Monday, 19 August 2013

The Simple Appeal of Song-Era Porcelain

William Chak
The minimalist look of the Song era fits today’s aesthetic, says antiques dealer William Chak.
Hong Kong antiques dealer William Chak says that as the tastes of mainland Chinese collectors evolve, they are digging deeper into the country’s history for unique pieces.
The dealer, regarded as one of the most influential in the Chinese antique market, says Chinese collectors first got into antiques when they came into wealth in the early 2000s, collecting ornate bowls, vases and other porcelain items from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) era. But Mr. Chak—who started in the business in the 1970s as a teenager, working as a cleaner in an antique shop—is betting that the same collectors are now shifting their attention to the simpler, older porcelains of the Song dynasty (960-1279) era. He points to a palm-size Cizhou-style bowl among his collection. Almost minimalist, it’s painted solid black with a thin band of white around the lip—a stark contrast to Qing porcelain, often painted with flowers, birds or fruit.
Mr. Chak estimates the bowl has tripled in value over the past five years to around 150,000 Hong Kong dollars, or US$19,230. Recent auction results support his lofty valuation. A similar bowl with the same black-and-white design sold at a March auction at Christie’s in New York for US$40,000, more than four times its pre-sale US$9,000 estimate and nearly three times the US$14,100 a comparable bowl brought at a Christie’s auction in 2001.
At the same time, collectors are still pursuing fine Qing dynasty pieces. Earlier this year, Mr. Chak says he spent more than US$20 million on behalf of investors on Qing-era porcelains at a single Sotheby’s auction. One small 18th-century rice bowl cost US$9.5 million.
Still, he’s more bullish on the Song pieces, and he says he’s trying to persuade his clients to follow his lead. Mr. Chak spoke with The Wall Street Journal about his views on how to invest in the esoteric Chinese antique market.
Edited excerpts follow.
What do you tell wealthy individuals who come to you for help to start an investment portfolio for antiques?
If I had HK$50 million to HK$60 million, I’d put 50% on early pieces from the Song dynasty, 30% in Qing period pieces and 20% on other works of art—jade, sculptures, or even earlier works.
William Chak
‘Mainland Chinese are just getting into Song now,’ Mr. Chak says.
What if you had less than that?
Quality pieces start at HK$50,000. At that price, you can get a very nice Song-era bowl. In the end, you get what you pay for. You can’t go below that price if you’re looking to make a profit. And always buy items that are in exceptional condition.
The most valuable items are still Qing dynasty items. Why would you recommend earlier pieces?
People always start collecting with the Qing items. They’re beautiful and very decorative. But after five to seven years, collectors often feel accomplished. Their tastes mature and they start appreciating the earlier, simpler pieces. This happens to all collectors—the Taiwanese and Japanese in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Americans and English before then. The mainland Chinese are just getting into Song now.
What makes Song-era pieces different and unique?
First, to pick up a bowl that is 800 years old or older and still in great condition is amazing in itself. But also, the design is so simple and modern. It fits right in today’s contemporary aesthetic. These are both classic and ahead of their time.
How healthy is the Song market?
In the 1980s, the prices at New York and London auctions kept going higher and higher. But in the 1990s, they stopped buying because their economy dropped and a lot of fakes came onto the market. The market remained depressed until four years ago, when Chinese collectors started looking into the period. Qing-period pieces are still much more dominant, and you didn’t see much Song-era porcelain until the past 18 months.
How can you tell real from fake?
Provenance is important. But most of all, find a reputable dealer because it’s so hard to tell the fakes from the real thing. It’s taken people like me years to gain this expertise. I’m confident of my judgments more than 95% of the time, but for some, I have to send a piece to be carbon-dated by a lab.
What’s the best way to sell—auction, or by consignment through a dealer?
An auction is still the most transparent way to sell, and a good dealer should advise you and help you place your piece. In the past, you would have to place a Song piece in a New York or London auction because those sales attracted the most international crowd. The Chinese and Hong Kong collectors weren’t interested. But the market is gradually shifting and more Song items are showing here in Hong Kong. That will continue.

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