Buying Chinese Art (part 2)


Again we’re fortunate to have Kathryn Luckey to author this week’s column on purchasing Chinese antiques. Click here to read part one.

This is the second of a two-part article on tips for buying antique Chinese furniture. In the last column we reviewed definition of an antique, provenance and restoration. This article will focus on further tips for purchasing Chinese antique furniture.

As mentioned before it is sometimes difficult to tell a real antique from a reproduction or a restructured piece. Your dealer should know and tell you exactly what a piece is. There are some things to look for to help you decide if a piece is an antique.

1.       Look for old hardware, the metal will have a patina that is hard to fake. Some old pieces will have new hardware. This does not necessarily affect the value but you will wan to be aware of what you are buying.

2.       If possible, look at the bottom of the feet. That area is usually left untouched and it’s easy to ell old worn wood from new.

3.       Look at the insides, do the drawers have dove tail joints, does the wood look old here, are the cuts of the wood sharp, as made by machinery or are they more rounded as done by hand.

4.       Check the interior. Some pieces have old paper or a black tar like paint used to line the insides.

5.       Look at the old lacquer. If it has survived, it will feel thick

6.       Look for the quality of the original workmanship. Does a two piece cabinet line up well, is the carving done well, is the frame horizontal and vertical and how round is a rounded corner.

Ask your dealer about the type of wood. The most common are Elm, Beech, Fir, Cypress, Camphor and Walnut. It was common years ago for a family to plant an Elm tree when a son was born so that when he reached maturity, there was wood to make furniture for him when he married.

Prices are hard to judge. On the Internet an armoire can go from $800 to $2500. Value lies in the type of wood; original lacquer, hardware and painting and workmanship. It also lies in the quality and amount of restoration.

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, how do they know it is an antique, what was its function, what about restoration?

Today, two things are happening in China that will affect antique availability in the near future. One is that because of the rapid development taking place in China, many old homes are coming down. As people move, they sell their old furniture. This process will slow down in the next 4 or 5 years. Also, as China develops and the middle class grows, a taste for antiques will grow. I took a young Chinese friend of mine to the warehouse where I buy all my pieces and found her sitting in an old chair mesmerized by what she saw. She told me she didn’t realize how much she loved the antiques until she saw them restored and she was sorry she had just decorated her new apartment in items from Ikea.

I have found that Chinese antiques blend beautifully with any décor and can add warmth to any room due to the beautiful woods and fine design. One of my customers said, “we didn’t know we liked Chinese décor until we saw it.” They now have several pieces in their home. If you are interested in viewing some original antiques, I invite you to Courtyard Antiques at 705 4th Ave. East in Olympia where I have several pieces on display. You can also check my website at