Treasure Hunter

Translation By: 
英譯 English Translation TANJA WESSELS 中譯 Chinese Translation ALICE kok
Meet William Chak, the Macau-born antique expert
Meet William Chak, the Macau-born antique expert who took full advantage of Hong Kong’s integration into China to, 20 years later, become one the world’s most powerful art dealers
What usually distinguishes an antique dealer from a collector is that the dealer purchases antiquities with a view to sell them, making the greatest possible profit from that activity, whereas the collector buys them to keep them indefinitely, for perpetual enjoyment.
However that’s not always the case. Sometimes collectors sell pieces out of necessity or trade them for others, while dealers keep some pieces for life, simply because they cannot bear to be parted from them.
William Chak, Hong Kong’s largest antique dealer, is a case in point. “There is a Tang Ying piece that I bought at a small auction in America three years ago, which I will never sell,” he says in an interview with CLOSER. “When I saw it for the first time, I thought to myself: I have to have it, no matter what price. It will be to leave to my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.”
Tang Ying (AD 1682-1765), a native of Shenyang, was a painter, poet, calligrapher, prose writer and playwright, and distinguished himself above all in the art of porcelain, having taken over supervision of imperial workshops during the reigns of Yongzheng and Qianlong.
The piece in question consists of a self-representation of Tang Ying in soapstone, dating from 1750. It is its rarity, but above all the figure portrayed and its author, that makes it so important in the eyes of Chak: “As soon as I saw the piece that was going to the auction I was very enthusiastic when I realized that it could only be the portrait of Tang Ying himself, since I had already seen a representation of his face in another black and white figure in the Forbidden City in Beijing. He is the great master of Chinese porcelain. Without him the porcelain industry would not have had the importance it had in the Qing Dynasty.”
The piece depicts a smiling Tang Ying wearing a robe with an embroidered dragon, surrounded by five young men and with inscriptions of three poems on a high relief composed of rocks. Held at auction in 2013 by an antique dealer in Oakland, California – brought there by a nurse who for many years cared for a former US diplomatic representative in China - the piece was valued between US$100,000 and US$150,000. Chak eventually bought it for US$2 million, after a run-up and a bidding war worthy of a thriller film.
“To avoid being affected by emotion, I decided to stay in Hong Kong and sent my wife and one of my assistants to the auction,” Chak explains. “There were between 40 and 50 Chinese collectors there and they all had an interest in that piece. But, knowing our reputation, they realized that we would be hard to beat, so a few hours before the start of the auction they proposed a pact with my wife to share in the financial takings of the piece. Now this would mean that the piece would later be sold for distribution of profits, and that was something I didn’t want. To avoid being accused of liability for not having an agreement, I suggested that we should share the piece only if it was auctioned for an amount equal to or less than US$800,000. Above that value, each one was on his own.”
The gamble involved fewer risks than may appear on the surface. With more than 25 years of experience in the antique business and in auction visits, Chak was confident that, despite the auctioneer’s assessment of relatively modest numbers, the piece would be sold at a very high price. And, yes, he was prepared to pay it.
Within one minute and 20 seconds of the start of the auction, the US$800,000 barrier was exceeded. Undoing the improvised consortium arranged hours earlier. From that moment on, it was fair game. 
Just 20 seconds later, an offer of US$1 million was heard - an offer underscored with cheers and applause from the audience. But events had only reached the halfway mark. It would take another two long minutes and a telephone call from Chak’s assistant to reach the US$2 million mark, giving rise to a new round of applause, which doubled in intensity when, without further bids making themselves heard, the hammer slammed down on the auctioneer’s table. 
Chak’s strategy had paid off. Not only had some of his competitors become isolated and therefore weakened, bidding by telephone through his assistant hid him from the others in the room, and the fact that he was willing to go to the end set him in a league of his own. Once the bid was cleared by the Oakland auction house, Chak paid US$2.35 million, equivalent 17.8 million patacas.
Money well spent, he says. Last year, when we interviewed him, the piece was on display to the public at the Hong Kong International Antiques Fair (an event he has been organizing since 2008), at the centre of attention: not only did Tang Ying’s piece occupy the central pavilion of the fair, as illustrated on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, it was also the theme of one of the seminars at the event. Chak is consistent in his emphasis that the work of the great Chinese master had never before received such an important tribute at an event of that nature.
A showcase for the Chinese world
Our first meeting with William Chak took place 20 years ago, when Hong Kong was just days away from returning to Chinese sovereignty. At that time, we visited him at his antique shop, one of the largest on Hollywood Road in Central, and asked him about his expectations for the future. With the same broad smile that he still radiates to this day, he told us that he was not concerned about the transition from sovereignty to China, but he felt a great optimism for the opportunities that a closer relationship between Hong Kong and the Motherland would create for local entrepreneurs.
Now, two decades later, he explains that the success he has achieved has everything to do with this initial viewpoint.
“In 1996, a year before the transfer of sovereignty, my wife and I decided to buy an apartment in Beijing, which means we were optimistic about the future,” he says, before telling us about another decision that has proven even more important: “I enrolled in the Archaeology course at Peking University, and that changed my life. For four years, I spent my life running between Hong Kong and Beijing, dividing my life between studies and business. It was not always easy, because in the middle of that SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which in 2003 killed 300 people in Hong Kong) appeared and travel was discouraged. But despite all the difficulties, I was very happy over those four years.”
Happy, in every sense of the word. It was at that time that he became acquainted with a Chinese television star, actor Wang Gang, who would eventually invite him to join the team from a Beijing television program on antiques called Tianxia Shoucan (World Collection). There, alongside other experts in ancient Chinese art, William assumed weekly responsibility for distinguishing true pieces from counterfeits. 
