Rare oolong may fetch more than $160,000 at Hong Kong's first tea auction

HONG KONG (AFP) - Rare teas more than half a century old will take centrestage at Hong Kong's first tea auction, with a prized narcissus oolong variety expected to fetch HK$1 million (S$160,770), organisers said on Tuesday.

More than 40 lots of vintage tea leaves from private collectors in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will feature in the sale on Saturday, with the oldest dating back to the 1950s.

In total, they are slated to fetch more than HK$3 million.

"The Chinese have a very long tea-drinking history, just like French people drinking wine," tea expert and auction organiser Vincent Chu told AFP on the first day of the auction's preview.

"The auction is like opening a gate to all of Hong Kong people and Chinese tea collectors."

Tea auctions already take place in mainland China but Mr Chu predicted Hong Kong could also become a hub for collectors because of its free market.

"I think this is a market with a lot of potential - during the 2000s a lot of people bought tea in tonnes and, at certain periods, people were crazily selling tea like they would sell property," he said.

Hong Kong has already emerged as one of the world's major auction hubs for art and wine, thanks to cash-rich mainland Chinese buyers with a growing appetite for luxury items.

The star lot is the 20-kilogramme box of narcissus oolong tea, which was first exported from China's famous tea-producing region of Wuyi to Singapore in the 1960s.

On reaching Singapore, the tea was sold to a merchant in Malaysia who kept three boxes for himself because he liked the taste so much. One of those is to be sold at the auction.

A pack of pu'er tea from Yunnan from the 1950s is expected to fetch HK$400,000.

For collectors, said Mr Chu, the steep price is well worth it.

"You can still find freshness in the aftertaste, this is quite amazing - you can experience the freshness from half a century before," he said.

The taste of older leaves is silkier as they have been exposed to decades of oxidation, Mr Chu said.

The auction will also showcase 145 lots of teaware, with the total list expected to fetch up to HK$10 million.