One collector of Chinese antiques is putting his exquisite pieces on display in the hope of encouraging other owners to do likewise.
Two flawless white dishes adorned with bamboo and a poem are on show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and they are undoubtedly among the most beautiful things you are likely to see at a local exhibition this year.
The dishes were commissioned by the Qing emperor Yongzheng in the early 18th century and exhibit the delicacy and elegance of the best falangcai wares. They are also strangely affecting, despite their formal style. They capture that timeless desire shared by king and craftsman to leave the madding crowd behind and, in an instant, draw the viewer into a world of serenity.
These are but two of the 270 exquisite objects featured in the prosaically titled “Ming and Qing Chinese Arts from the C. P. Lin Collection” exhibition running until September 28.
Lin, a retired lawyer born in 1933, was modest about his collection at the exhibition opening. “It’s all thanks to the museum’s arrangements that everything look so nice. I am showing these humble items here simply to encourage those with far superior collections to share them with the public,” says Lin, who is a respected figure among aficionados of Chinese antiques.
Cosmopolitan, well educated and well off, Lin and others like him became a new class of Chinese collector in the 1960s and ’70s, acquiring important works decades before the arrival of international auctions and art shows in Hong Kong.
They have built remarkable treasure troves that are rarely seen in public and are now facing an uncertain future, as many of their owners are well advanced in years.
Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams Asia who started dealing with local buyers in the late ’70s, says Lin is among a generation of collectors who were able to acquire extremely valuable Chinese works of art when there was limited interest in them.
Lin studied law in Britain and that was where he was first exposed to the scholarly tradition of collecting, and the joy of perusing antique markets. By 1992, he had established himself as an important player in the Chinese art world, and was invited to host a joint exhibition with the Percival David Foundation in London.
In 2005, the Hong Kong Museum of Art showed his collection of Chinese paintings from the 19th and 20th century; this included works by Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong and Zhang Daqian, among many other top names.
The Lin exhibition is no less impressive, ranging from imperial ceramics, jade, lacquer and ink stones to sculptures made with bamboo and rhinoceros horn.
There are well-written and highly informative descriptions that help visitors understand the significance of, say, the beaker with peacock feather pattern in the robin’s egg glaze from the Yongzheng period, or the Kangxi-era water pot with a peach bloom glaze.
Shows of this calibre play a vital role in art education, but many pieces in Hong Kong are tucked away for years in private homes and warehouses.
Yip Shing Yiu is a former chairman of the Min Chiu Society, the 54-year-old private club for Hong Kong antique connoisseurs. The owner of the world’s best collection of Ming dynasty Huanghuali furniture points to a long tradition of Chinese collectors keeping their collections well hidden.
“In the late Ming and early Qing dynasty, if a government official wanted a prized painting in your possession and you refused, he would have you killed,” he says. “That’s why the general principle among Chinese collectors is to keep quiet about what you have. It’s also to do with the fear of being burgled, of course.”
He says today’s Min Chiu members are practically extroverted when it comes to exhibiting, compared with the past. In 2010, highlights from members’ collections, including Lin’s, were shown at the Museum of Art to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary. At the end of 2015, a 55th anniversary show is planned for the History Museum, he says.
But few private collectors have hosted large, public exhibitions, partly because of the tradition for secrecy, and also because of the lack of venues in Hong Kong.
“I do hope the government will build more venues to host exhibitions or to keep permanent collections of Chinese antiques. It is very difficult for us to find space for shows like this,” says Lin.
Succession is another issue that overshadows the future of these great Hong Kong collections; few descendants of top collectors have kept their legacy intact after their parents have died. That’s not just here, but anywhere in the world. Old collections are even more likely to be sold off today, as prices remain high.
Yip mourns the fact that fine collections, such as those belonging to the late T.T. Tsui and Lee Quo-wei, have largely been sold off.
“It’s something that I have discussed with other members. I am in my 80s and some of them are even in their 90s. What happens to our antiques when we die? We don’t really know,” he says.
For the next four months at least, art lovers in Hong Kong can take their fill of some of the finest treasures held by a local collector. Then there is next year’s Min Chiu Society exhibition to look forward to.
No women, please, we’re collectors
There is no doubt that 54-year-old Min Chiu Society, which has its own clubhouse on Bowen Road, continues to be highly exclusive.
The club’s size has been kept at around 40 people since its foundation and turnover is extremely low – longevity appears to be a common trait among most members, and only two people have ever quit the club. And perhaps in line with the elders’ nervousness about female incursion, there are, of course, no women. As one member puts it: “If you let one in, you’ll have to let in a whole lot more.”
Art experts think that the combined riches belonging to society members can rival many world-class museums. The Chinese ceramics owned by S. F. Ko’s Tianminlou Foundation are widely considered to be among the most important in private hands. Many other members have extremely valuable collections, too, such as Judge Robert Tang, the successor to Judge Kemal Bokhary as permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, and Walter Kwok, former chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties.
But the public rarely get to see them.
Group exhibitions will always be few and far between as they are highly contentious affairs. Members, speaking on condition of anonymity, say major rows are frequent when it comes to whittling down the large number of submissions. Tempers flare if someone gets told that his blue and white Ming Xuande piece cannot be in the show because someone else has a better one, for example.