Collectables The first rule for an investor in Chinese costume and textiles is the same as that of a collector: like what you buy. But like vintage wines, modern paintings, jade jewellery or Ming dynasty sculptures - you have to know what you are buying. 'I apply the 'waah' test,' says collector Chris Hall. 'It has to make me say 'waah'.' Mr Hall, an expert in Chinese costume and textiles which he has collected in Hong Kong over the past 30 years, applies a few other criteria too. For him, it is obvious at auctions when people bid on things they know little about. He has seen items from the 19th century go for prices that were much higher than their value, while items that were more precious from one or two centuries earlier may be picked up at a price way below their real value. He feels the first step is to read up and research so you that know your subject well. Mr Hall recently bought a magnificent and exceptionally rare imperial noblewoman's kesi fur-lined winter surcoat dating back to the 18th century for more than US$250,000. The 1,500 items in his collection are sometimes loaned out for museum exhibitions. They are his life's work, his legacy. While he does not sell, he understands what a good buy is. Chinese costumes and textiles is an area where fakes abound, so beware. These are the modern fakes, which are prevalent in all areas, whether it is a Motorola mobile phone, an imperial robe, or a Rolex watch. But with textiles there are two forms of fake - the modern ones where the stitching has been copied and the ones from the era. Mr Hall and Hong Kong-based Valery Garrett, who has also collected many items of Chinese textiles over the years and is an author of several books on Chinese dress including Chinese Dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the Present, say that often the imperial yellow is extraordinarily difficult to replicate, so that makes a fake more identifiable. But also bear in mind that during the Ming and Qing dynasties it was quite normal to copy things. Many replicas were made of vases from the court, or robes or sculptures, hence the need for plenty of knowledge and plenty of advice from experts. One of the advantages of investing in Chinese textiles is that it is a relatively unknown area, which means that auction houses feel that it is an area that has not yet achieved its true value. It is a select area that few have ventured into. Perhaps the most well-known dealer in Chinese textiles is Linda Wrigglesworth who sold the majority of a stunning collection at a New York Christie's auction in March - 'The Imperial Wardrobe: Fine Chinese Costume and Textiles from the Linda Wrigglesworth Collection'. Tina Zonars, international director of Chinese works of art at Christie's auction house in New York, says of the prices reached: 'I don't think they have reached their peak at all in Chinese decorative art. Who can predict how high it will go? When you compare Chinese embroidery to a blue and white piece of porcelain there is so much more work that has gone into it. It's much harder to make, so there's definitely room to grow, but by how much - who knows? Fifteen per cent, 50 per cent?' Ms Zonars feels Chinese textiles are still a nascent market. 'I would have been happier if more of the more expensive lots had sold,' she says. 'At the US$100,000 mark there was real resistance.' She says the rules for investment are that you should go for the best condition and the best quality. Ms Wrigglesworth who, over the past few decades has practically single-handedly created the field, is renowned for selling items in pristine condition. Her collection started when she was working in Chinese antiques and the antiques arrived in packing boxes insulated with Chinese clothing including exquisite robes that she felt needed saving. In addition to looking for condition and provenance, potential investors have to be prepared to look after the textiles after they have bought them. 'Textiles are a certain responsibility. Collectors don't show them off,' Ms Zonars says. Mr Hall has air-conditioned rooms with sets of drawers where he has religious hangings, adult and children's clothing, hats and shoes. It cannot be displayed, he says, because the material will fade in the light. Ms Garrett has done quite well on investments she made, although that began accidentally. She and her husband came to Hong Kong in 1974 and she was decorating their new apartment when she saw some 12-inch embroidered squares being sold at a shop at the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui. They were 10 per cent off. She liked them and bought some. 'I didn't have a clue what I was looking at,' says Ms Garrett, a former fashion designer who is decidedly savvier on Chinese textiles these days having written several books on the subject. She has collected and sold over the years. What she had bought were Mandarin squares - sewn on to the robes of Qing dynasty officials in the 19th century. Ms Garrett's interest is primarily academic. 'I buy stuff to use, to learn from for my books. And when I have a surplus I sell it on. The Mandarin squares I've sold, I just have two or three left. The cheapest one I bought for HK$54 and sold on for HK$2,500.' Ms Wrigglesworth is selling Ms Garrett's collection on her website. 'I've been staggered at the prices that she has got for me. 'I bought a collection of children's clothing at the Sunday market in Shanghai. A little boy's surcoat and long neitau blue jacquard gown underneath, and a waistcoat with five brass buttons. The stall holder sold them to me at HK$15 each. The little waistcoat went for #400 [HK$6,166]. The set sold for US$6,000. Another thing I used to buy like crazy were sleeve bands. Similar ones went for US$2,500 at a recent auction. 'I could have bought a lot more in those days and made a lot more money,' Ms Garrett says. In addition to 17th, 18th and 19th-century textiles, there is money to be made in 20th-century items. At Ms Wrigglesworth's auction there was a black gauze and ivory satin woman's jacket and skirt dating from the early 20th century. Ms Zonars says: 'Everybody wanted to buy that. The fabric was gorgeous and the attention to detail was exquisite. It had white satin applique trim and was contemporary in its style. It was like something that Shanghai Tang would sell. The estimate was between US$2,000 and US$2,500. It eventually sold for US$8,000.' While imperial textiles and textiles generally from the 19th and 18th century are hot items, they are becoming increasingly rare. Mr Hall says investors should try to invest in an area that no one is investing in. For example, republican clothes. Ms Garrett agrees and says that some republican clothes are still available at markets in Shanghai and Beijing. They will cost initial investors less and it is an opportunity to get into the market without spending a lot of money, but the returns will be considerably smaller. While an investor starting out may be tempted to spend small, Ms Zonars says that if the item has the key elements of quality, rarity and historical significance investors should not be afraid of going over the US$100,000 mark. Certain Tibetan religious hangings, particularly those from the 17th and 18th centuries can fetch high prices, as can embroidered hanging scrolls of Chinese paintings, which are embroidered with fine pearls and feature traditional birds and flowers in the painting. Items with historic significance such as military uniforms also attract interest. At a recent auction a rare dated white satin imperial guardsman's ceremonial uniform and helmet dating from the Wialong Period (1736-1795) was estimated at US$40,000 to US$60,000. It went for US$115,000. But the big surprise was a rare military official's rank badge of a lion dating from the 17th century - which would have been made for a second-rank military official. The estimate was US$30,000 to US$40,000 but it went for US$73,000. 'I have one just like it,' says Mr Hall. But he's not selling.