Original article published in City Weekend Magazine March 16th, 2009
By Thomas Talhelm
Of all the different types of antiques, furniture has one of the quickest learning curves in the art of spotting fakes, making it a great choice for beginners. Buying furniture also entails less risk, since pieces can still make great additions to the home, even if they turn out not to be as old as advertised.
“I recommend first and foremost buying pieces because you like them. At minimum, you have a great story to tell,” says Roger Schwendeman, a specialist with [Beijing’s Antique Chinese Furniture Company] (http://www.antique-chinese-furniture.com/).
One strategy for buyers looking for a unique addition to the home rather than something to auction at Christie’s is to look for provincial styles—those produced outside of imperial craft-houses. “The more expensive classical styles take a long time to understand and appreciate,” Schwendeman explains. “With provincial styles, it gets funkier and more interesting. They’re really what I liked when I got started.” Provincial styles are more plentiful and are usually better deals because they are often overlooked, particularly by Asian buyers versed in classical styles.
Once you’ve found a piece you like, there are ways to determine whether it’s one or one hundred years old. Through seven years of handling antique furniture, Schwendeman has learned where to look on furniture to spot fakes—and where not to look.
“The hardware on antiques will almost always be new,” Schwendeman says. Because they see the most use, small items like knobs and handles are replaced often and therefore say little about whether a piece is a fake. On the other hand, wear in other places can greatly help in distinguishing fakes from antiques. “Look for wear as though it were used regularly. If you use it regularly, one spot will get wear,” says Schwendeman. In contrast, forgers’ attempts to fabricate a worn look often end up looking less natural, with wear spread evenly around the piece. Also look for old wood, which is much darker than new wood.
Apart from determining the age of the piece, it’s important to assess the quality of any refinished work. Look for finishing applied carefully and evenly to the entire piece, especially on intricately carved surfaces. Shoddy refinishing will mean extra expense to get the piece refinished properly.
Beijing’s dry climate can present a problem for anyone building a collection of antique furniture here because the dry air can cause furniture moved in from humid climates to crack. Intact pieces already in Beijing are normally safe.
Furniture styles and sizes vary widely, from classical bookcase-sized screen panels to smaller trunks used by nomadic Tibetans. Amid the sea of choices, Chinese wardrobes are a great choice for home furnishings. Expect to pay as little as ¥4,000 for a basic wardrobe and up to ¥7,000 for higher-end pieces.
Antique Chinese Furniture (Add: Zhi Qu Xuan, Fl. 2, #135, Gaobeidian Furniture Street, Tel: 8577-7379 ext. 206, Web: www.antique-chinese-furniture.com),
My Antique China (Add: Bei Gao Art District, Airport Expressway Side Rd., Tel: 139-0108-4730, Web: www.myantiquechina.com)
Playing the Game
*How to find, buy and ship home the antiques of your dreams
1) Find Your Antique
“You must go to Panjiayuan,” says Roger Schwendeman. “If you find something somewhere else you didn’t see at Panjiayuan, chances are it’s real,” he jokes. To get an idea of what real pieces look like, head to Schwendeman’s antique furniture shop (Tel: 8577-7379). Another idea is to join a trip with the [Hutong School]) (Tel: 6403-8670) or [China Culture Center] (http://www.chinaculturecenter.org/) (Tel: 6432-9341), which include introductions to antique markets, warehouses and lessons in finding legitimate antiques.
2) Get It Appraised
Unless you’re buying high-end antiques, appraisals come after purchase. Appraisals are useful when getting homeowner’s insurance and will tell you if you’re holding a historic treasure or modern reproduction. Appraisals can also be done at Beijing Antique City (Tel: 5960-9891).
3) Refurbish It
Quality refurbishing can help the collector learn more about a piece. Warehouses and antique stores like [Lily’s Antiques] (http://www.lilys-antiques.com/) provide refurbishing services. Ask to see examples, and avoid those who over-lacquer classic works.
4) Export It
Chinese laws on exporting antiques can be apocryphal. Most important is the “grade” of the antique. Items that are truly rare (grade one) or of important historic value (grade two) will bring trouble. Carpets and furniture raise fewer eyebrows with cultural collector officials. Chinese customs officials will affix wax seals to items that can be legally exported. Once your antique is certified, you can arrange shipment home. Be sure to request a crate, which will give your antique more protection.