Competitors who saw their pieces classified as genuine earned a gold medal and a certificate of authenticity; those who had pieces considered fake, powerlessly watched as they were decimated by blows of a hammer, in the television studio and live to 60 million spectators.
“For a long time, it was the most watched Chinese television show, right after the CCTV news,” says Chak. “The tension and the suspense were very intense and this kept people glued to the television. Once we told the owner of a porcelain vase that it was not an antique piece. But he had paid a million and a half renmimbi for it and insisted on its authenticity. When we broke the vase, he had to be taken to hospital by ambulance because he did not feel well,” he says, unable to disguise some embarrassment. 
As a rule, however, only pieces that were grossly fake were destroyed, he hastens to add. All the others, even in the case of relatively recent objects such as those produced during the Cultural Revolution, were spared the destructive blow of the hammer.
The huge popularity of the program, broadcast throughout China between 2006 and 2013, made Chak the most recognized and respected antiquities expert in China, and one of the most powerful art dealers in the world. But to understand his enormous success in such a competitive market, we must go back to his origins - to Macau, where he was born 60 years ago.
A fair trade
William Chak inherited from his father, an immigrant from Shandong province, a taste for antiquities, which he invariably collected in garbage dumps, wandering through the streets of the city of Macau, then a Portuguese colony. Over the years, young William became accustomed to seeing these pieces being exchanged for money whenever the family’s needs made it necessary, something that ended up marking him forever.
The family moved to Hong Kong in the late 1960s, when Chak was 12 years old. A vendor of Portuguese-style lace linen, his father planned to take advantage of the largest opportunities in the British colony to date, but the change coincided with a serious illness that prevented him from continuing to work. Chak had to leave his studies to help support the family, and, unsurprisingly, it was in an antiquary that he got one of his first jobs. In 1974, he accompanied his boss, Master Wong, to an art fair in London for the first time. And since then he has never stopped travelling around the world looking for old pieces at the best prices.
“I like fairs more than auctions,” he confides. “In both cases, it’s like being part of a treasure hunt. But in auctions, the fact that you like a piece does not mean that you can have it; you have to compete with other participants. At fairs, if you like a piece you can immediately leave with it, after some negotiation. And beyond that, they are venues of great cultural interchange. And that’s why I thought for a long time that it would be great to bring these kinds of fairs to Hong Kong.” 
The evolution of his antiques business was decisive in the decision to move on to this project. Prior to Hong Kong’s Handover to China, the clientele of the store he has been keeping on Hollywood Road since 1988 -  the year he launched himself at his own risk - was mostly made up of Hong Kong collectors (60 per cent), the remainder from Western countries. Today, 70 percent of the company’s customers are from Mainland China. And this new reality led him to conclude, 10 years ago, that the conditions for organizing an International Antiques Fair in Hong Kong were sufficiently mature.
“The Chinese were already rich enough and beginning to take an interest in antiques,” he says. “Westerners were also interested in coming to Hong Kong to contact Chinese art dealers. And we could serve as a bridge.”
Each edition of the fair brings together close to a hundred antique trading pavilions, most of which are from local dealers and from China, but with a growing number of foreign representations. The Chak’s Company Limited stand, located right in the centre of the fair, is distinguished by the rarity and high value of its pieces: Ceramics from the kingdom of the Soong emperors, jade, bamboo and porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties, acquired from dealers around the world. 
The numbers involved in this market amount to exorbitant sums: in 2005, before the fair even existed, Chak paid HK$115.4 million for a vase from the 18th Century reign of Emperor Qianlong, which at the time established a new maximum for art business in Asia and a world record for porcelain of the Qing Dynasty.
Chak is neither oblivious nor indifferent to the moral debate that often looms over the origin of ancient Chinese art pieces, many of which were transported to the West after being pillaged by invading armies in the many military conflicts that China saw itself forced to face throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But he argues that it is almost always very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the legitimacy of the original acquisition, and therefore he only imposes on himself one restriction in his relentless quest for antiquities: “The origin of the pieces does not normally concern me unless they come from Archaeological excavation sites in China. The day I entered Beijing University, I promised God I would never buy pieces coming from archaeological sites. And I continue to honour that promise.”
In his current plans, is a hope to bring to Macau an extension of the antiques fair organized in Hong Kong. “The Macau market is still embryonic and requires a lot of study, but it is possible that it develops enough to make sense to organize a fair there in the next five years,” he says. 
To do so, he advises the Macau SAR Government to strengthen support for the sector: “Museums do an excellent job, but the government needs to do more for disseminating knowledge of ancient Chinese art. If I put together the right conditions, I will be happy to bring the fair to Macau, because I continue to consider Macau my hometown.”
“Old Macau, not Cotai,” he concludes with a smile.
Advice to Macau collectors
Watch out for imitations. “About 20 percent of the pieces traded online auctions are not authentic,” warns Chak. He himself is duped once every five years.
How to check authenticity? Chak first undertakes an analysis of the body of the piece, then an examination of the materials and the surface pattern. Finally he observes the base, the seal and the weight. Should doubts remain, the solution is to send the piece to a laboratory.
For new collectors, Chak advises many visits to museums, the reading of many specialized books and, above all, the use of the support of specialists. To avoid disappointment.
The value of the investment. Antiquities are not a good investment for anyone looking for high speculative returns, says Chak. For this, it is preferable to invest in the real estate market or the stock exchange. But in antiquities, when the piece is good, its value never decreases in value. Chak therefore advises investors to keep possession of the piece for at least two or three years after purchase. Over that period of time they may already see a 50 or 60 percent profit.