Chinese art, with varieties as expansive as its history is long, is among both the most daunting and rewarding categories to collect. From delicate porcelains, intricately carved jades, and serene ink landscape paintings to regal robes, brazen stone lions, and fantastic dragons, these artworks are imbued with historical traditions and motifs from as early as 10,000 B.C.
"As China becomes a more powerful force in the world, more and more people have become interested in Chinese antiques," says John Schofield, head of the Asian Arts Department at Eldred's. "In our experience, items with the most provenance are most sought after."
Many pieces of Chinese art were accrued by missionaries and travelers, passed down through generations, and then disseminated across the world – often without recognition of their value. This, in turn, resulted in extraordinarily rich backstories. As awareness grows, the market becomes more competitive.
The destruction of many historic artifacts in the 1960s and 1970s paired with the overall delicacy of the materials means that well-preserved, authentic Chinese antiques are increasingly difficult to find. While age might leave artifacts fragile or damaged, time has also embellished Chinese works of art with enduring beauty and relevancy. These works of art make timeless and compelling additions to any collection, small or large.
Elements of Chinese Art & Antiquities
Ancient artifacts and modern works alike show great deference to Chinese history. Art and antiques almost always refer to historical symbols or philosophy. To collect Chinese art, one must first understand the references that exist in each piece.
The meanings behind these recurring elements have withstood the test of time and appear frequently in paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and garments. Below is a short list of imagery to look out for:
- Dragons are used to represent ultimate power and high rank.
- Longevity is often displayed with a circular, abstract butterfly-like pattern.
- Peaches are very commonly depicted in Chinese art, and are representative of immortality.
- Amber is used as a symbol of courage, once believed to be the manifestation of a deceased tiger soul.
- Lotus flowers often reference the Buddhist tradition, in which they are symbols of purity.
- Peonies are regarded as symbols of wealth and virtue.
- Fish are symbols of wealth as the Chinese word is a homonym for the word for “abundance."
- Lions or Foo Dogs make appearances in Chinese art as guardians of the household.
- The Phoenix, which is believed to never harm living creatures and only appears during times of peace, is the symbol of benevolence and of a perfect marriage between emperor and empress when paired with the dragon.
Chinese philosophy, characterized by the importance of individual good deeds to achieve greatness, is often described in calligraphy, painting, and illustration. Confucianism heavily focuses on the individual’s familial duty. This philosophy has been passed on to modern times, so depictions of family are particularly common in Chinese art. The reverence towards teachers and learning also led to many depictions of Confucius in Chinese paintings.
Doing good deeds in order to attain transcendence gave birth to philosophies such as I-Ching and Taoism. Taoism, well known by the iconic yin yang symbol, is particularly present in ink paintings. Taoism is characterized by the belief in the unification of opposites such that one element is necessary for the other, and when one element becomes the strongest, it subverts itself to its opposite.
Taoism’s emphasis on opposite forces is frequently illustrated in art through symbolism such as one black and one white fish swimming around each other, and the juxtaposition of the dragon and phoenix. The two are very different in temperament, but symbolic of the perfect marriage. The implied balance of dark versus light, nature versus civilization, and reality versus perception are also examples of oppositions that reflect this philosophy.
Tibetan Buddhism, which made its way over to China in the 2nd century A.D. during the Yuan Dynasty, is a very important genre of Chinese art. Like Confucianism, there is a strong reverence to the teacher. The Buddha motif is manifest in paintings, vessels, and sculptures. Often, Buddhism is represented by a symbol – as a wheel of dharma, victory banner, conch shell, lotus flower, parasol, treasure vase, pair of fish, or an endless knot. Sculptures of Buddha and affiliated deities, as well as paintings and tapestries, are used as domestic decorations to bring peace and blessings to a dwelling.
Types of Chinese Art & Antiques
Snuff bottles, which were used to carry powdered tobacco for the purpose of remedying ailments such as headaches, are typically no larger than the palm of one’s hand. Most often, snuff bottle collectors prefer those that were created and used during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). These usually have two parts: the main container used for carrying tobacco and a cap with an attached spoon. Snuff bottles are most commonly made of glass, but can also comprise of jade, porcelain, amber, or metal. The rarity of the material, as well as the beauty and intricacy of the decoration, represented status and wealth during the Qing dynasty. Today, snuff bottles are created as souvenirs.
