Interesting Articles

Antique Hunting In China Is No Longer Just Of The Intrepid

Reprinted from :

Alexandra A. Seno IHT 
June 04, 2004

Pam Shaw and her small but determined group left Hong Kong on a mission. After a few hours on a ferry, they arrived in Zhaoqing, in southern China, just before lunch. After checking into a hotel and a quick meal, they drove several more minutes past farmland and rugged rural countryside to reach their destination: an antiques warehouse. 

Once they were past the doors of what had once been a traditional temple, they began to explore, inspecting thousands of antique objects. 

Shopping for antiques in China like this used to be only for the brave or the extremely well-connected. But thanks to a growing number of reliable, organized shopping tours, more and more foreign residents in Hong Kong are making the trip to the mainland to buy Chinese antiques.

For several hundred U.S. dollars, Shaw bought a 5-foot-high Qing dynasty poet's cabinet for her son to celebrate the completion of his PhD at the University of California in Los Angeles later this year. On the front, the black calligraphy on the red lacquer translates roughly to: ''Only things of intellectual value should enter.''

''I could see it in his study,'' said Shaw. ''I thought it was wonderful and how appropriate it was as a gift for him.''

For Shaw, an American artist who moved to Hong Kong with her engineer husband more than a year ago, one of the benefits of living in Hong Kong is the proximity to China and its myriad shopping possibilities.

Sure, you can buy anything in Hong Kong and there is no shortage of Chinese antiques, but the ease of travel into China enhances the pleasure of buying.

Decades ago, one of the most exciting things to do in Hong Kong was to go to the New Territories on the very edge of the British colony to gaze at China, a closed, vaguely mysterious Communist country, about 100 meters across the Shenzhen River. With Hong Kong now enveloped in a China that is becoming more open by the day, that old thrill seems almost unthinkable.

Every day, tens of thousands of people easily move between the city and the mainland, crossing the walkway over the river or going by train, high-speed ferry, direct-service bus or plane. Many are shoppers and antique hunters looking for bargains on the mainland.

Karin Weber, a long-time Hong Kong antiques dealer who leads antiquing tours in English to Guangdong Province, said, ''I don't like to take people who have just arrived. They don't yet have the eye and they find everything beautiful.'' Though she doesn't turn away people and doesn't mind giving the uninitiated a crash course in Chinese antiques appreciation, Weber believes that those who benefit most from her tours are the ones who have invested some time in learning about antiques and what they like.

''My best advice is look, look and look. Don't rush buying Chinese antiques,'' she said.

Once a month or so, Weber takes small groups to the mainland. The itinerary usually includes a quick tour of the ancient city of Zhaoqing and several hours at a warehouse and workshop containing furniture and old home accessories such as wooden baskets, lamp stands and boxes. Buyers can negotiate repairs and finishing. The night is spent at a four-star hotel and the next day is for finalizing purchases. The price of a purchase usually includes shipping and delivery to Hong Kong or elsewhere.

The warehouses on the mainland tend to carry a wider selection of antique furniture than is available in shops in Hong Kong.

William Chiang, owner of the antique shop China Art in Hong Kong, which has a warehouse in Panyu, Guangdong Province, said: ''It's not a lot cheaper but there is more variety.'' China Art has two shops that sell antique furniture and other things like posters, metal tea canisters and lamps.

Although many dealers like Chiang who have warehouses on the mainland only open them to the trade and special clients who buy in bulk; others, like Art Treasure Gallery, which is located in Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai in southern China, allow independent shoppers to visit their mainland operations. With advance notice, Art Treasure allows individuals or small groups to make their way to its factory in Zhuhai to choose new or antique furniture pieces. 

Other antique hunters can take advantage of historical excursions that can include stops at flea markets. Valery Garrett, a researcher in antiques at the University of Hong Kong, takes people via train, by special arrangement through the local YWCA, to Guangzhou. After a half-day walking tour of Shamien Island, the former foreign quarter, she ends the day at an antiques bazaar where shoppers can buy trinkets and Cultural Revolution bric-à-brac.

