A Unique Legacy: Hong Kong’s Chinese Antiquities Collections

Exterior of the K S Lo Gallery of the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. Courtesy of the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware

IN A 1984 4 catalogue of the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong, Dr Lo Kwee-seong – a prominent businessman who founded the Vitasoy beverage empire – recollected fondly of the serendipity that led him to a lifelong interest that would span more than four decades until his death in 1995. ‘I was walking along Queen’s Road one day in the early 1950s when passing by a show window, I noticed a large number of second-hand teapots on display. Once inside, I was so carried away that I bought over 30 of them on impulse,’ he wrote, ‘later, I came to know that those were Yixing teapots. The more I learned the deeper I got interested, until finally [collecting these wares] developed into a consuming passion.’ In the early 1980s, Dr Lo donated 476 pieces of teaware to form the core collection of the new Flagstaff House Museum, a branch of the Hong Kong Museum of Art dedicated to the Chinese tradition of tea drinking which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Dr Lo, distinguished by his lifelong dedication to his unparalleled collection, his comprehensive knowledge in his speciality and his generosity, was among many contemporaries who shaped Hong Kong’s unmatched public and private collections of Chinese art and promoted cultural appreciation by collaborating with local institutions. Since the 1940s, prominent collectors including Dr. Lo have played an indispensable role in turning Hong Kong into a global market hub for Chinese paintings, calligraphy and objets d’art, as well as a leading centre within the Chinese-speaking world for the preservation of Chinese material heritage.

Dr Raymond Tang, Curator of Chinese Antiquities at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, once wrote that ‘Hong Kong’s Chinese antiquities collection reflects Hong Kong’s unique history, bringing to light how the city’s circumstances in the 20th century contributed to the promotion of Chinese culture’. As a small port city on China’s southern frontier, Hong Kong is not well endowed with historical artefacts, but the city’s status as a British colony before 1997 put it in a unique position to become the hub of countless treasures dispersed outside China from the post-war period onwards. In the tumultuous years before and after the Communist takeover in 1949, many collectors, connoisseurs and prominent families with priceless heirlooms fled to Hong Kong, bringing their private collections with them in droves. As a point of congregation for displaced people, Hong Kong developed into a place where rare and important works could be bought at enviable prices, facilitating the building of many private collections that would later become unrivalled in the world. Later on, during the years of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, hordes of Chinese art were again scattered out of China rapidly as Chinese authorities acquired countless artefacts cheaply and sold them abroad, and others smuggled objects illegally out of the country. In either case, Hong Kong was an important stop in the sales and transfer of these scattered artefacts, and the market was teeming with them at affordable prices. While benefitting greatly from this unique opportunity to acquire rare treasures, many collectors did not merely collect to gratify their own aesthetic penchants, but also to prevent works of art and antiques from being lost throughout China’s unstable decades in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1970s, international auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s set up branch offices in Hong Kong to establish the city as a hub in the international market for Chinese art. Before an active auction scene developed, however, the trade of Chinese art and objects was facilitated by established galleries, antique dealers and bookstores owned by local connoisseurs. One of the most famous antique shops, Tsi Ku Chai – a literary name that alludes to a place of learning with a vast collection of antiquities – opened in 1958 and dealt in carved seals, bronze and stone rubbings, classical and contemporary paintings as well as calligraphy. Before auctions took over much of the trade of these antiques in the 1980s, Hong Kong’s first prominent collectors acquired their collections in the intimate settings of these cultural establishments, forming friendships with their peers, antique dealers and other connoisseurs in the process. The intellectual bonds between these early collectors and connoisseurs, formed in an environment saturated with readily available works, led to the establishment of private collector societies that would become immensely influential in Hong Kong’s cultural landscape in the decades to come.

Hong Kong’s most famous collector organisation, the Min Chiu Society, was founded in 1960 by prominent businessmen and collectors Hu Renmou, J S Lee and K P Chen. The society’s name derives from a famous quote from the Analects, namely Confucius said, ‘I was not born with knowledge but, being fond of antiquity, I am quick to seek it’, and alludes to the group’s activities in collecting, appreciating and preserving antiquities in the way that the Chinese literati had done in the past. Early members of the Society came to Hong Kong from prominent Chinese families and brought with them existing wealth and social standing. This was reflected in the Society’s early collections that consisted mostly of objects of great quality, including rare and valuable ceramics. By the 1980s, however, the Min Chiu Society was increasingly represented by the new professional class in Hong Kong, with many doctors, lawyers, architects, professors and self-made entrepreneurs among its newest members. Starting out as relative beginners in collecting, these members often focused on works that then had relatively low price points, such as bamboo art, rhinoceros horn carvings and Ming and Qing furniture, but over time, these acquisitions became acclaimed by experts and the market alike because of the Society’s tireless efforts in systematising its collections, putting on exhibitions and publishing high-quality books and catalogues.

Patterns of private collecting continued to change and were reflected by the evolving collections in the Min Chiu Society. In the 1980s and 90s, many wealthy businessmen had vast financial resources and built collections rapidly by relying on auction houses to ensure the quality of their acquisitions. After two successful Sotheby’s auctions of the acclaimed Ming imperial porcelains belonging to legendary collector Edward T Chow in the 1970s, senior Min Chiu members started to let auction houses handle their own sales: for example, founding member Hu Renmou auctioned off his collection of 79 Ming and Qing porcelain wares through Sotheby’s in 1985, with a piece setting the record then for a Chinese artefact by fetching US$ 1.1 million. In these auctions, younger Min Chiu members were usually the most active buyers, helping to keep the collections of their older counterparts within the Society.

