THE antique trade in China today is booming, with price records being smashed at auctions every other week.
Chinese art and antique collectors are trawling the globe, paying high prices, to purchase relics from their country’s imperial history.
But back home in Malaysia, the antique market is moving along sluggishly.
Felicia Hew, gallery manager of Gandhara Sdn Bhd, notes that the slow demand for antiques here is very much related to the weak economy.
“There are certain periods where people do not think of antiques because of a slow economy and things like that. Because what we are selling is not a necessity. It is more of something that has aesthetic value,” Hew said.
Gandhara is the local arm of Singapore-based antique dealer Tomlinson.
Tomlinson has several stores located in the region, of which two are in Malaysia. The Tomlinson chain specialises in classical Chinese furniture pieces.
Hew noted that most of the furniture pieces in Gandhara are mainly categorised as restored pieces as they need to be at least 100 years old to be called antiques.
These furniture pieces are purchased and restored by experts in China before being shipped out to other Tomlinson outlets.
Pieces with their original patina or antique pieces that are given minimal or no restoration treatment, are very rare in Malaysia as demand for such relics is very low, Hew observes.
“Because of the high pricing for such items, it is not as sellable here, although there are quite a few enquiries for original-patina pieces. It is not easy for an antiques business to survive on just that,” she said.
For Susanna Goho-Quek, who runs her own antique shop, House of Suzie Wong, her items are targeted at the higher end of the market.
She said her customer base consists of a good mix of locals and expatriates.
Her shop is packed with curious objects sourced mainly from China and Tibet.
One of her prized possession is a Tibetan prayer book that is priced at about RM200,000.
She also has a collection of rugs from Tibet that sell for as high as RM1.5mil each.
Goho-Quek, who is also an artist, writer and illustrator, started her carrier in interior design.
“A friend of mine had a container full of Chinese goods that someone gave him in lieu of a debt.
“He didn’t quite know what to do with the goods. So I did up someone’s house at that time and my friend introduced me to his friend who got me into antiques,” she said, adding that there was no turning back for her from then on.
“I got pulled in. You fall in love and you don’t want to extricate yourself. It opened a whole new life for me,” she said, evidently very passionate about her then new-found interest.
Goho-Quek has been running her antique business for more than 20 years and gladly shared stories of how she unearthed the items in her shop from villages and ordinary people in China and Tibet.
Right piece at the right time
According to Hew, the prices of antiques here are among of the lowest in the region.
Pieces that are brought into Malaysia will be sold slightly below international market prices to accommodate the local demand.
“Kuala Lumpur has the lowest prices in the market. This is just how the market is here,” she said.
For example, a small square zitan wood box which could fetch RM28,000 elsewhere is put on sale here for RM20,000.
Hew said demand for antiques was very strong prior to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997.
The antique business enjoyed strong growth back then.
To illustrate the point, she recounts how Gandhara opened as a small shop in 1993.
In less than three years, the company had already opened another outlet and bought a six-storey property in Ampang, an indication of how healthy business was before the financial crisis.
Growth slowed noticeably in early 2000.
Hew said Gandhara has been maintaining a steady performance over the past few years.
She added that good pieces are scarce in the market these days.
Auction houses also do not have enough items to be put up for auction as people are holding on to their relics to wait for higher prices in the future when the economy booms again.
“The market is in China so the pieces don’t have to come here,” she said.
“Prices in China are very unpredictable at the moment. Pieces in this region that can’t fetch a high price will be moved to our gallery in Beijing. But we are also keeping these precious pieces for the right time with high prices at the right place.”
She relates a story of a customer who bought a table from Gandhara for RM6,000 some eight years back and the price has since more than doubled.
When Gandhara offered to buy the table back, the customer refused to sell it as the value for that table could go higher.
Being a corporate operation, Gandhara has to maintain a decent amount of sales.
Hew said it is easier for wholly-owned antique shops to keep valuable pieces for the right time when prices are better.
Items in Goho-Quek’s shop range from RM1 all the way to RM1.5mil.
“It all depends on what the customer is looking for and what his or her budget is,” she said.
Room for growth
Goho-Quek also acknowledges that it is not always easy to sell highly priced antique pieces.
She said sales in her shop can range from 10 items a month all the way down to zero a month.
Hew believes that there is still room for the local market to grow as the market has not fully matured. The antiques business has been around for centuries and interest in historical pieces has not waned.
Nonetheless, there is a need to educate consumers on the appreciation of antiques.
“The label ‘antique’ isn’t what carries the value. The label antique only reflects the age of the item. Yes, it may influence the value of it, but you still need to consider the material, condition, rarity, refinement and the special character of each piece,” Hew said.
She said another challenge for the antique business is that there are plenty of furniture styles to choose from in Malaysia.
There is no one house that is fully furnished with antiques as there are also other cultural and modern pieces that can also be used.
Goho-Quek thinks competition is keen among antique businesses in Malaysia.
“You can see this from the trend of price undercutting,” she said.
Antique dealers generally mark up their prices by four to five times the original cost.
“But you need to take into account the cost of going into the interiors, logistics, restoration works and things like that. And we don’t get to acquire something on every trip. So these are also expenses that we need to factor in,” she said.
Goho-Quek intends to grow her business bigger. She has even employed two interns, Masson Jonathan and Adrien Gereone, to help with the day-to-day operations of her business.
The times may be a little challenging for the age-old business but as both Hew and Goho-Quek agree, the antiques business will never die.