Garrett, an expert on Chinese textiles, said: ''It can seem overwhelming because the city has grown so quickly. But I hope the people who go on my trip want to go back and learn more about the place.''

Some luxury hotels in China also cater to this growing interest in antiques. Concierge services usually offer recommendations on places to visit. The Peninsula Palace Beijing, for example, offers cultural programs at its Peninsula Academy, including classes in antiques. One is an introduction to Liu-licheng Street, where many of Beijing's dealers are located. Another is on buying furniture and includes a visit to one of Beijing's biggest furniture restoration workshops. 

Going into China to shop for antiques is often very hard work. It can mean going to warehouses on unmarked streets as well as searching through thousands of unrepaired pieces of furniture before finding something to buy. 

The stories of misadventures are legion. After buying from a warehouse in Zhuhai, one couple in Hong Kong had the wrong pieces delivered to their home and the dealer refused to take the pieces back or give a refund. Another spent months sending the items back and forth, at extra expense, to get the right finishing.

Without Chinese language skills or a translator, dealing with workshops can be difficult. And there is always a risk of counterfeits and shipments arriving in bad condition, if at all.

But for many, the jaunts are often not just about shopping. ''People like the adventure of going to China and learning more about the culture,'' said Weber.

Contacts: Alexandra A. Seno is a journalist based in Hong Kong. 

Asian FurnitureCan Be More Than You Bargained For

While poking through dusty furniture shops in Bali early last year, Susan Sadler was bewitched by a pair of teak end tables. Little did she know, as she handed over $200 and arranged to have the pieces shipped home, that she was also buying an army of tiny termites who have spent the last year transforming the once-elegant pieces into a pile of dust.

"When you looked at it there, there was no way to tell," says Mrs. Sadler. "But eventually, this whole thing will disintegrate."

For eager shoppers, there's little more satisfying than discovering a divine divan or a to-die-for Tibetan chest in some out-of-the-way store. And there's little more traumatic than trying to get it back home. Living rooms around the globe are littered with Asian furniture purchases gone awry: pieces that arrived at their destinations -- and not all of them do -- looking, feeling, even smelling different than when they left the shop.

For her part, Mrs. Sadler has had trouble letting go. After the pile of dust began to form at the base of the tables, she moved them from her bedroom to a guestroom. She now realizes that the dust, in this case, will never truly settle. The Salvation Army is set to come later this month to retrieve the hollowed-out tables, says Mrs. Sadler, a Singapore-based advertising consultant.

Mark Cochrane's furniture problem was nothing to sniff at. Mr. Cochrane bought a latticework bookcase at a Chinese antique store in Macau. It arrived at his Hong Kong apartment well-wrapped in sturdy, corrugated cardboard -- and reeking of fish. The stench soon pervaded the apartment.

"Maybe they shipped it over in a sampan [fishing boat]," he says wryly. The odor proved deep-seated. First, he and his girlfriend tried wiping it down with a damp rag, to no avail. "Then we used a lemon wax to try to cover it up. We had lemony fish for a while," he says. Mr. Cochrane still refers to it as the "fish piece."

There's nothing fishy about the enduring demand for handcrafted Asian furniture. CV. Adhi Darma Cargo, an Indonesian shipper, estimates its volume is up about 50% from three years ago, with the bulk coming from small importers in Australia and the U.S. that buy furniture, carvings and crafts for resale. Meanwhile, Karin Weber, a Hong Kong antique dealer, has started a business leading shopping trips to southern China to help consumers intelligently sift through rows and rows of trunks and chests and tables.

Why the popularity? First, there are great deals. Prices in furniture destinations such as Shanghai, Bali and Macau are a sliver of those in Hong Kong or Tokyo, London or New York. Exoticism is another factor. For many, discovering a unique piece in some side-street store or tucked into the corner of a cavernous warehouse is more rewarding than trotting down to the local department store.

Add to this convenience, which is growing. In Macau, even the smaller shops have English-speaking salespeople and can send via photos e-mail of their furniture. In China, there's a network of scouts in the hinterlands who collect and buy pieces and then ship them to Beijing, Shanghai, Zhuhai and other refinishing centers. In Tibet, some stores will ship your pieces by express mail.

