BEIJING, May 29 (Xinhua) -- Hu Wengao might have become a billionaire. But he is now 10 million yuan (about 1.47 million U.S. dollars) in debt.
And despite his wife's grumbling, the 56-year-old former policeman continues with his expensive vice.
He has packed three rooms of his home with about 1,500 antiques, including more than 400 bronze mirrors, some 600 jade, stone and bone objects, more than 30 bronze items, and some 300 pottery and porcelain items.
Whenever he brings home a bronze with patina or an ancient jade charm, he is too exited to sleep, and often spends days at home studying and enjoying it.
Hu is among China's millions of antique collectors. According to the China Association of Collectors they number more than 60 million. Many nouveaux riches regard antiques as an investment.
But Hu says, "Unlike other antique collectors, I do this not for investment. I just want to try my best to keep as many antiques as possible from leaving my hometown."
According to the evaluation report issued by the Shaanxi Provincial Commission for Cultural Relics Identification, most of Hu's collection is real, excluding a few that are hard to identify. A large number can be classified as top grade cultural relics.
"Someone told me the market price of my treasures is estimated in excess of 70 million yuan. But I never calculated it, because I wouldn't sell any of them," Hu says.
Hu was a policeman in 1990s, when tomb robbery was rampant in his hometown in Shenmu County in northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Almost every family in the poor region was digging in the fields in order to find treasures left by their ancestors.
Hu investigated a murder in 1995. Two antique dealers robbed and murdered a farmer who found gold and silver relics in a field. After Hu arrested the dealers, they said they committed the crime because they heard a pair of ancient vases with gold and silver inlay could sell for more than 2 million yuan in south China's Guangdong Province.
"I saw many beautiful antiques dug up by farmers during my investigations. I know there were many more antiques, especially the most beautiful and precious ones, being smuggled out of China. I really regret the loss of those treasures," Hu says.
"I told the government department for the protection of antiquities and monuments about the situation. But the officials said they were unable to solve the problem. There were too many tomb robbers, and they were all poor farmers. Even if they detained some tomb robbers, when they were released they would continue to dig," says Hu.
"At that time, my salary was only 200 yuan a month. I thought if I had money one day, I would buy as many antiques as possible to keep them from going to other countries."
Hu's concerns are echoed by a growing number of Chinese. According to the China Special Fund to Rescue Cultural Relics Lost Overseas, the number of Chinese antiques scattered in different countries is more than 10 million.
Hu went to work for the state-owned Shenhua Group, China's largest coal producer, in 1998. His monthly income increased to about 3,000 yuan, and he had some spare money to realize his ambition.
He bought his first antique, a 2,000-year-old bronze mirror, from a farmer in his hometown of Langanbao Town, Shenmu County, for 50 yuan. The prices of antiques have risen 20-fold over the past decade. The major sources of his collection are antique dealers, shops and auctions.
His original intention was to save antiques with his spare money. But over time, he became addicted to collecting. "If you know the history, background and great value of antiques, you will be addicted to them. Whenever I see something precious, I want to own it and study it."
Hu's annual income in Shenhua Group increased to 200,000 yuan in 2005. He also runs a hotel. In Shenmu County, rich in coal, a fair number of people become billionaires by buying coalmines. Hu bought a mine, but later sold it because he needed money to buy antiques.
He began to borrow money from his friends in 2005. "The market price of the antiques has doubled over the years. But I'd rather get into debt than sell any of them." Hu pawned his hotel for 10 million yuan at the end of 2009. If he fails to repay the pawnbroker by June 2010, his hotel will be auctioned.
At the beginning of his collection, Hu depended on antique dealers because of his poor judgment. His biggest shortcoming was his credulity. Among the 20 antique dealers in Shenmu County, only one never sold fake antiques to Hu.