Far from being an exclusive group of wealthy collectors, the Min Chiu Society also shared its prized collections of Chinese art with the public through donations and loans. In these efforts, the Hong Kong Museum of Art has been a major collaborator, receiving numerous donations from the Society’s members since its founding in 1962. Within the world-class collection of Chinese Antiquities in the Museum of Art, donations from members of the Society constitute the most valuable pieces and form the collection’s backbone. Other major art museums, such as the University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) within the University of Hong Kong, have also benefited from the generosity of many prominent collectors, most notably T T Tsui. ‘Many donated works are now highlights in our permanent galleries,’ comments Dr Florian Knothe, Director of UMAG, ‘these treasures allude to the collecting interests of Hong Kong collectors and, when integrated into our collection, help us communicate the extensive history of Chinese ceramics and other arts’. This attests to how, beyond public education, philanthropic collectors also have an important stake in tertiary education and the nurturing of future generations of experts on Chinese art in Hong Kong.
Some Hong Kong collectors have particularly fascinating stories.
C P Lin, a successful lawyer, was among the early members of the Min Chiu Society who acquired their collections from friends and dealers at Tsi Ku Chai. Active as a collector and connoisseur for over six decades, Lin’s collection is highlighted by priceless works of art, such as imperial porcelains from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Throughout his collecting career, Lin collaborated closely with the Museum of Art on many acclaimed public exhibitions – in the mid-1970s, for example, he acquired a rare Guanyin in white glaze from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) at a London auction and unreservedly agreed to bring it back to Hong Kong for a public exhibition at the request of Laurence Tam, then curator of the Museum of Art. Lin’s close collaboration with the museum extended into the 21st century. In 2005, he loaned his collection of calligraphy and paintings by masters such as Pan Tianshou and Qi Baishi to the Chinese Calligraphy and Paintings from the C. P. Lin Collection exhibition; and last year, he provided 120 pieces of his valuable Ming and Qing porcelains to the Ming and Qing Chinese Arts from the C P Lin Collection exhibition, which attracted close to 250,000 art lovers and public visitors.

For Dr K S Lo, Hong Kong’s foremost teaware connoisseur and collector, what started as serendipitous acquisitions in the 1950s turned into a lifelong passion for collecting Yixing clay teapots. From the 1950s to 70s, Dr Lo built up a collection consisting of more than 200 pieces of mainly Qing-dynasty teawares, but it was not until 1978 when an auction opportunity presented itself for him to acquire a major set of Ming teawares to crown his existing collection. In addition to acquisitions, Dr Lo also devoted his time to exploring the history and aesthetics of Chinese teaware, travelling far and wide to Yixing in China and abroad to learn about traditional Chinese craftsmanship as well as the adapted techniques of European potters. Complemented by his knowledge about Chinese teaware, Lo’s collection was unparalleled in the world in scope and depth. When he decided to donate his prized collection to the Hong Kong Museum of Art in the 1980s, his generosity manifested itself as the core of the new Museum of Tea Ware in Central. As Lo put it, his motivation to donate was simple: he believed that teawares, as three-dimensional objects of beauty and craftsmanship, could be appreciated by Hong Kong people from all walks of life, and as such, he hoped that his collection housed in a historic building at the heart of the city would allow moments of tranquillity and aesthetic appreciation in the bustle of metropolitan life.

T T Tsui, a businessman who came to Hong Kong from Yixing, Jiangsu in 1950, made his fortune in the city’s volatile property market in the 1970s and 80s and built his comprehensive collection rapidly through auction houses. Tsui’s vast collection consists of more than 5,000 pieces of ceramics, bronzeware, jadeware, furniture, ivory and rhinoceros horns, with his ceramics being of particularly high acclaim. From Neolithic painted pottery from the Majiayao culture to imperial porcelain from the Qing dynasty, Tsui’s collection spans millennia of Chinese history but is marked by a high level of continuity at the same time. Two outstanding pieces from his donations to the UMAG, for example, are a large red pottery horse dating to the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220) and another pottery horse with sancai glaze from the Tang dynasty (618-906), which demonstrate the scope of Tsui’s wide-ranging ceramics collection. In 1991, Tsui started the first private museum in Hong Kong, the Tsui Museum of Art, which was consistently named one of the best of its kind in the world with its world-class rotating collection until its closing in the late 1990s.

For more than half a century, prominent collectors have established Hong Kong as a market hub for Chinese art and helped to preserve priceless artefacts at risk of being lost or destroyed. Taking advantage of the unique historical circumstances in the mid-20th century which endowed Hong Kong with a hoard of displaced treasures, collectors acquired invaluable works of art at enviable prices and enjoyed decades of connoisseurship and often immense financial rewards. Giving back to the society that enabled these enriching lifelong endeavours, many collectors actively donated to public museums, loaned their objects to exhibitions and engaged in tireless efforts to promote the appreciation of China’s rich cultural heritage. This multi-pronged legacy left by collectors over the past decades – as evident in the city’s public art collections, vibrant market for Chinese art and continuing public engagement by all levels of cultural institutions – continues to shape Hong Kong’s unique artistic landscape, tying the city to its cultural and historical roots as the local art sector becomes ever more diversified in a globalised world.

BY CHARLOTTE CHANG