Three gentlemen peer out of a 15th century painting. Wearing the elegant robes and winged caps of Confucian officials, surrounded by a casual gallimaufry of antique bronze vessels, paint brushes, scrolls, ink stones and water droppers, and seated in a rock garden, they are boys with toys, impish smiles breaking through Confucian decorum, heirs of a tradition of elegant gatherings that were by then already more than a thousand years old.

The high-ranking officials depicted in “Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden,” attributed to the court artist Xie Huan and now part of the vast holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, revelled in connoisseurship and self-conscious rusticity. It was one thing to be good at their jobs, after passing the hierarchy of examinations that led to official position. A much higher barrier was to pass the scrutiny of their peers in tests of aesthetic prowess, whether composing poetry or communing with antiquity.

Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden,” attributed to Xie Huan, ca. 1437, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Call it the magnetic field of Chinese civilisation, inviting like minds to engage in literati pursuits across time and space. Hong Kong is part of this tradition. A city renowned for its materialism has emerged as the world’s best place to buy Chinese antiquities from a galaxy of auction houses, dealers, and collectors. Where once Hong Kong was a dumping ground for Chinese art considered feudal and bourgeois, it has now become a major world hub for collectors. And for those who have been paying attention to the market, it has been a garden of special pleasure.

As with “Elegant Gathering,” jade has brought a group of friends together; contemporary mandarins all. One is Thomas W.Y. Kwok — the Chinese member of the trio — who was born in Macau and studied architecture in Melbourne. Since then, he has built some of Hong Kong’s largest skyscrapers over a four-decade career with architects Wong & Ouyang. Angus Forsyth is the Scot, with long sideburns appearing much like a Victorian grandee or 1960s rock star. He co-founded the law firm Stevenson, Wong & Co. The final member is Thaddeus  Beczak, a tall, burly Polish-American from Pittsburgh. He is one of the city’s legendary financiers and he is the youngest one of the trio at 65. For these three, jade is not just a hobby but a passion, and while over the course of time they may have amassed collections, financial gain is not the point.

Under the concrete, jade

Not everyone might think of Hong Kong as a city of jade, but if you know where to look for it, Hong Kong is awash in it. Infants and triad bosses alike wear jade for luck. There is at least one major office tower, K. Wah Centre in North Point, that mimics one of the most ancient jade forms, a scepter-shaped ritual object called the cong that is thought to represent the earth. Jade was used to represent the city’s return to the mainland in 1997. The colour of jade infuses its hills and offshore waters.

One of China’s lesser-known gifts to Hong Kong commemorating its return is a reference to the most famous jade in Chinese history, the He Shi Bi. An origin story about righteous virtue, the original jade rock was found by a peasant, Bian He, who repeatedly tried to give it to a disbelieving king, his son, and grandson, who cut off his feet one by one until the grandson wept tears of blood when he recognised his family’s mistake.

Chronicled by a philosopher of the Warring States period, Han Feizi (280-233 BC), Bian He’s stone was carved into a fabulous jade bi, a donut shaped flat wheel representing heaven. The man who would become China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (259 to 210 BC), bid a price equivalent to 15 cities for it, but one of the many clever ministers in Chinese history believed the offer was a ruse. Arriving with the bi in Qin’s court, he threatened to leap to his death with the jade in his arms. Chagrined, Qin allowed him to go back home with it to the kingdom of Zhao, reluctant to allow anything so beautiful to be destroyed. It was later carved into the first imperial seal and disappeared sometime in the Tang or Song dynasties, but the story lives on.

Tucked away in Kowloon Walled City Park is a jagged, porous rock from Lake Tai, from an area that was once one of China’s most abundant sources of jade, in between the modern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Called the Guibi rock, it is inscribed with the phrase, wan bi gui zhao (完璧歸趙), or “the return of the perfect bi to Zhao,” an epigram for the story of Bian He and his honest bi. The Kowloon Walled City itself, demolished in 1993, was the only part of Hong Kong and the New Territories that technically remained under Chinese jurisdiction during the British colonial period. That means there is a double meaning to the Guibi rock – the perfect beauty of Hong Kong itself and its return to its rightful owner.

