Chinese Antique Furniture Buying Tips
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 major
factors: its age, materials, overall condition, craftsmanship and rarity. An understanding of these factors will therefore help you to
make informed judgements.
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,
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 collectible than a piece made out of hong-mu (blackwood), all other things
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 collectible, 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 collectible, and their value has increased over time.
How can I avoid buying fakes in the market?
This is a simple question, but with a complex answer, depending on the piece you purchase. This ability to "eye" a piece in evaluating
its authenticity and value can only be acquired through experience that comes by having looked at hundreds of pieces. To see, to
touch authentic pieces (visiting museums, galleries) and reading books also help you have a better understanding of the history and
culture behind, and ignite your sense of art.
The role of the antique consultant is very important as they guide you in a right direction, provide you information on the history and
culture behind. Always find a dealer who is knowledgeable, professional, has an established reputation and who has been in the
business for a long time. Still, if you are in doubt about a piece, ask the dealers if their galleries provide certification and if this deal
will bear the cost if the appraisals are negative from authorities like museums or auction houses.
How do I tell if the furniture is new or old?
A reputable shop should inform you, although sometimes it is difficult to tell exaggerations from facts. Genuine antique Chinese
furniture are becoming rare, even in China. Always take what the seller tells you with a pinch of salt. In contrast, new Chinese furniture
is readily available and they come in many designs. You can also custom made your furniture.
Based on my experiences, old furniture can be loosely classified as those well above 60 years old but below 100 years old. Those
above 100 years old would be classified as antique, coinciding with the late Qing dynasty (1644 -1911) in China.
But it is also common to fashion new furniture from reclaimed woods. Reclaimed woods come from old houses that are demolished;
in particular, the wooden beams are especially good for making furniture. Hence, these furniture are technically not old pieces, but
fashioned from reclaimed wood. You should clarify this before buying.
Old wood furniture should show evidence of wear and tear – particularly in areas that are constantly used, e.g. door hinges, cabinet
grooves and so on. There are sometimes scratches and faded or uneven colorings. Some unethical shops may “age” new furniture
to meet buyers’ demand for old furniture. But you should be able to tell, as long-term usage tends to create smoother corners and
grooves, which will be hard to replicate.
Last but not least, if it is possible, visit the factories or workshop and buy the pieces off the rack – that is before they are restored or
repaired. You will know what you are getting then.
How do I start my collection?
First, choose a piece that you like, as it will be in your collection for a long while. You need to decide what kind of piece you would like.
Which dynasty do you like? Do you want furniture or woodcarving? How much do you want to spend?
A Han piece might be simpler in style, while a Tang or Ming piece might be more sophisticated in detail and glazing. Still, each piece
varies in quality within a dynasty. The beauty and craftsmanship of a piece should bring you happiness. A reputable antique
consultant can give you advice on the craftsmanship of a piece and guide you according to your own aesthetic taste and budget. If you
still are not certain as to what you want, we recommend reading a catalogue of a major auction house, or a good book on Chinese art.
Second, the piece must be authentic. The reputation of the dealer is important. Ask if the gallery provides a certificate, which will
enhance the resale value of your piece. We want to emphasize that the dealer should be willing to bear the costs of appraisal if the
appraisal is negative from the authorities like museums or auction houses.
Third, quality is the key to any purchase of any antique. A reputable antique consultant should be ready to tell you if the piece has been
restored and point out where this restoration has taken place. Also, the dealer should be willing to compare the quality of pieces that
have appeared recently in major auction house catalogues. Origins, condition, craftsmanship, detail, and the uniqueness of the piece
will determine quality.
What determines the value and price of a piece and how can I get the best bargain?
The value of a piece is determined by aesthetic beauty, craftsmanship, condition, supply and demand. Pieces made for an emperor
usually reflect the highest quality of craftsmanship. Accordingly, pieces made for imperial officials and wealthy merchants will have
lower value. Yet, even this can vary, depending on the time the piece was produced. Items produced for one emperor might be less
valuable than pieces produced for another emperor; a strong noble piece might be more valuable than a piece from a weak king.
Thus, the historical background of the piece plays an important role to its value.
Aesthetic attraction, craftsmanship and uniqueness will be reflected in the price of an item. Nonetheless, prices vary considerably
over time, depending on supply and demand. For example, new discoveries of a Han tomb will add to the supply of artifacts from this
period, thereby reducing the price of items from this dynasty; and officers has more value than soldiers as they are more rare.
Demand also determines prices. Obviously, if more people want pieces from a certain period, this demand will drive up the prices. Art
works from the Tang dynasty might be more in demand than those from the Han period. This same rule applies within a dynasty.
Collectors will consider piece produced in the reign of one emperor more valuable than items produced in the reign of another
emperor, depending on the historical importance of the emperor. Even within a specific reign, certain items will be considered more
valuable. Thus, the demand for Tang plump lady figures might be more than an equivalent Tang male figure, thereby rising the price.
Sometimes, collectors or antique dealers' interest in certain kind of pieces also jack up the price. The price of furniture in the Ming,
Qing imperial period is much higher than those made 50 years ago.
Furthermore, the place where you buy the piece is so important in affecting the price.
Those dealers who are direct knowledgeable professional purchaser, importer and seller can save you lots of unnecessary cost.
Generally, there is a price difference from 20-25% more than what you pay in some shops. Most of the professional dealers selling
authentic Chinese antique use the low margin and high turnover policy. That is why you can absolutely get the best bargain. However,
there are still a lot of dishonest shops, who sell reproductions as genuine items.
What should I collect from each dynasty?
The long history of China, one of the oldest countries in the world, has revolved around dynasties, under the reign of different imperial
families. Some of these dynasties lasted hundreds of years, while some only a generation or two. You can read some books on
Chinese historical background and the dynastic culture. You will also have a better idea on what you can collect after you have looked
at the representative illustrations from the Chinese antique furniture guidebooks.
One can learn a lot from many excellent books on Chinese antique furniture. Studying catalogues from the auction houses will also
help accumulating your knowledge. However, the best way to learn is to visit the museums like the Nelson and Atkins Museum of Art
in Kansas City, Missouri, USA and galleries and to look at the pieces yourselves.