From China, For Now

An arts bonanza before Hong Kong's handover

The horse was fashioned from clay over a millennium ago in China during the Tang dynasty. And collector Sam Merrin wanted it badly. So after a spirited auction in March at Sotheby's New York, he won the coveted object for $937,500--double the estimated price.

As Merrin's passion shows, Chinese decorative art is hot. These sculptures and vessels can be fashioned from a range of materials, such as wood, bronze, or stone. The artisans were whimsical and clever. An 18th-century jade pillow looks warm and soft because it's carved so the light shines through it. Many objects offer elaborately painted montages of flowers, leaves, and dragons.

True, Chinese paintings and furniture are finding favor lately, too. Decorative art, however, is winning the most attention because it is in abundant supply and is often more affordable. One reason for the surging supply is that Hong Kong owners are leery about mainland China's imminent rule. Beijing authorities have promised not to extend to Hong Kong their ban on the export of antiques, but many collectors doubt them. And the highly portable decorative objects are easy to pack up and ship. Prominent Hong Kong collector T.T. Tsui recently sold his pieces at Christie's International for $16 million.

There has been an appetite for this stuff in the West since the 15th century. Porcelain objects such as bowls and plates were a mainstay of China's trade with Europe. Museums throughout America and Europe have cherished such pretty wares for decades. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art received a collection of Chinese jades in 1902. In May, the Met opened a 3,000-square-foot display area devoted to its now-vast holdings of Chinese decorative art.

While supply is surging, demand is strong enough in most cases to bring substantial prices, as Merrin and his horse can attest. In April, well-known London art dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi purchased a porcelain bowl with a painted landscape, dating from the Qing dynasty in the mid-1700s, at Sotheby's in Hong Kong for $2.7 million. That's almost triple what it went for in 1988. "Very special pieces are fetching very special prices," says Eskenazi.

But many pieces are less dear. Some cost no more than a good luxury car; others go for the price of a Saturn. At Christie's New York auction in March, a blue-and-white painted porcelain jar from the Ming dynasty in the 15th century fetched $63,000. The jar's handle had a quirky element that delighted bidders: stone-carved lizards climbing in and out of tiny openings in the lid.

For the bargain-minded, tomb pottery has appeal. These figurines of animals, servants, and spirits were put in 4th century B.C. tombs to serve the dead in the afterlife. At the Christie's auction, a 15-inch-high seated dog from the Han dynasty sold for $11,000. The price seems a steal because of the 2,000-year-old animal's unusual olive-green glaze. Yet all the recent building in China has turned up a lode of tomb pottery. "The earth in China," says Theow Tow, head of Chinese art at Christie's, "is chockablock with them." As a result, some tomb pottery is actually falling in price.

How do you buy top-quality goods if you can't tell one dynasty from another? Start by reading one of the best guides, A British Museum Book of Chinese Art, $24.95, edited by Jessica Rawson and published by Thames & Hudson. Beyond that, museums are great for gaining knowledge. You can see what the objets look like and also listen to regularly scheduled curators' talks.

Buyers can procure the art through dealers such as Eskenazi in London (011-44-171-493-5464) and James J. Lally in New York (212 371-3380). Unfortunately, dealers such as these often only carry the higher-end pieces, and you'll have to make an appointment to examine works you're considering. Otherwise, you can go to an auction. The artworks are on display, and sometimes you can touch them as well as check out the suggested prices. Decorative art is aptly named. Whether from the Ming, Qing, or Shang periods, it is sure to delight the eye.