Every time I look at my Chinese ceramic collection, I can’t help casting my mind back to the palpably exciting and fruitful times I had in England, some 30 years ago, feverishly Chinese antiques-hunting not only in London but also in the provinces! England is indisputably the world’s most antiques-loving nation. They collect practically all forms of art, both East and West. A profusion of antiques shops and markets are spread all over their cities and towns in order to cater to the collector’s varied and insatiable needs and tastes.
More than 400 years of empire-building and wealth accumulation have produced a sophisticated body of art connoisseurs and numerous internationally-renowned museums and art galleries whose rich and superb contents were culled from the world over through both legitimate and questionable means.
England, in the 1970s and earlier, was truly a paradise for collectors of antique Chinese ceramics. London’s reputable antique shops were well-stocked with choice collector pieces of considerable variety and quality to cater to a worldwide clientele.
These Chinese artifacts fall under 3 main categories. Millions were exported by China to Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries to meet a growing demand from their nobility and landed-gentry. In addition, a further large quantity of these was also brought back to England by its senior colonial civil servants and merchants upon their departure from China to adorn their country estates as status symbols. Others were the stocks-in-trade of antiques dealers who had regularly purchased them from China and Hong Kong at extremely low prices before demand outstripped supply in the past several decades.
Fortunately, my wife and I had opportunities to visit England, both on business or holiday, during the 1970s. When we were first exposed to these Chinese pieces, we were amazed at their quantities, quality and affordable prices compared with the much higher prices prevailing in Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong. As an added bonus to collectors, there were hardly any fakes in the market place. It was therefore safe even for the beginner collector to take the plunge, as it were, as the law and the antiques dealers’ associations there strictly and scrupulously safeguarded the buyer’s interests and their own reputations or face legal consequences.
I recall vividly that a typical day’s antiques buying, especially in London’s popular and colourful flea-marts, such as Portobello Market, Camdon Passage and Cheapside Market, would easily yield us 6 to 8 pieces of reasonably good quality Chinese ceramics, ranging from the blue-and-white, the polychrome, the monochrome to a variety of other wares. For an experienced collector blessed with sharp eyes and intimate knowledge of comparative prices in different countries, there were bargains galore at prices that were enormously below that obtaining in Singapore or elsewhere.
Outside London, especially in Devon and Cornwall, prices were even cheaper. For example, fine quality antique Chinese cups, bowls, plates, vases and figurines, mostly of the 18th and 19th century periods, could be had for a modest sum of between S$30-$300. These English dealers would scour the length and breadth of the country regularly, looking for cheap sources of supply. Not infrequently, the less sentimental younger members of the deceased’s family would part with their Chinese family heirlooms for a song, following the death of their parents, due to either a complete lack of interest in them or sheer ignorance of their intrinsic value.
If the dealers bought them cheaply, they would be quite satisfied with a lower profit margin in order to secure a faster business turnover and the cash flow needed for fresh business opportunities. Most of them, except those specialising in Oriental antiquities in London or other affluent provincial places , had hardly any knowledge of Chinese antiques which were incidental to their trade.
One can, of course, bargain with them, usually up to 10% of the asking price. However, practised collectors could sometimes cut the price down by a further 10% if they were persuasive or persistent enough! The English dealers often showed warmth and friendliness to the Chinese-looking customers because of the great purchasing power and expertise of the Hong Kong and Taiwanese buyers. On numerous occasions, I was asked whether a particular article was “an antique, or made yesterday in China or Taiwan” when the ware in question was unmistakably old for all to see!
Among these dealers, especially those in South England, were may erstwhile senior colonial civil servants, business houses executives and gazetted armed forces personnel, and quite a few of them were former residents of Singapore. It was a strange feeling watching them manning their portable stalls at antiques fairs and reminiscing to us about their glorious times in good old Singapore, with domestic help and chauffeurs to pamper their every need! Some became itinerant antiques dealers not for lack of financial resources but to to keep themselves active and to spend their time doing something they enjoyed doing. I admire their spirit.
We have many fond memories of our antiques-fishing sprees in England. In fact, more than half of our collection was formed through purchases there over a decade. It was the high point of our collecting career, the likes of which can never be duplicated elsewhere. This was self-evident from our subsequent visits to England in the mid 1980s and 1990s. By then, prices of Chinese ceramics were already approaching the Singapore level, as much of the old stock, accumulated over the centuries, had been almost depleted. This meant higher replacement costs and selling prices.
All collectors love exceptional bargains and rare finds, ourselves included. In an earlier article posted in my blog last February, I wrote about our painful experiences as novice collectors. I would now redeem my “bruised ego”and regale you with our more edifying adventures in England. I once acquired an exquisite Kangxi blue-and-white meiping vase (1662-1722) of no mean value from a London antiques market for the cost of a set lunch for two at an average Chinese restaurant in Singapore. It still commands a pride of place in our collection. On another occasion, my wife picked up a beautiful hexagonal Kangxi wine cup at a church fair in Cambridge, which cost less than two Big Macs at McDonald’s! It now sits prominently in our display cabinet.
One of our greatest finds is a refined 25 cm 18th century polychrome vase, which we came upon unexpectedly in a delightful ancient town in West England. The dealer, who specialised in old English antique furniture, bought the entire household furniture from a country house in a trustee’s sale and the vase was thrown in for good measure! He was anxious to sell it to us and offered a price which we couldn’t resist.
Why do people collect antiques? In a nutshell, the ecstasies and frustrations are what make it such a fascinating and absorbing pursuit. Once truly initiated into it, one’s life will never be the same again.
Lam Pin Foo