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Chater Collection on show at Museum of Art

Some 40 works from Chater Collection, each with a legendary story, are now on show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art to commemorate the museum's 45th anniversary.

The exhibition, "The Chater Legacy - A Selection of the Chater Collection", featuring oil paintings, watercolours, sketches, prints and photographs, shows the landscape of the South China trading ports in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as British activities in China.

Sir Paul Chater (1846-1926) was an Indian-born Armenian who came to Hong Kong in 1864. He became a successful merchant and was appointed ex officio members of the Legislative Council and the Executive Council. He amassed a considerable fortune as well as an important collection of paintings and ceramics. Quite a few places in Hong Kong are named after him. These include the well known Chater Road, Chater Garden, Chater Building and Catchick Street. His private collection was donated to the Hong Kong Government under his last wish.

Shortly before Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese in 1941, the Governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young ordered valuable works of Chater collection be hidden in the wine cellar and strong room in the basement of Government House. However the basement was considerably altered during the Japanese Occupation, the paintings were most probably discovered and removed by the Japanese troops.

There may be another secret store beside the basement. On December 8, 1941, Captain Batty-Smith, Aide-de-Camp to the Governor, had a secret meeting with von Kobza-nagy, a Hungarian expert and restorer, and Thomas Harmon of the Public Works Department. Later, documents reveal that valuable paintings of Chater Collection had their frames removed and then placed in sealed tins. They were buried in the garden of Government House. Only Batty-Smith, von Kobza-nagy and Thomas Harmon knew the exact location, but the mystery of the hidden paintings was buried after all three men died during the Japanese Occupation.

And there were quite a few paintings still on the walls when the Japanese captured Hong Kong. In 1942, the Japanese had Government House renovated. A local contractor Sinn Chi Lam who took part in the project found more than 20 works from the collection in the rubbish dump. He successfully smuggled 23 works out of Government House and relocated them to his home village in Bao An, Guangdong. After the war, Sinn Chi Lam returned all the priceless works, for which he readily risked his life, to the Hong Kong Government.

Another hero who saved the Chater Collection was F. A. Xavier, an ethnic Portuguese living in Hong Kong. Xavier discovered some pieces of the collection in an antique shop in Central. Later he searched all over Central and Western district for other pieces and managed to acquire 30 works. All these were handed to the Hong Kong Government.

Alongside Government House, the Government Secretariat was also a store for some Chater paintings. On December 27, 1941, Japanese troops occupied the Government Secretariat for three days. After their retreat, hooligans looted the place. It remains a mystery whether these works were looted or taken away by the Japanese.

The ceramic collection of Chater was located to the Government Stores in North Point. After the fall of the Government Store, more than 980 pieces of pottery were shipped by the Japanese in 1942. It is said that the vessel carrying this special cargo sank somewhere in the northern waters of Hong Kong.

The Chater paintings are believed to have remained under Government House. After the war, several attempts were made to uncover these treasures in 1945 and 1976. In 1979, Government House underwent a major renovation project. The grounds were thoroughly searched, inside out and from the basement to nearby underground tunnels and air raid shelters, yet nothing was found.

The Chater Collection, having sailed through long years of turmoil, has been reduced from more than 400 to a mere 94 pieces. These invaluable works were handed to the City Hall Museum and Art Gallery (predecessor of the Hong Kong Museum of Art) in 1962 and became one of the three major private collections when the museum was opened.

From today until January 8, 2008, people will have the opportunity to appreciate these works themselves at the Museum of Art.

To coincide with the exhibition, a series of activities will be organised. Among which there will be a lecture entitled "The Lost Collections of Sir Paul Chater" by the Art Adviser to the Museum of Art, Mr Geoffrey Bonsall. The lecture, conducted in English, will be held at the Lecture Hall of Museum of Art on June 23 at 2.30pm. Admission is free and due to space limitation, the lecture will be limited to a quota of 150 on a first-come-first-served basis.

Besides, a fully illustrated catalogue will be published and available at the Gift Shop of the Museum of Art in May.

The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Sunday to Wednesday and Fridays, and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

For enquiries, call 2721 0116 or visit the Museum of Art's website at .

Ends/Friday, March 23, 2007
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