Why art hidden from Japanese on eve of Hong Kong invasion in World War II, and never seen again, still fascinates after 80 years
- Some 300 paintings, drawings and maps collected by Hong Kong businessman Sir Paul Chater went missing when the Japanese Army occupied Hong Kong in 1941
- Some paintings were stripped from their frames, placed in sealed tins and buried in the garden of Government House, but searches have not turned them up
Works of art depicting coastal China from the 17th to the 19th century comprise what the Hong Kong Museum of Art describes as one of its most legendary collections.
The collection could have been much bigger. More than 300 paintings, drawings and maps went missing when the Imperial Japanese Army occupied Hong Kong during World War II, and their whereabouts remains one of Asia’s biggest unsolved art mysteries.
The collection was owned by Indian-born Armenian businessman Sir Paul Chater, who arrived in Hong Kong in 1864 and made a fortune in trade and real estate. His name is commemorated by local landmarks including Chater Road and Chater Garden in the Central business district.
Following his death in May, 1926, his unrivalled collection of some 430 works that had decorated the family’s palatial Marble Hall residence in Conduit Road, Mid-Levels, was bequeathed to the Hong Kong government. It was handed over in 1935, when Lady Chater died and Marble Hall was emptied of its valuables, according to Liz Chater, a descendant of the businessman and an authority on the family’s history.
“My thought is that Sir Paul probably hoped his legacy might stimulate the government to create a museum,” says Chater, speaking from her home in Southampton, southern England.
If that was his dream, it came true in 1962 when the remaining items formed one of the founding collections of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. An exhibition at the museum in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, “Lost and Found: Guardians of the Chater Collection”, runs until November – once the museum reopens after the coronavirus emergency is over – and attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.
In 1941, as the Imperial Japanese Army advanced on the British colony, governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young ordered valuable works of the Chater collection to be hidden. On December 8 of that year, the day Japan declared war on Britain and the United States and began bombing Hong Kong, a secret meeting was held. Captain Sydney Harry Batty-Smith, aide-de-camp to the governor, met Eugene Alexander von Kobza-Nagy, a Hungarian art expert, and Thomas Harmon of the Public Works Department to discuss what to do with the artworks.
Many were concealed in a wine cellar and strong room in the extensive basement of Government House. Documents show that some of Chater’s valuable paintings were stripped from their frames, placed in sealed tins and buried in the garden of Government House.
“The rumour that it was somehow buried in the grounds of Government House for safekeeping does rather send the imagination into overdrive,” says Liz Chater, who suspects much of the collection must have been discovered and acquired by the Japanese occupiers.
Only Batty-Smith, Von Kobza-Nagy and Harmon knew the exact location of the most valuable paintings.
“The mystery of what happened to the missing items went with the only three men who knew their whereabouts, who all died during the occupation,” says art expert Jonathan Wattis, of Wattis Fine Art, who has staged several exhibitions related to the Chater collection.
At his gallery in Hollywood Road, Wattis produces a large leather-bound book titled The Chater Collection, pictures relating to China, Hongkong and Macao 1655-1860. Published in 1924, it is a detailed catalogue of the collection compiled by James Orange, Chater’s architect and friend.
Orange was the man responsible for sourcing the collection, persuading Chater to acquire it from an officer of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service called Wyndham Law, and adding to it in subsequent years. The book remains the seminal reference work for paintings, prints and maps of China during that period.
Wattis says that while the collection is of great historical significance, some items are worth more money than others.
“The valuation is difficult because there are a lot of prints in the collection which are not particularly rare, but the old paintings and watercolours are quite unique, as are the ... drawings and studies [by English artist George Chinnery],” he says.
Wattis estimates that a missing watercolour painting of the city’s Happy Valley neighbourhood by Marciano Baptista, widely considered the best Macau artist of the 19th century, could be worth HK$300,000 (US$38,600) to HK$400,000. Some of the larger paintings by the likes of Auguste Borget and English artist Thomas Allom might be worth significantly more.
As a rough indication of the collection’s financial value, if a modest average valuation of HK$100,000 per item was applied to the 300 missing artworks, the lost collection would be worth HK$30 million.
Wattis says it’s impossible to verify which rare lithographs and prints were part of the original Chater collection because they could be one of several editions.
Two very rare lithographs of Macau were bought by Wattis from Bonham’s in London in 2002 which had been part of the C.R. Boxer collection. Charles Ralph Boxer was a well-connected British army intelligence officer and scholar interned in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation.
Could Boxer have acquired them from the Chater collection as a gift, or might he have been given them as a reward, or asked to hold on to them for safekeeping?
“I was heavily interested in the whole Chater story, so the possibility that these two prints might have been from the Chater collection did occur to me,” Wattis admits.
The prints were subsequently sold on to an American collector and now hang in his house in New England.
A few items from the missing collection have been found and returned over the years. In 1942, when the Japanese renovated Government House, a local contractor called Sinn Chi Lam found some works in the rubbish dump. He successfully smuggled 23 of them out and moved them to his home village in Bao An, in Guangdong province, southern China. After the war, Sinn Chi Lam returned the works to the Hong Kong government.
F.A. Xavier, a Portuguese resident of Hong Kong, discovered some items from the collection in an antique shop in Central during the war. He later searched all over the surrounding area and retrieved 30 works. These were all also handed to the government.
“The most recent return was in 2006. Works were returned by an anonymous source to us,” says a spokesman for the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Still, much of the collection is unaccounted for.
After the fall of Hong Kong in World War II, more than 980 pieces of Bizen ware ceramics from Japan, which formed a separate part of the Chater Collection, were taken from a government storeroom in North Point by Japanese troops.
“If you are an educated and cultured Japanese officer and you see these exquisite ceramic objects, you probably think you might just take some home,” says Wattis. There are unconfirmed reports that the vessel carrying this special cargo sank somewhere in the northern waters of Hong Kong in 1942 en route to Japan.
According to the Museum of Art there have been several official searches for the lost paintings thought to be buried in the grounds of Government House.
The first excavation, in 1945, was commanded by a member of the Government Secretariat. Another, in 1976, was conducted using military equipment in the search, but to no avail.
The last attempt was in 1979, when Government House underwent a major renovation and Angus Stevenson-Hamilton, the aide-de-camp to Governor Murray MacLehose, was in charge of the search. Again, nothing was found, but experts say technology has advanced a long way since the 1970s and a new search could reveal the secrets of the lost Chater collection.
“In the 1970s, there were no personal computers, and ground penetrating radar [GPR] was crude and only used for big geophysical applications,” says Wallace Lai Wai-lok, associate professor of the department of land surveying and geo-informatics at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“Now, GPR can be adapted for shallow search applications and produce high-resolution 3D digital underground images. We have all this technology in the lab,” says Lai. Museum staff who have discussed with him the feasibility of a new search remain cautious.
“Further research and a call for expertise in many fields are needed to determine whether there are items of the Chater collection in the grounds of Government House and the possibility of a new search with modern technology,” the museum’s spokesman says.
“Nothing is 100 per cent certain,” says Lai. “This is geophysics, but if we don’t do it we will never know.”