Thomas W.Y. Kwok and Tad Beczak – Photo by William Furniss

The jade trio

Engaged in their own communion with earthly jade congs and heavenly bis, over the past two decades, Kwok, Forsyth and Beczak have met regularly to assess their recent purchases and to learn from each other about specific periods. Their usual greeting is, “Do you have anything new?” Through several hours and several good bottles of wine, they inspect each piece for imperfections. “You collect not for ownership or financial gain. You collect because you like it,” says Beczak. But they subject each other to criticism that would be savage for the non-initiate.

The two foreigners recognise that they need to work harder to get up to speed. “I was told by many people – Chinese people – that I was crazy to be interested in jade,” says Beczak. “They would say, this is a Chinese art that foreigners can’t understand.” Kwok agrees, a little smugly. “It’s in my blood because I’m Chinese, and most of the literature is in Chinese and I can read it.” Angus Forsyth, whose own books and journal articles on jade are highly regarded, sighs. “If you look at any book on jade, you will find a sentence that says Chinese have been looking at jade for 6,000 years.”

Says Kwok, “I have to look at (each object) from all directions. If I see one fault, I put it aside. The next time I look at it, if I see more than three doubts or faults, it will not stay in my collection.” An all-consuming issue is fakes, which puts them in line with a legacy of antique forgery that was especially egregious in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when a vast expansion of middle class consumption of antiques translated into an equally vast industry of copying. “Antiques have long been the subject of many cases of faking,” wrote Shen Defu, a 16th century critic. “Scholars all depend on it to make a living.”

A jade “yuren” or feathered man of a type associated with the Western Han dynasty. Source: The White Collection

The type of jade these friends prefer was already ancient 600 years ago, and is forged even more frequently today, when mainland collectors have become enthusiastic buyers and even jade pebbles have made astronomical prices as part of money laundering and corrupt schemes. Jade carvings are for the most part small-scale, almost the same dimensions as Japanese netsuke or miniature sculptures, and made of nephrite or serpentine, two of the hardest stones. The more commonly known apple green jade is a different stone, jadeite, that came into production via Myanmar only in the 18th century – young by the standards of jade collectors and valued primarily in jewellery. Chinese prehistory is called “the age of jade” because before Chinese began smelting metal, and long before ceramics were invented, they were taking beautiful rocks they called yu or jade and using quartzite saws to turn them into objects of reverence and awe.

The sessions started with Kwok and Forsyth, who recognised each other from visits to a dealer “who had a lot of honey,” says Forsyth, but only started getting together to talk about jade after a casual encounter in the street a few years later. “Then Tad came along, and we all wanted to learn from his mistakes.” He calls mistakes “school fees,” and none of them are exempt from paying them.

“I always like to hear what other people [think], especially the so-called experts, including the auction houses, people from Hong Kong University, and ordinary people,” says Kwok. “Their criticism, and what they think of that particular piece. I take note. If I show a piece to everyone and they like it, I know it’s a good piece.” Adds Beczak, “We’ve all been fortunate to see so much material. You couldn’t see that in any other city in the world.” Expertise, they agree, is just another word for experience. “Collectors aren’t interested in rubbish,” Forsyth says. “It’s performance you’re looking for. In each period, whatever they made, they were masters.”

A brilliantly coloured jade cong, a ritual object associated with heaven. Source- The Lotus Collection

I try my luck, offering them a piece from my own collection (different from the White Collection) , a jade carving of a yuren, or “feathered man” riding a heavenly horse, sometimes called spirit riders, a motif associated with the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD). Kwok takes a careful look. “I wouldn’t say 100 percent, but 95 percent, it’s new.” Forsyth adds, “I think I agree. There are two issues. One is material, which is very abnormal. Two, it’s well-executed, but essentially it’s dead.” Says Beczak. “The material, the feet are wrong. With other spirit riders, it’s more like a jockey leaning forward.” Chastened, I decide that at the price I paid, it doesn’t matter. But of course, it does.