Yes, the options are great. But among furniture shoppers, the horror stories are legion.

Before moving back to the U.S. after a two-year stint in Hong Kong and Singapore, retail executive Susan Kosinski and her husband traveled to Bali. The island is famed for its shimmering, stepped rice paddies and resort pools overlooking the Indian Ocean. But the Kosinskis were there to shop. At the end of a week of rummaging through dozens of stores on a busy strip called Jalan Legian, the couple filled a container with their $1,000 bounty: an armoire, a sofa, a large day bed, a poster bed with night tables, eight outdoor chairs and three tables.

To be safe, they paid $1,500 for a highly recommended shipper, CAS Cargo Bali. They gave instructions to have the pieces fumigated, tightly crated and shipped to Oakland, California, ahead of their move back home to nearby San Francisco.

The furniture made it to the port, but not quite as planned. Instead of a wooden crate, the pieces arrived bundled in cardboard liner, shrink-wrapped and placed on a wooden pallet after making stops in Papua New Guinea, Singapore and Los Angeles (for an extra charge).

Somewhere along the way, arm rails on the day bed were cracked, a sofa drawer was smashed, and the armoire arrived crushed and infested with wood beetles and -- surprise -- termites. "We had a guy come over to look at the furniture and he told me to spray it with a termite-killer and then tape the piece to the floor so bugs wouldn't escape and get into our wood home," says Mrs. Kosinski's husband, Richard.

Beetles are bugging others, too. In fact, they have crawled into high-stakes global-trade talks. U.S. officials last year demanded that Chinese exporters start heat-treating their packing crates to kill off wood-boring beetles. The highly destructive Asian beetles first showed up in Brooklyn, New York, in 1996, and have set off infestation scares from Manhattan's Central Park to Chicago. (Not to be outdone, Chinese officials later demanded that U.S. exporters treat their pine packing crates for a tiny parasite known as the pinewood nematode.)

Meanwhile, the Kosinskis' shipping tale is something of an international mystery. Eddie Fitzgerald, a CAS Cargo Bali executive, says the furniture left his warehouse packed carefully in a crate and bug-free, as do all of his shipments. He doesn't even have shrink-wrap facilities. He says he doesn't know who the guilty the party is, but suspects that somewhere along the way it was dropped from a forklift, hastily repackaged and sent on to the next stop.

There would have been plenty of opportunities for that to happen. On a long trip, crates are often removed from their containers by consolidators at various ports of call. They are then repacked into new containers in a juggling act aimed at keeping the containers full for the next leg of the trip, Mr. Fitzgerald says.

Of course, furniture shopping in Asia doesn't always end with bugs, bad odors and breakage. For every tale of woe there are customers getting great pleasure from their acquisitions. "It's fun to do it on your own. There's a sense of adventure that adds to the draw of the piece," says John Erdos, owner of four Asian furniture galleries, three of them in New York and one in Singapore.

But only if the adventure has a happy ending.

While on holiday in Sri Lanka in November 1998, Derek Jones spied an antique armoire and two rosewood chairs he couldn't resist. Mr. Jones, an architect, had just moved to Hong Kong from the U.S. and was looking to furnish his still-empty apartment. In the town of Bentota on the southwestern Sri Lankan coast, he saw the chance to do it stylishly and economically. With his hotel having vouched for the shop's reputation, Mr. Jones laid out $630, returned home, and waited. And waited. And waited.

"I figured it would arrive just in time for Christmas," Mr. Jones recalls. "So I held off getting any furniture for the new place." By the time holiday had come and gone, he was still sitting on cushions on his living room floor. A series of faxes and calls to the store led nowhere. His vague threats of legal action also accomplished nothing. "The response was always, 'We'll look into it.' But they never returned my calls."

A year later he just gave up.

"If you're a one-off buyer, you could get ripped off. They know it's not worth your while to come all the way back," says Michelle Tan, who runs Eclectic Attic, an antique store in Singapore.

