The Founder, Hong Kong, and Collecting

The Museum of East Asian Art is an independent museum. It was founded by Brian McElney OBE (b. 1932, d. 2023) who was born in Hong Kong and became a prominent lawyer and long-time resident of Hong Kong.

His lifelong interest in collecting Chinese art began in 1955 when he bought his first piece, a 17th century gilt brass Sakyamuni Buddha, while studying law in London. Once qualified, he moved back to Hong Kong and spent much of his leisure time and his modest income during the early part of his career browsing the antique shops and auction houses for pieces to add to his precious collection. He also devoted many hours to achieving a deep understanding of Chinese and East Asian art.

Brian lived in Hong Kong at a unique time which saw the rise of local collectors, museums and the art market. This was a result of Hong Kong’s unique position as a British colony (from 1841 to 1997) at the intersection of Chinese and British influences. Hong Kong enjoyed an advantageous geographical location which was close to sources of Chinese art, and the art market expanded rapidly as a result of its economic success.

Hong Kong was culturally diverse. Old Cantonese families, Shanghai immigrants and British expatriates were all important patrons of Chinese art in the city. In this vibrant environment, Brian befriended and learned from other collectors, scholars, curators, dealers and auction house specialists. As much as these individuals shaped Brian’s collecting he, in turn, left his mark on the Hong Kong art scene by making a significant contribution to cultural bodies in Hong Kong. Along with fellow collectors, Brian co-founded the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong (OCSHK) in 1974 and, based on his growing knowledge of East Asian art, was the first Westerner to be invited to join the prestigious Hong-Kong based Min Chiu Society.

After his retirement to the UK, Brian donated his collection to form the Museum which opened to the public in 1993 as an independent educational charity. The collection has been added to by long-term loans and donations by the public over the years.

Brian remained true to his vision throughout his life: ‘My intention has always been that the Museum display at all times some of the rare wonders of East Asian Art and particularly the marvellous arts of China.’