You don’t need to be a chair professor, but …

What to look for when buying antique furniture

Samantha Kierath
21 March 2010

It’s a frosty Beijing morning but the Gaobeidian traditional furniture street just off the Jingtong Expressway is buzzing with the sound of circular saws. There is the smell of sawdust as carpenters apply their tools to everything from classically inspired opium beds to full-length screens weighed down with heavy decoration.

Sellers have flung open the doors to their cavernous emporiums and the first of the day’s buyers have started the daunting task of sifting through thousands of items in search of just the right altar table.

This is the more affordable section of the perennially popular antique furniture market and, if the number of shops is any indication, the appetite for the traditional product is as robust as ever. But the enthusiasm for the sector is also increasingly reflected in pedigreed pieces at the top end of town.

Last October a Qing dynasty imperial carved throne went under the hammer for HK$85.78 million in Hong Kong at a Sotheby’s auction. The price for the “magnificently carved” piece from the Qianlong period was nearly triple Sotheby’s pre-sale upper estimate.

Antique furniture has generally been one of the more conservative quarters of the Chinese art world. Chiang Oi-ling, proprietor of the Hong Kong-based Oi Ling Antiques, says when she entered the business about 15 years ago, pieces made from the most coveted of hardwoods, huanghuali (yellow rosewood) and zitan (purple sandalwood), were mainly bought by buyers in Hong Kong and overseas who were not willing to pay excessive prices.

“A lot of the big collectors from Shanghai and Beijing had left the mainland and were residing in Hong Kong and abroad, and they would not pay crazy prices for anything. They would only pay for something if it’s worth it,” Chiang said.

Things have changed, with some less discriminating buyers entering the market, “flashing money”.

Prices of top-quality antique Chinese furniture have increased fourfold in five years, making it an asset class by itself. As new collectors flood the market, sellers have been withholding supply in anticipation of even higher prices, both factors joining in a price spiral.

“Now it’s very different. I don’t think people understand what they are buying,” Chiang said. “I think if you look at any of the growing economies when they have money, they just want to buy something that everybody knows is expensive. There are a lot of people in this category. They have money but they don’t have the sophistication or understanding of what’s good or what’s not.”

Knowing the difference takes time and a trained eye. Chiang says that before making any purchase, it is important to go to museums, examine the collections, canvass views and not take any opinions at face value. Skip the coffee-table books in favour of scholarly publications and be prepared to invest in quality.

“I think if you start with high quality, you don’t make many mistakes,” she said.

“It is important to go to museums, visit known collections which are good and talk to [people there] because they have the experience … Do research and read good books.”

Tsang Chi-fan, a senior specialist at Christie’s Hong Kong’s Chinese ceramics and works of art department, also advocates thorough research for potential buyers. She says one of the major mistakes collectors can make is not spotting the variations in timber.

“Education is the main thing for new collectors because it’s a minefield out there. You must know your woods,” Tsang said. “It’s so difficult trying to tell the difference if you’re a novice … But the price varies so much [depending on that difference].”

Another problem is detecting the extent of restoration. Tsang says the Chinese have a long tradition of repairing furniture with old pieces of wood, so much so that an antique chair might have only half of its original timber. Buyers should not expect an antique to be perfect but “you can’t have one or two legs that are old and the rest, new”.

Often the clues to restoration are in the joints.

“You have to look very carefully at the joints, at the material, whether there are any differences between one section and another. There are no nails, so ask your supplier whether he can dismantle it. Normally when you dismantle it, you will see if there are any new places. It gives it away totally,” she said.

“You can always deduce where the obvious areas are. Take, for example, wardrobes. A lot of them stand on bare floors and sometimes if you get floods, the wood will be decayed. It gets shorn off after a while. A chair also gets shorter. If it’s actually lower than you would expect, you know it’s been shortened.”

Joints help reveal whether a piece is a fake. Experts maintain that as the supply of antiques has tightened, artificially aged reproductions have increased.

“A piece of genuine antique, if you look at the joints, with age the joinery shrinks. So if you check the joints, either it’s indented in or protruded out because the wood shrinks and will do different things to it,” Chiang said.

A mixture of southern and northern Chinese motifs is another giveaway that the piece might not be authentic. According to Chiang, many decorative elements and finishes were specific in the past to a particular region and sometimes counterfeiters are not aware of these subtleties and variations. “If you see a piece with southern proportions but definitely northern decorative motifs, you know there’s something wrong.”

Other features to focus on are the “feet” and lacquer of a piece.

“The proportion of the foot just within a hundred years is different but these differences are very subtle,” she said. “And also the type of lacquer. Although most lacquer finishes are gone, you can still find traces of them.”

Chiang suggests it would be difficult to find great, genuine undiscovered pieces in a mainland market because sellers are well aware of what is valuable. She also says that while huanghuali and zitan items are overpriced, there are areas of potential growth for the investor, particularly jichimu (chicken wing wood) and tielimu (ironwood) pieces.

“Slowly, people will be shifting to jichimu and tielimu because these are equally good pieces and they were used in the palace and used by wealthy people in the past. It’s just that in the ‘80s all these Western scholars talked about huanghuali and zitan and they published books on them, and people thought these were the only good woods. But there are other good woods that people in the Qing and Ming dynasties used for making good furniture,” Chiang said.

Nevertheless, one of the most memorable pieces she has come across was a huanghuali book cabinet in a home in Hebei province more than a decade ago. The cabinet was lined with yellow silk, indicating that it belonged to a member of the imperial family, and “when we saw it, we immediately realised how important it was”.

Tsang said buyers who collect “sensibly” are unlikely to make a loss but they need to have a long-term view and a real enthusiasm for collecting antique furniture. “It’s not just investing for money’s sake. You’re investing for your own satisfaction.”

And once you have that special item in your home, don’t lavish it with too much care. “I wouldn’t over-polish it,” Tsang said. “It does destroy the patina.”

Get it right

Antique Chinese furniture is a minefield for the novice investor and education is key to avoiding common pitfalls. Experts suggest new buyers

VISIT museums, antique fairs, auction viewings and known collections to develop an eye for good pieces.

READ university and scholarly research texts to acquire the most reliable information.

TALK to a range of experts. Don’t take assessments at face value.

LOOK for indentations or protrusions in joins. Joinery shrinks with age.

ANALYSE motifs, materials and craftsmanship for inconsistencies in styles.

KNOW your timbers. Price varies dramatically with wood type.

EXAMINE pieces for telltale signs of restoration.

RESIST the urge to over-polish. Patina is a link to the past.

FOCUS on quality to minimise purchasing mistakes.

DEVELOP a long-term view and invest in personal satisfaction

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