In many countries, buyers have little recourse. "Try to sue someone in an Indian court, and you're lucky if the case will be heard in 10 years' time," says Ms. Tan. She herself has been stiffed -- by suppliers in Indonesia, she says, who substituted orders with inferior items, apparently willing to forgo future business for a quick profit.

Insurance would seem to be the obvious answer. Yet it's hardly a cure-all. Verona Keating had to pester one Indonesian insurance company for a solid year before it handed over the $5,000 she claimed in damages for one shipment gone awry. "I made their life hell," says Ms. Keating. That battle, along with numerous other bang-ups and bug incidents, left its mark on her, too. Ms. Keating, who with a friend had been arranging mass shipments of cheap Indonesian furniture for friends in Japan, decided to find a new vocation.

Joe Bauer proved, definitively, that furniture shopping can be a health hazard. Shortly after moving to Singapore from Hong Kong in 1996, he developed painful rashes all over his body. When he went away on business trips, they cleared up; when he came back to his new apartment, they worsened. He had to cancel all his meetings on one trip to Jakarta because his legs swelled so severely that he could barely walk, much less get his pants on.

Alarmed and mystified, he went to see his doctor in Singapore, who took one look at the blotches running down the back of his legs and made his diagnosis: a sexually transmitted disease.

Unsatisfied with that unsettling assessment, Mr. Bauer got a second opinion from a doctor in Hong Kong who said several patients of his had suffered allergic reactions to furniture they had bought in China. Sure enough, Mr. Bauer had bought a Chinese table in Macau just before the move. "I realized I'd sat on the table before my couch arrived; I got a rash on the back of my legs. Another time, I'd put my feet up on it; rash on my feet. I'd set up my computer on it and leaned on the table; rash on my arms."

It turned out that chemicals used to mix shellacs and glazes were to blame. Mr. Bauer hauled his table onto his patio -- getting a rash on his hands in the process -- and let it bake in the sun. After a few days, the chemicals burned off. He's been rash-free ever since.

* * *

A Shipping Check-List

Allergic reactions. Fish smells. Some furniture woes are hard to anticipate. But others are probably avoidable. Here's a few tips to help you avert a furniture-buying disaster.

Dust for Fingerprints: Bug infestation is a common lament among furniture shoppers in Asia. A suggestion: If you see 'cones' of sawdust inside a piece of furniture you're thinking about buying, investigate further. "Perhaps that's a sign that the little critters are working their way into the wood and it's best to shop elsewhere," says Richard Kosinski, who with his wife bought a living-room full of teak in Bali last year that turned out to be riddled with termites. There have been furniture shipments from China and Taiwan in which the pieces themselves were untouched by bugs, but the wooden crating material was infested.

Document Everything: Take detailed photos of your intended purchase before it leaves the shop, and identify any defects with the shop owner and shipper. If there's any battles later on with the shop, shipper or insurance company, you'll be better armed with photographic evidence.

Split the Bill: Most shops will require you to pay in full at the time of purchase -- but try to negotiate to pay 50% up front and the balance (via wire) when it arrives. It gives you leverage in case something goes wrong.

Shop for a Shipper: Before you leave home, you may want to contact a shipper in your home country to see if they have a local partner in the country to which you are traveling. And if you're sending extremely valuable antiques, you'll probably want to use a specialty shipper rather than a regular household moving firm.

Read the Fine Print: You may negotiate a great price on your furniture, only to get charged a high fee for crating and packing. Or, you may think "delivery included" means to your front door, when in fact it's to your home port. "There's a lot of unseen extras that most people just don't consider," warns John Erdos, owner of the John Erdos gallery in Singapore and Jamson Whyte gallery in New York. One Tokyo resident, Verona Keating, says it costs her a minimum of $700 to clear a piece of furniture through customs in nearby Yokohama and get it delivered to her home. She says the process is so complicated there that many people hire customs brokers to handle the paperwork.

