Buying Chinese Art (part 1)

I was sitting here with my head as empty as my pockets when I got Luckey.  Kathryn Luckey, that is, who was kind enough to author this week’s column.  These are her words…

While living in Nanjing, China with my husband and sons for 5 years, I developed a love for Chinese antiques. I met and befriended an antique dealer who encouraged me to explore the world and history of Chinese Countryside Antique Furniture. This is the first part of a two part article on some of what I learned that may help when considering a purchase.

This article will focus on the countryside pieces that are between 100-180 years old, from the late Qing Dynasty. There is a huge variety and design in this style of furniture and it is the most common seen on the Asian market today.

When considering an antique Chinese purchase, there are several important things to keep I mind. First, be aware that in China the word antique can mean an old piece of furniture made a long time ago or a recently made piece with an old design. I was in one shop in China that asked ” Do you want old or new antiques?” This is not necessarily deceptive, it is a cultural difference- reproduction of art and antiques have been going on for centuries in China.

Secondly, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between old and new pieces because some new pieces are made with old wood. These pieces are called “restructured.” All three types of furniture- new, old and restructured, can be found on the market. Your dealer should know and inform you of the type you are buying.

Thirdly, there is not much of an antique furniture market in China. Old pieces of furniture are not valued. Most pieces have been heavily used and neglected. I saw one old beautiful armoire stored in a corner of a home piled with farm tools. Most pieces need some repair or restoration and the quality of this process needs to be considered. How much repair has been done? If the foot of one leg has been replace this will not affect the value, if a whole door of an armoire is new, the value is affected. If a small strip on a bench top has been fixed, it won’t affect the value, if the whole top is new, the value goes down. Also, look at the quality of the repair. Is it smooth, Does it affect the look of the piece, how about new shellac of stain- are they applied smoothly without evidence of brush strokes, Does the piece feel solid, are there loose joints?

Lastly, these pieces have no signatures or marks to indicate who made them or where they came from. The woodworker was not considered important. The very few that are known of worked for the Emperor. Most pieces were made in or near the village where the owner lived and they were handed down in families. Some more valuable pieces traveled during the Cultural Revolution from wealthy families in the cities to peasants in the countryside. This was part of the leveling out of resources Chairman Mao had instigated in the 1960’s.

Your dealer is your best resource to help you purchase a piece. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Have they seen the pieces before restoration, have they been to the warehouse where the work is done, how do they know this is an antique, what repair has been done?

The next article will focus on more tips to consider when purchasing a piece. If you are interested in viewing some original pieces, I invite you to Courtyard Antiques at 705 4th Ave East in Olympia or check out

Click here to read part two.