All three share an obsession with one of the most esoteric and unapproachable categories of jade, from China’s Neolithic, pre-bronze age. The most spectacular of the Neolithic cultures, the Liangzhu, dating from 3,400 to 2,250 BC, produced two ritual shapes that have made their way down through Chinese history, the cong and the bi. Kwok believes he owns the tallest cong in existence, at 53cm. The other shape, called bi, is a flat, circular wheel. While their uses are unknown, later texts identified them as symbols of heaven and earth, and both types were packed into the tombs of the Liangzhu elite. The Liangzhu people mined jade from around Lake Tai, carving it into forms that are reminiscent of Egyptian art in its clean lines and heraldic forms, although far smaller-scale.

Another of their shared interests is Hongshan jade, from a Neolithic culture in Inner Mongolia first discovered in 1935, and dating even earlier than Liangzhu, from 4,700 to 2,900 BC. The smooth, organic forms of Hongshan jade include some of the earliest representations in Chinese art of animals and birds, predating the earliest of China’s historical cultures, the Shang, by nearly 1,000 years. Beczak cherishes a tiny Hongshan eagle in an orange-green jade with soft, worn grooves for wings and a staring, hypnotic gaze. He bought it in the late 1990s on Hollywood Road and believes it is equal to one in the Guimet Museum in Paris. “The material is the right colour, and the line work is gentle and would have had to have been abraded by hand. It’s not fancy. A lot of the Hongshan pieces I’ve seen in museums have this simplicity to them.”

A jade eagle from the Neolithic Hongshan culture of Inner Mongolia. Source- The White Collection

When Forsyth arrived in Hong Kong as a young solicitor in 1971, the best source of Chinese antiques was back home in the United Kingdom. He bought his first jade object, a lingzhi or mushroom associated with Daoist practices, in Hong Kong, and his second not in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, but in Aberdeen, Scotland, a white jade boy holding a sprig of rice. Beczak and Kwok both started collecting stamps – Kwok specialising in stamps issued by the Japanese authorities during the occupation from 1941-5 – and veered towards jade as they began haunting auction houses.

The history of the auction business in Hong Kong is relatively recent. Sotheby’s held its first auction in in Hong Kong in 1973, and Christie’s in 1986 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Kwok began attending minor auctions of both in the late 1980s, buying bamboo and wood carvings, becoming enthusiastic when he discovered that he could sell them in under a year for four to five times the price he paid for them. “Today, some of those pieces, I have doubts,” he says. “But you gain experience. It’s not that you are an expert.” Beczak began collecting when he first arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, but only got serious about buying jade in the 1990s.

Imperial jades with solid provenances were the first to test the price thresholds in the millions. Now earlier jades are setting new benchmarks. At its spring auction in Hong Kong in April 2016, Bonhams pulled off a coup in its sale of the Sze Yuan Tang collection of a well-known Hong Kong-based dealer and collector, Susan Chen Hardy, after her death in 2014. “The sale set a completely new level,” says Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams, the world’s third-ranked auction house. “People believed in the source, even though 99 percent of archaic jade has no kind of provenance.” An Eastern Han dynasty figure of a male dancer, more than 2,000 years old, sold for HK$31.5 million, many times its pre-sale estimate. “The emergence of mainland buyers of jade, especially in Beijing, has transformed the market,” says Sheaf, who set up Christie’s in Hong Kong and brought Bonhams to the city in 2006.

Today, the three friends are nostalgic for the 1990s, when Hollywood Road was a magnet for jade raided from tombs dug up in China’s frenzied post-reform building boom. “You could walk up Cat Street and see 200 to 300 pieces of jade,” says Beczak. They have seen the market ebb and flow, dominated by high-paying mainland collectors over the past ten years. The high prices in the market today mean they spend more time pruning their holdings than buying new pieces – but Kwok and Beczak at least believe their collections are better than most of what they see in catalogues. “It would cost too much to improve my collection now,” says Kwok. He takes a sip of tea, and spontaneously throws an arm around Beczak. Rivals as jade collectors, they are the best of friends in jade culture.