Pick Your Packing: Make sure your piece is professionally packed; the shop should wrap the furniture in corrugated cardboard and then make a wooden crate for it. Some movers use bubble wrap; demand that they put tissue between the wrap and your piece. If the furniture is heading into, or through, a warmer climate, the bubble wrap can fuse onto the paint or glaze, leaving tiny circular marks over the surface. "You'll wind up paying to refinish it, on top of your other costs," warns Karin Weber, owner of Weber Antiques in Hong Kong.

Take Cover: Insure the shipment for its full value -- and don't skimp on the policy. With some policies, there are large deductibles and exclusions that make collecting on the policy all but impossible. Determine what is covered and what is not.

-- Cris Prystay and Jon E. Hilsenrath


Tips For Buying Chinese Antique Furniture

Reprinted from :The Wall Street Journal Online


If you are interested in the Chinese antique furniture and reproduction, the first thing to note is that Beijing does not necessarily offer the most reasonable prices. At this level, prices are set internationally. You should compare prices with dealers located in Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London.

The main thing to watch out for when in the market for chinese furniture is to verify that the piece has been made using aged wood. If the wood is more than eighty years old, it will have dried properly. Consequently, during winter when all woods contract, the resulting separation will be kept to a minimum. Should your furniture crack down the middle of a panel, this is a clear sign that new wood was used. If, however, a certain degree of separation occurs at the junction of two or more panels, do not worry. This is to be expected.

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.

  • Age
  • Material
  • Overall condition
  • Craftsmanship
  • Rarity

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)

Overall condition 
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.


Classical Chinese Furniture Is Still A Favorite

By Catherine Murrell / The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

Ken and Helen Ludwick are owners of Ming Gallery in Louisville, Ky., specializing in classical Chinese antique furniture.  They opened Ming Gallery in October 1999. In addition to serving as the gallery's buyer, Ken is the international sales manager for Tasman Industries, which deals in raw cowhide. Helen Ludwick has a background in retail clothing sales and a bachelor's degree in fashion design from California State University. 

Q: What should I look for when shopping for Chinese antiques? 

Helen: A lot of people are taken by the way an antique cabinet looks. They like the appearance and often fail to inspect the piece carefully. It's important to inspect a piece. Open up the doors and drawers and look for wear and signs that the piece has been refinished or repaired.   

Ken: Look for the wear that would normally be associated with years of use. One of the important things to know about Chinese antique furniture is that the Chinese do not view them as collectible antique furniture. They view them as old furniture and they're delighted whenever an American comes to China to buy that old furniture from them. They don't keep the pieces in nice condition.    

Helen: Ask the dealer if the piece has its original lacquer and the original hardware and if any parts have been replaced or repaired. An antique is defined as a piece that's 100 years or older. Chinese antiques are often much older than 100 years.  

Ken: A lot of Chinese antiques won't have the original lacquer because they're so old. We're talking about furniture with a history of more than 1,000 years. Because there were different techniques for lacquering furniture over the years, the type of finish can sometimes help you determine the age of a piece. An expert can look at a table with a very thick, heavily crackled lacquer and tell in five minutes that the piece is over 300 years old. That's something that can't be faked. 

Q: How can I be sure I'm getting an authentic antique? 

Helen: Ask the dealer a lot of questions, such as the source of their antiques. 

Ken: That's one of the first things that informed buyers ask. Ask the dealer if they actually go to China and see the piece before it's been cleaned up. That's something very few dealers do. Do they buy their pieces from wholesalers who import mass quantities or do they buy their pieces over the Internet? 

Basically the only way you're going to know if something is a real antique or if it's a fake is if the dealer tells you it is and you trust the dealer. There's no way the average person is going to know if a piece is a fake or not. It's hard sometimes for dealers to tell. You have to be an expert to know if it's an Asian antique. It's a matter of knowing the dealer and knowing you can trust the dealer's word on a piece. 

Q: What else do I need to know before I go shopping? 

Ken: There's classical Chinese antique furniture and there's Chinese country furniture. Classical Chinese furniture is more refined. It's made of better quality woods and has better craftsmanship. 

The Chinese country furniture is more regionalized. The different regions have their own styles and the furniture is more crudely made than the classical furniture. And there's a lot more of the country pieces. You're not going to find too many one-of-a-kind country pieces. 

For me, the look of the true Chinese antique is the look of the classical antique. True classical Chinese antiques and the style of those pieces were born in the Ming dynasty. The style has very clean lines and blends in well with modern Western decor. 

Helen: It goes well with English and French antiques and with Western style in general. 

Ken: If you want to get better informed before you go shopping, there are books about Chinese antiques you can read. They've been fairly well established in the major metropolitan areas. 

Q: What characteristics make these pieces distinctive? 

Ken: I'm fascinated by the techniques the Chinese developed for the joinery of the furniture. The techniques they employed have lasted almost 1,000 years. 

They were developed during the Ming dynasty, the golden age of China. It's a time when art flourished in China. 

That the furniture has lasted this long, that's a great testament to how it was made, especially considering that people didn't really take care of it. Many of the older pieces have lived through revolutions and occupations by foreign countries. 

The joinery is different from that used in European and American antiques and from any other techniques involved in furniture making. It's a very elaborate and complex joinery system. You have to see it to get a sense of it. 

Many of the dealers of Asian and Chinese antiques we've met are former cabinetmakers. They were so impressed with the joinery employed in Chinese antiques that they fell in love with them. 

Helen: It's important that people know that there's a difference between domestic Chinese classical furniture and chinoiserie, exports made for the European market during the 19th century. The look is very different. The chinoiserie has a lot of painting of Chinese scenery and gilding. 

Ken: The pieces were styled to resemble European furniture because they were made for Europeans. 

Have a design or decorating question? Write Catherine Murrell at The Courier-Journal, 525 W. Broadway, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, Ky. 40201-7431. Individual replies are not possible.


Chinese Antique Furniture Collecting Guides 

"It has a gentle inner strength that seems to contemplate itself with deep contentment," observed 20th-century designer T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905-76) in describing Chinese hardwood furniture. In fact, most Westerners were astonished when pieces like this Ming dynasty (1368-1644) "horseshoeback" chair came to light in the early 1930s. The restrained elegance and economy of the chair's form seemed to be both extraordinarily modern and to transcend the limits of time. The collector Frederic Mueller (1935-89) commented on the intrinsic "spiritual quality" of the piece: "It is what you can find in a Cy Twombly painting as well as in a Ming chair —something to take you out of yourself." 

What was it that caught the eye of these men, and continues to fascinate people today? The sense of harmonious proportion achieved through the simple, pleasing lines of the design? Perhaps the way the rich color and grain of the wood are left to speak for themselves? Or the craftsmanship of the joinery, with elements of its structure visible on the apron and legs?  

Maybe it's a combination of all these things, of elegance and simplicity, harmony and utility. Coiling down the splat of this chair in a fury of activity are two ferocious dragons, boldly and dramatically carved. In Imperial China, the dragon was the most auspicious symbol of all, representing wisdom, strength and goodness. Then, just to remind us of the chair's practicality, its front stretcher is a little worn where sitters placed their feet to keep them off the cold floor. But the chair still holds secrets: We don't know who made it, who owned it, or where it was used. This tantalizing mix of mystery and fact brings such a piece to life, and along with its beauty and utility, makes it eminently popular in today's art market.

In building a collection of Asian furniture, it is worth supplementing your instinctive attraction to a piece with knowledge of its craftmanship and history. A number of points to consider are the piece's condition, the materials used in its construction, the quality of its workmanship, and types of decoration and motifs.

Aesthetic Appeal

One of the greatest pleasures of collecting is purchasing an item you have fallen in love with. This kind of response may be immediate and instinctive or may be informed by an appreciation of the artisan's aesthetic. In China, for example, the value and quality of a piece often lay in its achievement of harmonious proportions. Chinese craftsmen made chairs, tables and cabinets in pairs, and they were then placed against a room's walls in a symmetrical, formal arrangement; much thought was given, as well, to the relationship between an enclosed space and the furniture within it.



