Collectors of Chinese antiquities should be vary of tricksters, writes D. T. Critchlow, author of a forthcoming book on the horses of ancient China. Finding a reputable dealer for Tang dynasty figurines or Han cases is essential, but it also helps if you have enough rudimentary knowledge to sort out the cracks from the pots.

Chinese antique furniture and ceramics are all the rage in the West, so given the availability, high quality and recession-induced low prices of such antiques in Hong Kong there is now a rush at galleries in Hollywood Road.

The demand for Ming Furniture, Han vases, Tang "Fat Lady" figures and wood carvings in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, London and Paris seems insatiable. "It's hard not to go into the home or office of an American executive or corporate manager these days without finding at least one Chinese antique," declares a dealer from Chicago. "In fact, entire homes these days are being decorated in Chinese themes." A young American executive who passed through Hong Kong recently bought a 1,000-year-old Han vase to put on the Mexican coffee table of his Los Angles home.

Hollywood Road has been Hong Kong's mecca for Chinese antiques since the 1960s. Today, hundreds of shops can be found along this narrow road that stretchers west above Central for more than a mile. Galleries offer a range of goods, both authentic and detailed modern reproductions, and it is certainly the place to go if you are seeking high-quality museum pieces- a Neolithic painted pot, a Tang horse or a Ming marriage processional figure, for example. Pieces of the highest quality, with guaranteed authenticity, can be found at bargain prices, especially when compared to London, Paris or New York. It is no wonder that Hollywood Road was recently voted " one of the 10 best shopping streets in the world".

But the smart buyer must be wary of tricksters. When dealing with a novice or an unsuspecting tourist, some outlets in Hollywood Road may represent a modern reproduction as a genuine antique. It pays for a first-time buyer, as much as it does for an experienced collector, to be able to tell a fake from an authentic piece. Victor Choi, owner of Dragon Culture, who has two galleries in Hollywood Road, offers this advice: "The key to collecting is to find a reputable dealer, who will spend time with you to find out your interests and to tell you about each piece."

Choi encourages buyers to have their more expensive purchases scientifically tested. For wood, a carbon 14 test is available. For pottery, Oxford University provides an authenticity certificate based on a thermoluminescence test. London company Oxford Authentication Ltd will date the origin of an artifact to within a few hundred years.


While the Oxford University test, which costs about $3,000, certifies authenticity, at a glance a professional dealer can assess a piece according to its patina, style, weight, colour, hardness of clay and general look. This ability to "eye" an artifact comes from the experience of examining hundreds of thousands of pieces. Thus the reputation of the dealer is important when acquiring Chinese art and often allows the buyer to avoid the additional expense of an Oxford test. Once he has located a reputable dealer, the buyer needs to determine the kind of antiques he likes and will fit into his home or office. Each dynasty has a unique style of production. Knowledge of the historical development of firing and glazing techniques gives even the novice the means to identify Chinese ceramics. For example, the earliest Chinese pottery is the unglazed earthenware of the Neolithic culture of northern China, produced in the early part of the second millennium BC. Neolithic pottery displays striking beauty in its primitive geometric painted designs, which are remarkably similar to works produced much later by the Navajo tribe in the southwest of the North American continent.

The Shang dynasty (1750-1045 BC) saw the introduction of glazing, but the period is best known for the beautiful bronze vessels illustrate the power and vitality of this epoch in Chinese history. They range in height from a few inches to more than four feet and are valued for their short inscriptions.

Poetry and music flourished during the Chou dynasty (1045-22 BC) - the age of Confucius - and bronzes were made with elaborate inscriptions. Intricate, interlacing patterns were used to represent animal forms. Bronze "spade" money appeared in the Warring States period (480-22 BC) and the rich adorned their furniture and carriages with bronze fittings inlaid with fold, silver and malachite. The fashion had an effect on ceramics as artisans tried to replicate bronze shapes and patinas. Han vases are exquisite in their magnificent reddish brown and deep green glazes. During the Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) pottery figures of dancers and court musicians and amber-glazed hill jars were produced. The fascination with horses in Han culture resulted in a varied of pottery horse figures, both glazed and unglazed, with detailed painting to reveal saddles, saddlecloths, reins, and trappings.

In 439, north China came under the rule of the Toba Wei. During this period, Buddhism profoundly influenced Chinese culture and art, and Buddhist stone sculpture and painting flourished. Some of the best ceramic grave figurines have an almost fairy-like elegance, while the horses are no longer the tough, stocky, deep-chested creatures of Han art; they exhibit a heraldic grace of form.

The Northern and southern dynasties (429-589) and the Sui dynasty (581-618) set the stage for the glorious period in Chinese arts that would be the Tang dynasty. While the Sui dynasty was short lived, the ceramics produced in these years are prized among collectors. It is worth comparing Sui horses, with their heavy bodies and long tails, to the highly stylised form of Tang horses.


Chinese culture proposed in the Tang dynasty (618-907). The famous Tang horses and their riders come in a wide variety of shapes and poses. Tang artists ably captured the movement of the beasts, portraying gaping mouths, extended tails, raised legs and bent heads. Riders run the gamut from court officials and traders to foreigners with beards. Representation of the extensive trade along the Silk Road is found in beautifully crafted camel figurines. Tang craftsmen also perfected horses and camels in Sancai glaze (three colours).

The Song dynasty (900-1279) is noted for its Buddhist and Bodhisattva stone carvings that impart a new splendour of effect. Tens of thousands of celadon pieces were exported throughout Asia in the Southern Song era, turning up as far away as Egypt, where they were much in demand by Arab potentates. Especially beautiful is Ying Ching ware, known for it fine, granular, sugary body and pale bluish cast.

Collectors of Chinese antiquities have a seemingly endless choice of style and form. Whatever you decide to acquire, it will surely be a conversation piece in the home or office. To aid your deliberations, many excellent books on Chinese art were available. Victor Choi has himself produced a short handbook that serves as a useful guide to the buyer, Collecting Chinese Antiques in Hong Kong.

Visiting one of Choi's two galleries in Hollywood Road is to enter a wonderland of Chinese arts and crafts. The collections have an astonishing richness. Pride of place in the Dragon Culture gallery at 184 Hollywood Road is a massive 112-centimetre-high Han pottery amber-glazed horse. There are also Han green-glazed vases, Yuen vases, Northern Wei figurines and Tang "Fat Ladies". There is an area reserved for stone carvings including some fine stone Buddha heads. Antique furniture is displayed on the second floor, along with Tang horses and Ming figurines.

At the Dragon Culture gallery at 231 Hollywood Road, the browser encounters Choi's extensive bronze collection, including rings, wine vessels and bells, and a collection of jade. As Choi's main interest is wholesale, his shops are more reminiscent of warehouses than they are of art boutiques. This means, of course, that individual collectors can often get wholesale prices.


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