A family history in antiques set up Andy Hei for role in Fine Art Asia fair

Antique dealing is in the blood for Andy Hei,driving force behind the Fine Art Asia fair, writesNicole Chabot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 1:59pm

Andy Hei is where he is today because antiques are in his blood. In 1948, at the age of 15, his father began working as an apprentice in a relative's curio shop. Years later, in 1970, Hei senior left that job to set up an antique business in Chungking Mansions.

Like his father, Hei began as an apprentice in a Chinese antique dealership as a teenager, and later set up his own shop, Hollywood Road's eponymous Andy Hei.

"My father is a traditional northern Chinese who has supreme authority in the family. You cannot really argue with him. I was a quiet and well-behaved boy," he says.

Hei says he enjoyed an ordinary upbringing, and joined the family business freely. "In 1949 many antique dealers moved to Hong Kong and settled in Tsim Sha Tsui. It was the first dock of call for sailors, diplomats, foreigners," he recalls.

Years later, in 1989, after learning the secrets of cleaning, restoring and polishing furniture, Hei participated in his first art and antique fair in New York, where he assisted Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a Asian art and antique dealer and collector. The American had been a good friend of his father's since 1949 when they'd met in Hong Kong, Hei says.

According to Hei, the fair was an eye-opening introduction to the ways art businesses were operating overseas, and to ways to develop a traditional business rather than just sitting in a shop waiting for buyers to walk in. In 2000, a year after he set up Andy Hei, and 11 years after his initial Big Apple experience, Hei participated in the very same fair in NYC. "At that time, the economy in the West, especially America, was at its best." He took part in overseas fairs for five consecutive years until, post-9/11, the markets of Europe and America started to decline.

Hei then decided to organise an art fair in Hong Kong to create a physical platform similar to New York's, allowing dealers from around the world to share resources and generate business in the new Asian market, as well as to capitalise on the enormous potential of China. "The benefit of fairs is that they encourage communication. I discovered that the internet was changing the ways of the art business, urging exponents to come out and talk, to lecture and to promote, so as to prevent clients from being misled by false information." Hei's website is a simple one-page affair which leads visitors through to the website of Fine Art Asia.

"There had been commercially organised art and antique fairs in Hong Kong in the early 1980s and early 1990s, but these only lasted a few years as they were not supported by the market," says Hei.

By 2006, Hei had inaugurated the Hong Kong International Art and Antiques Fair (HKIAAF), and in 2007, he organised two fairs: the HKIAAF and the International Contemporary Art Fair or ICAF. A year later, they were combined into one and, pivotal to its later success, moved to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC).

Hei says the biggest challenge of the operation - which started with a team of three: "me, my wife and an assistant" - was to secure a suitable venue. "The first two editions of the fair were not at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Since there had been no antique or fine art fairs in Hong Kong for many years, the centre wasn't sure if we had the ability and capacity for professional development," he says.

The other challenge was securing a date for the fair - it needed to be in spring or autumn when the major auctions would take place in Hong Kong. The challenges remain the same, he says, but the fair has come a long way since its inception: about 3,800 attendees in 2006, compared to about 20,000 in 2011.

Hei says that equally important in the fair's ascent has been its 2010 renaming to Fine Art Asia. Why the "fine" of Fine Art Asia? "The term 'fine art' is unfamiliar in Asia, especially in the China market. I believe 'fine art' to be the best term to express an appreciation for the beauty of artworks. It is about quality, not quantity."

Hei says the fair offers a platform with a high-class, professional atmosphere where dealers and clients can communicate, and encourages potential young buyers in Asia, "especially those from the enormous rising market of China". Another benefit of such fairs is that they strengthen the position of Hong Kong as an important art market alongside London and New York. Looking ahead, Hei sees one trend growing in the art market in Hong Kong and across Asia: appreciating and collecting art people will want to live with, rather than buying as an investment then reselling it.

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Fine Art Asia, from Thurs until Oct 7, Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, HK$200 (admits two adults), HK$50 (students and senior citizens), free for children under 12 accompanied by an adult. For more details, go to fineartasia.com