Missing veneers and inlays, chips, cracks and dents in the wood, and heat and water damage will all detract from furniture's worth and may require extensive and costly restoration. However, a certain amount of wear and tear is to be expected; a dip in the front stretcher of a chair, bench or table, for example, simply shows that the piece has been used by its previous owners to rest their feet. It is advisable to ascertain the cost of any restoration prior to making a purchase.

Lacquer & Other Finishes
Lacquering techniques have a long history throughout Asia but reached their greatest expression in the hands of Japanese craftsmen. Artisans laboriously applied numerous applications of urushi—the sap of the lacquer plant—to a base material, such as wood. They then dried the lacquer by heating, making it impervious to water, insects, acids and alcohol.

Plain lacquering of items in black or red was most common in China, though these pieces are now rare; Ming connoisseurs especially appreciated pieces that featured duanwen, the crackling that appears on old lacquer. By applying layer upon layer of lacquer and then carving into the surface, artists created exquisitely detailed designs. Also, they often decorated the lacquer surfaces with gilt or polychrome, and embellished them with mother-of-pearl and ivory inlay.

Korean artisans often colored wooden chests by rubbing them with a mixture of seed oil, water and Chinese inks-or red and yellow earth. They then treated the wood with natural oils to produce a subtle sheen. Although these furniture makers also had a keen appreciation of the fresh quality of unfinished wood, few examples have survived centuries of use.

The Joiner's Craft
Asia has a long and proud woodworking tradition. From a very early date, craftsmen used techniques almost as advanced as those of today. The curve of a Chinese horseshoeback chair, for example, is achieved by using up to five different pieces of wood, secured by means of precision joinery. The range of joints used in Asian furniture includes the mortise-and-tenon, mitre, dovetail, and tongue-and-groove. In China, the mortise-and-tenon joint was most prevalent, and on early pieces, it was made deliberately visible to the eye.

Decoration & Motifs
Asian furniture decorators often found inspiration for their motifs and patterns in much older crafts, such as ceramics, textiles or jade carving. Some designs are abstract geometric patterns, while others represent animals, figures and plants symbolizing concepts such as good luck or prosperity. The phoenix, the Chinese lion and dragon are a few of the mythical creatures prominently featured in furniture decoration, and the presence of a five-clawed dragon probably indicates an object's connection to the Imperial household.

Decoration can also provide clues to the identity of a piece's owner. For example, a clothing chest decorated with the Chinese characters for fertility belonged, in all likelihood, to a woman of childbearing age.

Designs can help to date furniture, and so can the ways in which the decoration is handled. For example, a Chinese piece featuring complex carving with repeated patterns generally dates from the 18th century or later.


The materials used in a piece of Asian furniture often help collectors and scholars to determine its origin, approximate age, and value. Most pieces are made primarily of wood, whether it forms the carcass on which lacquer is applied or is the focal point of a piece. Chinese furniture makers generally used softwoods for the carcasses of lacquered pieces, causing them to be particularly susceptible to damage and therefore relatively rare in today's market. Similar reasons explain the scarcity of bamboo furniture. Other Chinese pieces were made of hardwoods, such as huanghuali and zitan, which are both rich in color and density of grain. Because zitan was in great demand and short supply, its use was restricted to the Imperial household in the 18th century. Older pieces were disassembled for reuse, making pre-18th-century zitan furniture rare and valuable. Chinese seat furniture with its original upholstery is also extremely rare. Usually the original woven seats have been replaced with wood panels or hard cane seats, but this does not greatly affect value.Japanese and Korean furniture makers used light-colored woods such as paulownia and cryptomeria, and also favored the richly-grained zelkova and walnut.



Metalwork on Asian furniture includes handles, lockplates, hinges and decorative hardware. Some Japanese and Korean chests are almost entirely covered with such fittings in iron, copper, or brass alloys. Many mounts are plain, while others have patterns incised, pricked or hammered on their surface; some are even lacquered in red or black. It is not unusual for old pieces to have relatively new fittings, which should not affect a piece's value if the fittings have been chosen with care.