Though China is literally the name in antique china, finding authentic pieces here is a challenge.
“The prospect of fakes in the porcelain field is just staggering,” says Chris Buckley, an antiques specialist in Beijing. “Even in the best places, you’re going to be betting that at least half of what you’re looking at is fake. At Panjiayuan, it’s more like 98 percent.”
Authentic porcelain can be particularly hard to distinguish because of the sheer number of different types and styles of porcelain that have been produced throughout Chinese history. New buyers can minimize risk by looking for blue-and-white porcelain, which is in better supply. Looking for provincial styles, rather than pieces from royal kilns, is also a good way to find pieces that are authentic and interesting, even if they’re not destined for the National Museum.
Jeff Li’s Warehouse (Add: Tongzhou District, Taihu Zhen, Duozi Cun, Tel: 130-0197-8327—Call in advance.)
The Green Light
Jade carvings are among the hardest types of antiques to distinguish real from fake.
“Identifying what you’re buying as jade is the first step,” says Chang Jiang, jade specialist and owner of Y&K Jade House. “If it’s real jade, it’s got to be very heavy and very hard,” she explains. Forgers often produce fake jade out of cheap stones, plastic and glass.
The scratch test—using a steel blade to try to scratch the surface—is useful, but not fool proof. Hard quartzes also pass the test and are passed off as jade. To complicate things, the scratch test often cannot be used on truly old jade, since the surface weakens over its lifetime.
Jade comes in two varieties. So-called “soft jade,” or nephrite is more common and usually comes from within China. “Hard jade,” or jadeite is rarer, usually more expensive, and often comes from Burma, so dealers sometimes refer to it as “Burmese jade.”
What kind of jade to buy depends on your interests. Hard, white or translucent jade is prized in Chinese culture. “White jade, in Chinese culture, means purity. Chinese people really like white jade,” explains Chang. “If you’re looking purely from a jeweler’s point of view, look for green jade. If you’re looking at it for cultural reasons, then look for white jade.”
The class of jade is also important in determining its value. A-class jade is pure, having undergone only basic polishing, and small pieces start at around ¥5,000.
It’s a good idea not to risk large sums on jade without the aid of experts, since pinning a date on stones can be exceedingly difficult. Non-experts can start with jade pieces where true antiques are in higher supply, such as jade Buddha or animal statues. Late Qing dynasty buddha statues start for around ¥4,000.
Y&K Jade House (Add: Danshui Town Shopping Plaza, Room 805, Jia #3, Shunhuang Rd., Chaoyang Tel: 135-0103-7302)
Magic Carpet Ride
Rugs are less often faked and more easily authenticated than almost any other type of antique, making them an excellent choice for buyers worried about winding up with a fake.
“The first choice is: wall or floor,” explains Chris Buckley, antique specialist and owner of Beijing’s [Torana Carpets] (http://www.toranahouse.com/). Older antique rugs are best hung on the wall, whereas younger rugs will impress on the floor.
Wherever you put it, look for a rug made before 1950 as later rugs were usually made with low-quality synthetic dyes. “Look for natural vegetable dyes, which means softer, subtle colors,” Buckley suggests. Bright greens and reds, acid yellows, and intense blacks are warning signs, since natural dyes cannot produce these colors.
A thorough look on the underside is also crucial in order to determine a fair price. “Flip it over. You can tell from the appearance on the back where repairs have been made,” says Buckley.
Although refurbishing services for most antiques can be found in Beijing, finding professional cleaning services here for antique rugs can be next to impossible.
Buying exotic rugs in need of cleaning and repair could mean even more hassle, since repairs for rugs from Xinjiang and Tibet are done in Urumqi and Lhasa. Antique Xinjiang rugs are popular and tend to be large enough to fit in yurts, usually around 8 feet by 5 feet. A pre-cleaned Xinjiang rug this size typically runbs between ¥5,000 and ¥30,000.
Chinese-style rugs by contrast come in all shapes and sizes, usually with dark blue and brown colors. These typically cost ¥2,000-4,000 for small- to medium-sized pieces.
Torana Carpets (Add: Danshui Town, Chaoyang ShunHuang Road #60, Tel: 8459 0785, Web: www.toranahouse.com)