HONG KONG (AFP) — Lucky fat ladies, porcelain pigs, ceramic musicians and giant Buddhas are crammed into Hong Kong's antique boutiques, but some experts, backed by Chinese law, say many of them shouldn't be here at all.
By a curious twist of history and geopolitics, Hong Kong has become the legitimate outlet for ill-gotten treasures of Chinese history, a legal market for illegally obtained objets d'art that can and do command huge sums.
On Hollywood Road, Hong Kong's famed strip of art and antique outlets, the shopfronts provide a veritable tour of Chinese and Asian history, selling everything from Tibetan temple carpets and centuries-old Chinese wedding cabinets to giant Cambodian and Burmese Buddhas that arrive in wooden crates.
Shop keepers will gladly provide a potted history of each object, with details of how it was unearthed -- perhaps by Chinese peasants dropping dynamite down sink holes in Shanxi province to find well stocked burial chambers.
Apparently genuine, the items are clearly labelled and many are still covered in soil to prove that they have only recently been unearthed from their ancient Chinese resting places.
Experts in Hong Kong say that most of the Chinese ceramics for sale on Hollywood Road have been smuggled in from China -- in contravention of Chinese law -- and that their murky provenance is an open secret.
"If we are talking about the authentic objects on Hollywood Road, all of them were made in China," says Professor P.K. Cheng, director of City University's Chinese Civilisation Centre.
And the objects on sale in in recent years, he adds, were "mostly smuggled".
Sally Chu, who runs a shop selling Chinese and Tibetan textiles on Hollywood Road, told AFP: "We talk about it all the time, me and the other traders. We know that relics dug up from historic sites are being traded here. It's an open secret."
Currently most Chinese historical relics that pre-date 1795 cannot be legally exported out of mainland China. Since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after more than a century as a British colony, Hong Kong has remained a separate customs entity.
Chinese law is set to become even more strict by the end of the year when a new regulation making 1911 the cut-off date comes into force, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said earlier this year in an indication of Beijing's eagerness to stem the outward flow of antiquities.
And while the shops of Hollywood Road appear well-stocked, and Beijing attempts to stem the flow of treasure over China's borders -- even executing grave robbers to try to stop the plunder -- it seems Hong Kong's authorities see little problem.
Indeed, in the past ten years Hong Kong's customs and excise department has stopped just three consignments of antiques illegally entering the territory, it told AFP.
"In view of the small number of cases over the last decade, it is considered that smuggling of relics into Hong Kong is not prevalent," a spokesman said in an emailed statement.
But among collectors and experts there is a different consensus.
"It's very easy. If so many people can sneak in and out of China, they of course can do this (smuggling)," said Cheng.
"Ten years ago it was more serious. At that time even some local government and military units were also involved in smuggling, then the central government began to crack down," he said.
Now even though the supply end of the market is less organized, more individuals are involved, according to Cheng.
"In the countryside the local people are more conscious of the commercial value of these things, that's a big change," he said. "This change in the last ten years has increased the local people's involvement in digging up and stealing these objects."
And in a recent twist in the market trend an increasing number of buyers from mainland China are crossing the border to buy antiques smuggled from the nation's hinterland provinces, which they take back to China as legitimate purchases.
"The big buyers are from mainland China," said Sally Chu. "When they buy from Hong Kong, the pieces have certificates," she said, explaining the advantage of purchasing at a premium in a market where "people are entitled to buy whatever is available legally".
The buyers from China range from private collectors to public museum curators, according to Cheng. "You can not sell in China, because it is illegal." However, "there is no law against the sale of whatever objects are already in Hong Kong," he said.
Some collectors express concern that the ready availability of smuggled antiques in Hong Kong makes the market here an easy target for money laundering. With certificates of authenticity provided by Hong Kong dealers, the goods can be legitimately sold on to the international markets of New York, Paris or London, or passed on to clients and acquaintances in China as corporate gifts.
"Many private collectors bring cash, It's a way to launder money," said one Hollywood Road dealer who did not want to be named.
For City University's Cheng, the real issue is the destruction of history.
"If you just think they are beautiful, that's one thing," he said of China's historic treasure trove of artefacts and art works.
"But where they are buried or stored in historical layers they can show their cultural meaning. That's what's being destroyed and that's terrible."
Chinese themselves waged wholesale war on their own cultural heritage during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, as frenzied youths directed by Chairman Mao set about trying to wipe out the "four olds" -- old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.
But Cheng says the Red Guards' targets were above ground, and adds: "Now what's happening is underground."
"For historical and cultural relics above ground you usually have records. But what's happening now is that they are destroying things underground," where "things should be discovered in their right place, by the right people.
"Now we have a problem in understanding. That's the real problem. It's as bad as the Cultural Revolution."
But Cheng says that under present circumstances there is little besides education that can be done to change the trend.
"It's one-country two-systems, and it's legal, so they can really sell," Cheng said, referring to the political and economic system under which Hong Kong has functioned since 1997 as an "special economic zone" of China.
"We are living in a capitalist world. We are living in this environment of profit-making and this is legal, so you cannot stop it," he said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »