Watch for antique-elephant traps on Hollywood Road

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 12:00am

The 60 or so antique shops in Hollywood Road, crammed with furniture, pottery and porcelain, are the centre of the world's trade in Chinese artefacts and if your Oriental holy grail exists anywhere, the most likely place to find it is here.

That is all very well, but how does the Hollywood Road novice set about buying the Tang horse or camel of their dreams? Here, guarantees of age and authenticity are of dubious value and, even for an experienced art dealer such as Nick Pitcher with a gallery in London's Bond Street, Hollywood Road is still fraught with elephant traps.

He set off down past Central police station on his recent buying trip, diving in and out of shops as he spotted interesting horses that looked just the same as all the others. But there are Tang horses and, well, Tang horses.

'The best specimens have one ear forward and one back, mouth open and head turned,' Mr Pitcher explained.

Glazed animals and figures meant it was from a wealthy person's grave, unglazed denoted someone less exalted. If a horse's saddle was glazed as well, the price rocketed by HK$50,000. Glazed saddles were as rare as hen's teeth, but even so, shiny amber-glazed 60 centimetre-high horses cost HK$100,000, with smaller pony scale models about HK$20,000.

It is no secret that fakes find their way into Hollywood Road, so how can Mr Pitcher be sure he is not being sold a pup? 'You can't,' he said. 'All you can do is deal with shops you know from experience sell genuine artefacts. You develop a sixth-sense about it somehow.' Some ringers he spotted immediately, pointing to a splendid blue and white pot. 'If that was genuine it would be in a New York dealer's with a US$250,000 price tag,' he said.

At other times he lifted pieces to judge how they felt, with jars he sniffed inside - very old clay has a certain smell, he explained.

Knowledge of an item's international value was crucial, which meant being up to date with the antiques market in New York and London, where Mr Pitcher's clients live. Only then could the Hollywood Road price be assessed.

For example, he indicated several greenish Han dynasty (BC206-AD220) pottery horses with reddish riders, which appeared everywhere. They were HK$6,000 a few months back when they first appeared, now the London market was flooded with them, which should be reflected in the price here. Dealers responded quickly to supply and demand.

He was right - most shops quoted HK$2,500 a piece. Stock changes according to what tombs are being excavated at any one time, right now there are plenty of crudely carved seated pottery figures and animals from a Tang dynasty (AD518-907) grave in Sichuan.

One piece proved to be a 30cm-high pottery fat lady of the Tang period. She had to be really rotund - with an exquisitely detailed face and rosebud mouth. Matrons of every shape and size abounded, but eventually the winner emerged from a cupboard. Prices ranged from HK$8,000 to HK$30,000 and only after seeing two dozen did the subtle differences become apparent.

Officially, the export to Hong Kong of Chinese treasures is prohibited, but a blind eye is often turned, particularly where less precious items are concerned.

It is not unusual for priceless items to make their way to the SAR in plastic carrier bags, born by nervous mainlanders on a one-day visa, who have to strike a deal, then race back to Lowu.

There is a reliable method of ageing artefacts, with a test developed by a laboratory in Oxford, Britain, at GBP150 (about HK$1,839) a piece. Mr Pitcher uses this service, which only certifies the age of the article. It may, however, miss the recent addition of a new leg or tail, depending on the exact spot where the test is done.

A little restoration was inevitable, since most pieces got damaged coming out of the ground, said Mr Pitcher.

But it seems the cleverness of the mainland restorers is remarkable. Their latest scam is to carve figures from genuine Han tiles which, of course, pass the age test.

A recent New York antiques fair was the scene of one of the biggest rip-off stories. A dealer turned up with GBP100,000-worth of jade, bought in Hollywood Road, only to have 90 per cent of it dismissed as fake by the organisers.

Mr Pitcher had a bad experience on a previous Hong Kong trip with a pair of seated figures. He had several buyers among his clientele of private collectors and fellow dealers, but they failed the Oxford test.

Back they came to Hollywood Road on the next trip. 'I didn't know you were going to have them tested,' was all the dealer said as he reluctantly refunded the money.

The message for foolish Hollywood Road novices is clear - caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.