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TREASURE HUNTING IN HONG KONG

It's no secret that many Hong Kong antique collectors spirited most of their valuables overseas before China took over on July 1. They feared Beijing would shut down shipments of antiquities into Hong Kong and forbid buyers from taking old treasures out. But so far, goods are still making their way to Hong Kong, and buyers are leaving with their acquisitions. ''Nothing has changed,'' says Pola Antebi, Chinese ceramics expert at the Christie's auction house in Hong Kong. ''It's business as usual.''

IMPERIAL FINERY. For those eager to purchase Chinese antiques, Hong Kong still has the best choices and prices. Neolithic pottery dating back 4,000 years with simple geometric designs can go for as little as $100. For really good pieces, you'll pay a lot more. And beware: Fakes abound. If you do your homework and buy from a reputable dealer, however, you can leave with a treasure.

Before you set foot in Hong Kong, buy auction catalogs from Sotheby's and Christie's and, if possible, attend viewings or the sales themselves. Christie's is holding one in New York on Sept. 18; Sotheby's auction is on the 23rd. The sales will give you a clear idea of what's available, as well as market values. Then make your way to Hollywood Road, the hub of Chinese antique shops in central Hong Kong, where dealers are willing to haggle and generally sell items for less than the auctioneers.

Start at Teresa Coleman Fine Arts on Wyndham Street, adjacent to Hollywood Road. The shop has a dazzling display of imperial Chinese robes, Tibetan brocades, and traditional textiles. Robes sell for $1,800 to $39,000, with an 18th century imperial one, decorated with gold dragons, priced at $11,400. But not everything is in the stratosphere. Tiny, embroidered 100-year-old shoes made for women with bound feet range from $78 to $388.

If you're not sure what kinds of antiques appeal to you most, stop at Chak's Gallery. It has everything from 8th century Tang dynasty horses to Tibetan Buddhist bronzes and 100-year-old carved jade belt hooks. If you want something in particular, owner William Chak has treasures tucked away in drawers and cupboards. Prices run the gamut: Opium pipe heads from the 1880s start at around $250, while a massive, Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) horse sells for $23,200.

WET TEST. For fine ceramics, check out Luen Chai Curios Store. The highly respected owner, K.Y. Ng, takes pride in his pieces and enjoys sharing his knowledge of Chinese antiques. A second-generation art dealer, he has pottery dating to the neolithic period.

Since both the mainland Chinese and Taiwanese are masters at fakery, buyers must be careful. Scrutinize pieces for major repairs. It's O.K. if very old items have some repairs, but their resale value is greatly diminished if they've been touched up too much. Unscrupulous dealers, for example, may take an antique horse that is supposed to stand upright and attach a new set of legs to make it appear as if it's galloping.

All dealers routinely provide certificates of authenticity, but they don't mean a thing. Reputable dealers should be able to provide a written guarantee and be willing to take back any pieces that turn out to be fakes. When comparison shopping, beware of items selling far below the average price. Chances are you're getting taken. At Sing's Antique Gallery, a 2,000-year-old Han woman figurine, bowing submissively, sells for $3,900. ''You may find one much cheaper in another shop, but it's probably repainted, with damage inside,'' says owner Cheung Hin Sing.

When buying ceramics, experienced buyers often wet a small section of the surface. If there's a musty smell, the piece is probably old. Since many antiques were unearthed from tombs, look for traces of roots, which often discolor the outside of old pieces--and sometimes leave a silvery sheen on the glaze.

Some small shops sell old Chinese knickknacks and jewelry at affordable prices. At Charming Arts & Crafts, a tiny store on Hollywood Road, proprietor Elaine Li displays silver bracelets from the 19th century for $52 to $104. Up and down bustling Cat Street, off Hollywood Road, vendors sell everything from Mao pins from the Cultural Revolution to dinosaur eggs.

If you're a serious buyer, go for the best piece you can afford. ''An average-quality piece will always be average,'' says Christie's Antebi. ''A special piece will appreciate.'' But even if you don't find what you're looking for, it's still fun to walk the narrow aisles of Hollywood Road's shops in search of treasures from the Middle Kingdom.

By Joyce Barnathan


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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