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Buying Art and Antiques in Asia


From centuries-old Buddha sculptures to a growing contemporary art scene, this region has something for aficionados and novices alike. Here, five essential tips to consider when starting your new collection...

Published on Sep 13, 2010


A Bhudda image at a Beijing market


Would-be collectors should find out exactly where their passion lies. “It’s very difficult if someone comes to me and says, ‘I’d like to start a collection but don’t know what I like,’” says Nicolas Chow, the Hong Kong–based head of Sotheby’s department of Chinese ceramics and works of art.

“Before you start collecting, get a sense of what you like. Perhaps it’s the tactile quality of a little jade carving, the fine painting on a piece of porcelain, or an exquisite carving on a piece of lacquer. If nothing creates an emotion, I don’t think you should be collecting.”

Start by visiting museums with good collections of Asian art, like the Shanghai Museum, the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum and the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Many have online databases of their holdings, as do auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s (and feel free to attend auctions, even if you’re not buying). Also check your local library.

Susi Johnston, an art dealer and historian in Bali, adds, “If you are not familiar with the geography, cultures and historical periods of the place you are visiting, read one or two general survey texts from respected publishers, written by bona fide experts, like Thames & Hudson’s art series, university publishing houses and museum publications.”

If you’re making a serious purchase, work with a reputable, well-established seller. Word-of-mouth is best: ask a friend, long-time collector or hotel concierge for recommendations.

“Trustworthy sellers are almost always part of an easily understood global network and participate in international art fairs, maintain an online presence of some sort, and have galleries in prime locations, like River City and Oriental Place in Bangkok,” Johnston adds.

A word of caution, though: in Asia, a high-rent showroom doesn’t guarantee a seller’s legitimacy, while other honest dealers might sell cheap souvenirs and handicrafts alongside pieces of value. (If you must go it alone, Johnston says, limit yourself to small purchases.)

Stepping out of Phnom Penh's famed Russian Market

A reputable seller will also provide some sort of guarantee of recompense (generally two to five years) if the item is found to be of a later date, a receipt and a description of the piece, including the date. Some even offer return policies.

A flea market in Shanghai

It’s virtually impossible to identify a fake unless you’ve spent a lifetime working in the field. Chi-Fan Tsang, vice president of Christie’s Hong Kong’s department of Chinese ceramics and works of art, stresses the importance of “doing your homework before any purchase.”

“To gauge an object’s authenticity, check and compare reference books for similar pieces … read auction catalogues, and ask for an expert opinion,” Tsang says. She also suggests studying the piece carefully for workmanship, quality, style, shape, color and restoration, all of which affect price. (Quality conservation work increases the value, whereas shoddy restoration has the opposite effect.)

And for those who dream of unearthing artifacts on their own: “Think again,” says Forrest McGill, chief curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. “Everything they see will have been picked over by dealers and buyers with much more knowledge and experience. Fakes, covered with dirt, may be placed in the back corners of little shops for unwary travelers to discover and pay too much for.”

Sotheby’s Chow also says to watch out if a seller offers a long story about an object. “If someone seems as though they’re speaking for the object, alarm bells should go off.”

Comparison shop to ensure you’re paying a fair price. And negotiate—this is Asia after all. Expect the price to come down by between five and 10 percent. You can also ask for extra incentives to sweeten the deal, like free shipping, framing or mounting. Be very careful if the seller comes down too quickly. Christie’s Tsang adds, “The most important tip is to buy the best you can afford. It is much wiser to buy one important piece rather than a number of lesser pieces. Going against the general rule of investing, it’s better not to spread your money.”

Admiring the wares at an antique fair in Beijing

A Chinese cabinet on the go

Most dealers and gallerists will arrange shipping, generally priced according to cubic meter and the value of the goods. Work with an established agent; if you’re sending a small package, international couriers like DHL or FedEx are best. Before you leave home, check your home country’s import restrictions; be extra careful with items made of endangered materials, like ivory or rhinoceros horn, which are protected under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (

A professional seller will advise on navigating export restrictions. In terms of insurance, many homeowners’ policies provide adequate coverage, but check; international insurers like Chubb Group are a good choice for supplemental fine art supplemental policies. Your credit card may also cover loss or damage during transport.


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