Under the hammer

Updated: 2013-07-14 08:07

By Steve Freeman (China Daily)

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Under the hammer

Stephen Freeman poses with a portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham. Photos provided to China Daily


Under the hammer

A pair of 19th-century Chinese mahjong chairs is among the offerings under the hammer.

Steve Freeman tells Rebecca Lo that there is plenty of room in Hong Kong for a mid-end auction house stocked with beautiful curios that people can actually afford.

I love my dining table. It is a Duncan Phyfe trestle style table circa early 20th century, with four matching cabriole legged chairs. It was in excellent condition when I purchased it in the late-'90s and has followed me from Toronto to Hong Kong.

What I love most about my dining table is that every dinner I have around it enriches its pedigree. There is something about gently used second-hand items that exude happy vibes, along with being a highly sustainable way to furnish a home.

Previous owners who kept their treasures in pristine condition clearly loved and cared for them, and they pass along their legacy through worn armrests and leathers weathered to buttery softness.

In Hong Kong, these types of treasures rarely have an outlet to properly exchange hands between like-minded people. There are either brand name auction houses such as Christie's and Sotherby's selling items at astronomical prices, or online forums like AsiaXpat.com where people post Hello Kitty plastic cups and rusty fridges.

That was the seed that spawned Gresham's, a mid-end auction house founded by Stephen Freeman. The American was at the helm of AsiaCity Publishing for the past two decades, establishing HK Magazine along with the annual ArtWalk open gallery event.

"A friend at a party was trying to sell things at auction and had a hard time," Freeman says. "I thought: I could do that. I saw a huge gap between Christie's and things that would be at a garage sale. There was nothing in-between. Gresham's is for items that are too good to be given away."

Freeman's previous experience with The Georgian Dealer's 19th- and 20th-century art and antiques led him to believe that auction was the way to go.

"If you buy something in an antique store, you get the accumulated knowledge of someone who will guide you," he says. "In an auction house, things change 100-percent weekly and you can see a large volume of goods. The prices are more wholesale instead of retail. And it is a great way to meet people in an exciting environment."

With help from interior designer Debra Little, Freeman transformed a 550-square-meter warehouse space in the south of Hong Kong into a warm and inviting showroom.

"The most important thing about the space is that it is flexible," Freeman says. "We can do anything with it. We are planning charity auctions and other events. It shows off new and old things well."

Under the hammer

Named after Sir Thomas Gresham, the 16th-century founder of The Royal Exchange and Gresham's College in London as well as Freeman's ancestor, Gresham's intends to sell anything and everything.

Its next auction will specialize in the arts of China and Asia. There will be silver boxes and bowls, furnishings such as low tables and Chinese chairs, porcelain and enamel.

Eventually, when the house gets up to speed, Freeman hopes to include fine wine, watches and vintage cars.

People who are interested in bidding can personally check out the selection available during previews and on the day of the auction. There are typically 200 to 300 items up on the block. Offers are accepted in person, or via absentee, phone and eventually online bids. Freeman personally presides over each auction: "I am the guy with gavel!"

"We are targeting mostly local buyers or tourists who are in Hong Kong, although of course anyone can bid over the phone or online," Freeman says.

Contact the writer at sundayed@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 07/14/2013 page15)