Like snuff bottles, vases, pots, teapots, and plates were made out of materials including clay, jade, bronze, and porcelain. Porcelain was not commonly used until the Song Dynasty in 960 A.D., after which artisans mastered the blue and white painted porcelain popular today. Ornately painted bronze vessels called cloisonné were developed in the 14th century. Cloisonné is characterized by soldered strips of gold or silver on metal with enamel and jeweled inlays.
As opposed to Western paintings, which are typically made on canvas or other woven fabric, Chinese paintings predominantly exist on silk or rice paper. The most well-known examples are produced with water-based inks and depict stylized yet intricate visions of nature, people, animals, and more. Works in this category tend to be small to medium-sized in the form of a horizontal or vertical scroll, a fan shape, or a flat sheet. Paintings often fall in a lower price range compared to other Chinese antiques.
Chinese sculptures, like paintings, depict many things such as people, animals, mythical creatures, Buddha, and more. They can be made out of clay, bronze, glass, or stone. Collectors all over the world are particularly interested in the use of jade in sculpture.
Jade, used for both tools and also for ceremony since Neolithic times, is characterized by a translucent white and green color. There are both hard and soft versions of jade – hard jadeite and soft nephrite. The most sought-after type of jade in Chinese art is white jade, sometimes referred to as “mutton fat” jade.
Tips for Buying Chinese Art Online
You can now easily buy Chinese art and antiques from online marketplaces like Invaluable; however, you may not have the chance to inspect the object in person before you purchase it. Follow these guidelines to ensure you are getting what you want:
1. Examine Condition & Provenance
Prior to making a purchase, always be very diligent to inquire after the condition of the object and from where the object was acquired.
Many of these artworks have already undergone significant repair. Sculpted details on ancient statues may be worn down over time from handling and some pieces have been adhered together. Watch out for details like this to inform the value of your potential purchase. Consider the extent and quality of the repair work when deciding how much the artwork is worth to you.
Provenance research also adds value and credibility to artworks. Works may have been passed through generations of a family or belonged to someone important years earlier. Understanding the history of the work is just as important as analyzing the quality of the piece.
As the art market for Chinese art grows and works fetch higher prices, stolen and counterfeit works are also appearing in the market. Trust your instincts. If the research behind a work isn’t airtight, don’t buy it. "Nearly all auction houses have open exhibitions when you can personally inspect items and ask questions to the firm's specialists. Ask a lot of questions!" reminds Schofield.
2. Register to Bid Several Days in Advance
Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid with each auction house on the platform and be approved. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
3. Familiarize Yourself with the Terms and Conditions
- How does the auction house handle taxes?
- Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How much time do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the auction house or dealer with questions?
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions
If you have any other questions, ask them. If the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.
5. Research Past Prices
Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
6. Don't Bid Unless You're Sure
All sales at an auction are final. For larger items, the auction house will provide a list of good art handling or shipping companies.
7. Take Care of Your Works
Like any investment, maintenance plays a substantial role in value. In order to best enjoy and preserve your purchase, take care of your work based on its age and medium.
While contemporary snuff bottles, vases, pots, teapots, and plates might be attractive works to include on your kitchen table, older vessels are significantly more fragile and will likely not hold up to frequent handling.
Most Chinese paintings have been executed on delicate papers or silks. Over time, silks and paper can yellow, become brittle, and begin to tear and fray. Generally, these paintings are best preserved when displayed away from direct sunlight. A cool, dry place with limited light is ideal. Natural body oils, like those from your hands, can hasten the yellowing of fabrics and papers. Therefore, it is best not to handle work with bare hands.
Limiting the amount of time you put a Chinese painting on display also helps to protect the work from light damage as well as dust, but when storing never fold a work even if it is on a fabric. When not on display, store the painting in a cool, dry, dark, and pest-free environment.
Lastly, if you are unsure of how to best take care of your purchased artwork, ask a specialist.