Rolling back the years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am


The demand for antiquarian photographs of Hong Kong and the mainland has soared, as people seek more affordable art in which to invest and to adorn their homes.

Picture This gallery owner Christopher Bailey says that what would sell for HK$2,000 three or four years ago is now fetching HK$10,000. 'Ten years ago, Hong Kong photos were very collectable but China was not,' Bailey says. 'Now it's the other way around.'

He says Europeans have long-held an odd fascination with photographs of prisoner exhibitions and punishments - something that does not interest Chinese collectors.

Instead, superb views of historically important places are popular with Eastern collectors, such as the Summer Palace. 'I sold a 10x8-inch photo of soldiers during the Tai Ping Rebellion for HK$20,000, and five years ago that would have gone for around HK$5,000 to HK$7,000,' Bailey says.

'When buying, first remember that these are pieces of art you will want to enjoy, don't look at them purely as an investment,' he says. 'Having said that, look for rarity, condition, an interesting subject and a well-regarded photographer. Things do go in and out of fashion so you need to be aware of that.'

Bailey also says that when hanging photos, it is important to avoid light and damp conditions.

'Good quality framing will help prevent damp. But old photographs are prone to fading because they have spent their lives inside albums. So you must use UV-protected glass or they will just fade away in a few years.'

He says there are two types of antiquarian photographs. The first are from the 1860s to 1900. The two most important photographers to capture images of Hong Kong and the mainland are Felice Beato and John Thompson.

Beato, an Italian-Briton, took some of the earliest images of the mainland and also documented the second opium war. Thompson, a Scot, was the first to photograph inland China.

The second set of collectable images date from the 1950s and '60s. Hong Kong photographers Richard Yee and Yau Leung are regarded as masters of this period, Bailey says. 'There is a growing demand for this period because of an interest in nostalgia,' he says. 'This is the difference between this period and 120-year-old photos. A 40-year-old can relate to these photos because they remember the images. However, for older photos you need an appreciation of history.'

Bailey says this is a good area to invest in because prices have been flat but interest and demand has grown. The majority of available photos are only of Hong Kong because during this period on the mainland, photography was not something that was supported and most of the surviving photos are of factories and model farms.