encouraged Christie's to continue to stay and auction in Hong Kong after 1997. Presently, Christie's Regional Head Office for Asia is in Singapore. However, this is only a very small office. The larger investments are in Hong Kong and China. Since 1994, Christie's Hong Kong has expanded the Hong Kong office. Staff has grown from twenty-three in 1994 to a plan of thirty-three for 1996. It has recently taken on new and additional space in Alexandra House for the increased staffs and has invested in more art specialists. In fact Christie's International Head for Chinese Paintings, Mr K.S. Wong and the International Head for Jadeite, Mr Edmond Chin, both moved from New York to Hong Kong in 1995. We have also assigned Ms Ellanor Notides in Hong Kong to focus on Western Paintings.

"Christie's Shanghai office opened in 1994 and earlier this year Christie's Beijing office was established. Ben Kong from Christie's Hong Kong Chinese Paintings department was assigned there full-time to support clients in Beijing. We are interested to sell in China, as I am sure other international auction houses are also. There are many benefits that an established organisation such as ours can bring both to collectors and trade and to the existing auction market in China. In fact an international auction house like Christie's can complement and help the local auction houses to develop and to build a sound strong and well structured auction market in China. This will benefit China and Chinese arts."

Julian Thompson, Co-Chairman of Sotheby's Asia, (2) with a twenty-three year history of conducting auctions in Hong Kong (Sotheby's in association with Lane Crawford Ltd held their first Oriental Art auction in Hong Kong on November 16th, 1973, at the Mandarin Hotel) was stimulated by my interview to prepare a more explicit statement on the Hong Kong situation, dealing with it as thoroughly as possible in this space, including a short overview on Southeast Asia.

"The return of Hong Kong to China next year has raised many questions about the future of the art market in Hong Kong. At Sotheby's we are fully committed to maintaining our auctions long-term here in Hong Kong, which is also our corporate headquarters in Asia. We have a staff of thirty in the office and have recently appointed Mrs Alice Lam, (3) who retired earlier this year as Managing Director of the Hang Seng Bank, as Co-Chairman of Sotheby's Asia. She has great experience of the Hong Kong business world and is a collector of Chinese art herself. I think her appointment makes it even clearer how strongly we believe that Hong Kong will maintain its position as the main auction centre in Asia.

Hong Kong has so many advantages as an international auction centre. It is centrally located in Asia, almost equidistant between Tokyo and Singapore. For the Taiwanese, who have become more and more important in the market, it is little more than an hour away by plane. Looking forward, I have no doubt that mainland buyers will eventually become the major force in the Chinese art market. At the moment, they are constrained by exchange controls but it is likely that there will be some relaxation in the next year or two. For them, too, Hong Kong will be an excellent centre. It also has the advantage that no tax is payable on the import of antiques, paintings and jewellery as the case in Singapore. At present, antiques are freely exportable from Hong Kong, though this raises the major question as to whether regulations will change under the new government.

Hong Kong has so many advantages as an international auction centre. It is centrally located in Asia, almost equidistant between Tokyo and Singapore. For the Taiwanese, who have become more and more important in the market, it is little more than an hour away by plane. Looking forward, I have no doubt that mainland buyers will eventually become the major force in the Chinese art market. At the moment, they are constrained by exchange controls but it is likely that there will be some relaxation in the next year or two. For them, too, Hong Kong will be an excellent centre. It also has the advantage that no tax is payable on the import of antiques, paintings and jewellery as the case in Singapore. At present, antiques are freely exportable from Hong Kong, though this raises the major question as to whether regulations will change under the new government.


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