Chinese Antique Furniture Buying Guide
The golden age of Chinese furniture production is usually defined as the years between 1550 and 1750, a time of great prosperity, and during the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasties, a time of political upheaval and turmoil. That transition between the dynasties fostered creativity and innovation in design in all the decorative arts. Furniture made during this period reflects this transition; many examples are based on much earlier forms, and others are entirely new.
So how do you know whether a piece is authentic and fairly priced? The value of a piece of antique furniture depends on five factors: its age, materials, overall condition, craftsmanship and rarity. An understanding of these factors will therefore help you to make informed judgements.
• Overall condition
All other things being equal, the older the piece, the more valuable it's likely to be. It could have particular historical value, it could be very rare or in exceptionally good condition, or it could have a wonderful patina.
And how do you determine the age of a lacquer piece? You need to consider three factors: the style, the workmanship, and the level of oxidation of the wood and lacquer.
This is not necessarily the best indication, since the style of an old piece can be copied by later craftsmen. However, to a certain degree, it can give you some useful clues about the authenticity and value of a piece.
In classical Chinese furniture, there are two basic forms: pieces without an inset panel between the top and the apron (known as the 'waistless' form), and pieces with an inset panel (known as the 'waisted' form). Waistless furniture, such as the narrow table and the recessed-leg table, is very ancient and already existed in the Shang dynasty (16th - 11th century BC) and the Zhou dynasty (11th century - 221 BC). Waisted furniture appeared much later.
In many Ming dynasty paintings, we can see that the interiors were quite simple and the furnishings rather sparse. It was not until the Qing dynasty that rooms became increasingly crowded and the furniture more elaborate.
Ming designs (1368 - 1644) are relatively uncomplicated, with the basic outline of the form usually consisting of straight lines and simple curves. Common features include horse-hoof feet, giant arm braces, ice-plate edges, protruding arms etc. Qing designs (1644 - 1911) are usually more complex, with numerous small elements and elaborately carved decoration.
Not surprisingly, some furniture combined features from both periods, and plain and decorated furniture co-existed, satisfying the demands of a markedly diverse audience.
Not surprisingly, craftsmen in different periods used different kinds of techniques, which tended to change every 40 to 50 years.
Oxidization of the wood and lacquer
When buying wooden furniture, collectors need to consider the extent of wear and tear on an item (though a piece that was known to have been used by a famous or powerful person can be valuable even if it is not in immaculate condition).
As for lacquer finishes, they can be considered a common denominator in traditional Chinese furniture. Throughout China, most furniture was finished with lacquer coatings to provide durable, sealed surfaces as well as decorative effects - a technique practised since ancient times. In fact, lacquer is one the best indicators of the age of a piece, since lacquer ages and oxidizes at predictable, measurable rates.
Lacquering processes varied from period to period. In the Song and Ming periods, for instance, lacquer was generally applied over a fabric underlay (daqi), which was soaked in a mixture of thickened lacquer and pasted onto the surface of the wood. Sometimes the entire surface was covered with fabric; sometimes small strips were pasted over the joints only.
The base-coat was generally composed of raw lacquer mixed with a binder powder made of horn, bone, shell, stone, brick, pottery or charcoal. This thickened filler coat had high adhesive properties as well as stability and hardness. However, this labour-intensive technique eventually fell out of fashion, and in the Ming and Qing periods customers preferred pieces with only a thin layer of lacquer and no fabric underlays.
The finely crackled surfaces and mellow tones of lacquer finishes have been a study of connoisseurship for centuries.
Timber and lacquer are the most widely used materials in furniture, with the lacquering technique or process having a significant affect on the value of a piece. Other materials used are stone, marble, shell, coral, pearl, ivory, bone, gold leaf or various metals. Again, all other things being equal, the harder the timber, the higher the value of the furniture (for instance, huanghuali is regarded as the hardest and most expensive timber, while pine is the softest and least expensive).
Timber can be classified into six categories. In descending order of hardness (and value), they are:
1. huanghuali (yellow rosewood), zitan (sandalwood), jichimu (Chicken Wing wood)
2. hong-mu (blackwood), tielimu (ironwood), jarjingmu, wu-mu (ebony), ying-mu (burl), hua-mu (gingko)
3. ju-mu (southern elm wood), hetaomu (walnut wood), huang-yang mu (box wood), lung-yan mu (tiger-skin wood), zuo-mu (Oak)
4. nan-mu, kundianmu, shizimu (persimmon)
5. yu-mu (elm), zhang-mu (camphor), hualimu (rosewood), huai-mu (Locust), tao-mu (peach), li-mu (Pear)
6. pai-mu, song-mu (pine), shang-mu (cedat), qiu-mu (Catalpa), duan-mu (poplar), Bai-yang mu (paulownia), wu-tong (Kiri)
The better the original condition of the piece, the higher its value will be. If a piece of furniture is missing some parts, so that a lot of replacement work is needed, the relative value is lower. If restoration is carried out only on the joints, the aprons and near the bottom of the piece, it is generally accepted as being intact. It is desirable if the fittings (in most cases, the brassware) are original. Patina is valued since this can indicate how good the condition of a piece is, and sometimes its age.
Craftsmanship is an important factor in determining the value of a piece of furniture. Sometimes, when the craftsmanship is superb, a piece made out of elm wood can be more valuable and collectable than a piece made out of hong-mu (blackwood), all other things being equal.
The level of craftsmanship is assessed by looking at the proportion of the details, the accuracy of the joints, and the piece's fluidity, complexity (or simplicity) and dynamism.
This is actually a supply-and-demand issue - if a certain style is not easily available in the market then pieces in that style are considered collectable, and their value in the market goes up.
For example, when the trend in the market is for classical Ming-style furniture but not very many pieces are available, then the price and value of pieces will increase. Similarly, pieces with special features or unusual functions tend to be more valuable. For instance, hunting chairs, which were rare in the old days, could easily be ruined simply due to the conditions in which they were used, so not many of them have survived. They are therefore considered highly collectable, and their value has increased over time.