Provenance & Maker

While the value of artworks is often affected by the identity of a piece's maker or owner, this is relatively unimportant in collecting Asian furniture. Very few, if any, signed examples are known, nor are we even aware of the names of furniture makers, apart from a handful identified by chance in Imperial household


Huanghuli Antique Furniture 

The most qualified huanghuli furniture was made during Mid Ming dynasty and late Qianlong Emperor of Qing dynasty. Since mid Qing dynast, the materials of huanghuali became less and less to almost dispear. So the furniture made of huanghuali was not produced any more. Till now few huanghuali furniture left. It's the most precious and expensive member of furniture family at present.

Huanghuali furniture can usually be classified as Beds; tables; chairs. 
Beds: frame bed, babu bed, arhat bed
Tables: square table, strip table
Chairs: folder chair, cap chair, hanging chair, round chair.


By Anthony Allen,

Allens Antiques

Reprinted from :

Whether buying antique Chinese ceramics or other Asian antiques on eBay or elsewhere on the internet, it pays to follow a few simple rules:

Do not buy antiques from sellers on the Chinese mainland. Antiques are prohibited exports from China, in some cases carrying the death penalty, so all you will get at best is a modern fake, or at worst, nothing at all.

Sellers on the Chinese mainland know of this recommendation, so they sometimes have auctions listed in pounds sterling or Australian dollars. If they show a shared country of domicile on their listing, eg United Kingdom/China, avoid them.

If the seller is Chinese in any country, buyers should be on the alert. This is not a racist statement but an unfortunate fact of life; most Chinese sellers on eBay sell fakes as genuine antiques.

Do not buy from sellers who have secret auctions, with the user I.D. kept private. These sellers have something to hide. Either they do not want others to know who is bidding, perhaps to stop them being warned, or to conceal shill bidding on their own stock.

Do not buy from sellers who have hidden feedback. They do not want to know what other buyers have experienced, or else are concealing buyers' identities to stop them being warned.

If you have any doubts at all about the authenticity of a piece, either get someone experienced to have a look at it, or do not buy it.

Do not bid early. This only alerts other buyers to the fact that something may be worth bidding on. If one is scrolling through hundreds of listings, mainly of fakes, those which have attracted bids do stand out. Unfortunately, some dishonest sellers have realized this, and shill bid under other names, on their own stock.

If you are concerned about missing a bid on an item, use a snipe program. I personally use They charge one percent, but only of successful bids, and lodge the bid just six seconds before the auction closes; too late for another buyer to lodge a further bid.

When searching for genuine Chinese antiques on eBay, use the advanced search feature and search by country; say United Kingdom or Canada or the U.S. This omits most of the mainland Chinese fakes. Hopefully one day eBay will, if not outright prohibit their sale, at least provide a feature that omits antiques from China.

Also try searching for items that have been wrongly listed, by using key words such as famille, or asian vase, or oriental plate, or Chinese vase etc

Get a guarantee from the seller that the piece is genuine.

Do not pay by Western Union money transfer or telegraphic transfer, unless you are absolutely sure of the bona fides of the seller.

I am often asked who the genuine sellers of Chinese or Japanese antiques are on eBay. Here is a preliminary list of sellers who at the time of review appear to be selling antiques which were accurately described. Please note that this is only a preliminary list, and there will be omissions. No slight is intended if your name does not appear. I am also happy to add to the list. By the same token, if you do not wish to have your name listed here, please just let me know and I will remove it.

The brevity of the list is a pretty sorry indictment on eBay's policy of allowing fakes to be listed as antiques, as most sellers of genuine Chinese antiques do not sell on eBay.

EBay's Specialist Sellers of Genuine Chinese Antiques
antik0531, anthonyjallen, artatsunlinkdotnet, a-takeda, bauhinia, bidancient, bidit-1, bidit-2, braiden24, cleij, dreamcker1, eastwestgallery, edo11, eyerare, jimwiegand, johnarts, newdynasty, scarbo3, yakimono.

Use this list of specialist sellers at your own risk, as no liability will be accepted by Allen's Antiques Ltd for any item sold by these sellers, that may prove to be other than as described by them.