IN the autumn, an older man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of - auctions. And so, on November 2, Christie's will sell 30 examples of what are described as 'some of the finest imperial wares of the 18th century' that have been culled from the personal collection of Robert Chang. The most breathtaking examples of enamels, monochromes and blue-and-white wares executed by the master craftsmen of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) will be sold to buyers at the most breathtaking prices. These are items of exquisite rarity. As, indeed, is Mr Chang. Like his finely fashioned porcelain, he is a one-off. Wearing a green-striped blazer, a tie dotted with bunny rabbits, dark glasses and the most resplendent watch, he is a man of memorable presence. Mr Chang, you feel, is someone who has surely made an unforgettable impression in the world's auction rooms (in which he always liked to have the Number One paddle to wave at the auctioneer). He is the last of the old-school dealers, an individual who has spent his life assessing beautiful objects with ruthless scrutiny. Although he likes to present himself as a roguishly twinkling character, a sort of Shanghainese version of Maurice Chevalier ('Nice clothes, nice food and eyeing the nice girls,' he gamely replies when asked what he might do with the money from the sale), he is, professionally, a rigid perfectionist. Pass him one of his own pieces - an imperial famille rose ruby-ground bowl, say, which is expected to fetch more than $8 million - and he gazes upon it with gimlet-eyed authority, turning it over and over in his hands, checking for the non-existent flaws. He is selling because he feels old; he feels he has reached the end of a cycle of possession in his life. If that sounds sad, it is not intended to be. In any case, Mr Chang at 73 looks as spry, and acts as irrepressible, as a man of 50. But Anthony Lin, the chairman of Christie's, who has known Mr Chang for 13 years and who acted as occasional interpreter during this interview (Mr Chang grew more enthusiastic, and therefore more inclined to press home his point in English, as matters progressed), says: 'He has been a dealer for so long that he knows the market thrives on circulation. He says that being a collector is just being a temporary custodian. There is a finite quality in life, he is single, he has no heirs, and so this is a dispersal.' Mr Chang, who was born in Suzhou, inherited a taste for fine porcelain from his father, who was a famous dealer in Shanghai. Ask Mr Chang where his impeccable sales room taste springs from, and he replies: 'My father. And second, my head was clever. I had no teacher.' He is of the firm opinion that it is the agonies of commerce which instil the most valuable education. 'The most important thing is to buy and to sell, because only in buying can you commit mistakes,' he says. He sniffs at the abstract world of museum curators, who have never had to put their own money where their aesthetic sense lies. Such pragmatism is probably the result of having experienced financial hardship at close quarters. In pre-revolutionary Shanghai he seems to have had his fingers in several business pies: he was involved in the film and the garment industries, and he says he opened a department store in Suzhou when he was 16. But when he came to Hong Kong in 1949, he lived in a room in North Point that cost $60 a month. By watching and listening he began to pick up the skills of connoisseurship. By the time he was 30, he had decided he had found his metier, but it was in his 50s, when European dealers sought him out, that he really came into his own as a dealer. 'You know, he worked so hard,' Mr Lin murmurs. 'He'd go four times around the world every year to attend the auctions. He wrote copious notes about everything even before the catalogues came out. He went to London and New York to see everything months before the auctions, to have a clear idea what the international market had to offer.' Mr Chang, in fact, persuaded Christie's to make a home for itself in Hong Kong. 'They said to me: 'Who will buy?' I said: 'I will buy!' Then they said: 'Who will sell?' and I said: 'I will sell!' ' he recalls. This was in 1984, when Christie's had a staff of two operating out of the Furama Hotel's business centre. Now it has 42 employees. 'He really encouraged us to come,' Mr Lin says. 'He gave us a nice, decisive push.' And so Christie's, in its turn, is helping with this moment of dispersal. Let it not be thought, however, that Mr Chang is clearing out his closet. The 30 items that will go on sale represent about a quarter of his collection; a man can only sell off so much of his life's accumulation at any one time. It seems that when Mr Lin visited his home and expressed an interest in certain pieces, Mr Chang cried: 'No, no, no!' Asked whether this response came from the heart or the head, Mr Chang laughs and explains: 'Now that I still have a nice stock, everybody comes to see me. If I didn't have these things, no one would come. If you have a van Gogh or a Picasso on your wall, people like to ring up and say: 'Can we come and see you?' But if you don't have such paintings, no one comes.' It is easy to see that his heart has had a say in these purchases, too. A short while later, fondling his little imperial bowl, Mr Chang speaks to Mr Lin, who translates: 'In his estimation, this is the best of its kind, it is something that he has loved all these years, one of his favourite pieces. He was extremely lucky to possess it since 1982. It was better than finding a wife.' ('A wife wants jewellery, a big house, a big diamond,' puts in Mr Chang, with some feeling.) '[The bowl] is not demanding,' Mr Lin says. 'He says that it is destiny that he has had this bowl. It is not a utensil. It was made to the personal taste of the emperor, and there is this wonderful idea that something like that can pass into the hands of someone who had no imperial connections. That's the mystique of it.' So how can he bear to let it pass on? 'For him, it's about letting go.' Mr Chang is a generous soul: a third of whatever is raised at his auction will be given to several charities. He was the prime mover behind the Chang Foundation, a collection of Chinese works of art that opened in Taipei in 1991. But perhaps, there is also a pleasant sense of relief that comes with such a cull. 'He says that that is right,' Mr Lin agrees. 'It's a simplification, a lightening of the burden. Now that he is getting older, maybe younger people will have a chance to enjoy these things, and then the same thing will happen in another 30 years. It's part of the cycle.'