In search of Shanghai’s genuine antiques

Furniture: Fully Furnished

Original article published August 18th, 2009

You’re tired of seeing your Ikea desk in every other Shanghai home, so you’ve decided to find something unique–a conversation piece. Luckily, Shanghai abounds with places selling all types of antique furniture, but there are some ground rules to finding real deal antiques.

First, research and figure out what you like. Are you drawn to the simplicity of Ming era design, the intricate decorations of the Qing Dynasty or the hipness of Shanghai’s art deco period? Sui Jingjing, an antique expert and head of client services at Chong Yuan Auction House, recommends wandering around the large curio markets. “Yun Zhou Curio Town (88 Damuqiao Lu) and Zhong Fu Curio Center (542 Fuzhou Lu) are great because there are many shops with a wide selection.”

If you have more specific tastes and money to spend, go to a reputable antique store. For general Chinese antiquities, the formerly stateowned Shanghai Antique and Curio Store (192- 246 Guangdong Lu, Tel: 6321-4697) is a reliable choice. Hu & Hu (No. 8, Lane 1885 Caobao Lu, Tel: 3431-1212) offers high-end provincial pieces (ranging from ¥25 to ¥68,000) with great English-language service. For cool art deco pieces, head to Shanghai Art Deco (111 Baise Lu, Tel: 5436-0728).

When looking, there are no guaranteed ways to spot a fake. However, there are a few simple warning signs. “The easiest way to spot a fake is if you go to a curio market and you see the piece everywhere,” says Roger Schwendeman, who runs one of the industry’s most informative blogs (www.antique-chinese-furniture. com/blog) and is the managing director of a famed Beijing antique furniture sourcing company. His advice? Take your time in several shops before making any purchase.

Schwendeman also recommends looking for logical wear and tear. Most counterfeiters will be smart enough to wear down pieces to make them look old, but the wear and tear of a fake will generally be even throughout the piece. Look for individual spots on a piece that would get a lot of daily use–a foot rest on a chair, for example. In addition, if you find a piece with perfect carvings or decorative paintings, chances are you’re being duped. During the Cultural Revolution, most furniture with any sort of decoration was defaced.

Once you’ve purchased your dream piece, it will take more care than modern furniture. “Don’t place it under direct sunlight or near a heating system, as this is likely to cause the wood to shrink and crack,” advises Chi Fan Tsang, Senior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art at the famed auction house Christie’s. “Also, make sure to wipe the furniture with a dry cotton cloth, not a wet rag,” she adds.

Most importantly, buy a piece because you love it, not because you are looking to hit the jackpot. “The chances of finding anything rare or amazing is almost zero. If you want to strike gold, you are wasting your time,” Schwendeman warns.

Porcelain: China’s China

Chinaware has been around longer than China itself. As a result, there are hundreds of styles, periods and techniques. Not surprisingly, antique chinaware shopping can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. Before even hitting the stores and markets, Schwendeman recommends picking up a comprehensive coffee table book on the subject, but adds that there’s no need to be picky. “If you’ve read one, you’ve read most of them,” he says. There are also several Internet forums with tons of information, such as www.gotheborg. com and www.koh-antiques.com.

“For chinaware, you have to think about the shape, the clay, the glaze and the technique,” Sui explains. “My favorites are Song Dynasty chinaware. They are very simple, but the form is beautiful and elegant.”

Once you develop a knowledge base and a personal taste, get out there and start shopping–and you have the advantage of timing on your side. “From last year, the antiques market cooled off a lot. Now is actually one of the best times to purchase antique [chinaware],” explains Qi Dole, a Chinese chinaware expert and author of a forthcoming book on the subject called The Porcelain Road. “In Shanghai, one of the places I can recommend is Shanghai Antique and Curio Store (192-246 Guangdong Lu, Tel: 6321-4697). The prices there may not be the best, but the value they give is accurate.”

For markets, check out Cang Bao Lou and Hua Bao Lou (457 and 265 Fangbang Zhong Lu, respectively, Tel: 6355-2722, 6355-9999) near Yu Gardens or, for a destination outing, wander around the antiques market and little shops on Duolun Cultural Road, a walking street in Hongkou District. But don’t expect to waltz home with a genuine antique. It’s much harder to spot fake chinaware than fake furniture. “Check and compare reference books for similar pieces that are either in museum collections or have been sold at auctions in the past,” recommends Chi.

You might also want to go to an auction house or a museum to see if you can handle some real pieces. “When you see real pieces you get a better sense of when pieces are fake,” explains Schwendeman. In addition, for Imperial- style porcelain, hold it up to the light and check for a high translucence. Some pieces are nearly paper-thin.

Once you’ve brought your piece home, make sure to have special stands made for display, otherwise you’re risking breakage, warns Chi. If you decide not to display your porcelain, she recommends getting a padded box for storage.

Make sure to ask the antique dealer about a piece’s history if it takes your fancy. Usually the more passionate a seller is about the story behind the piece, the better the chance of it being real. And, of course, a conversation starter isn’t worth much without a story.

Jade: Finding the Green Light

If you’re in the market for antique jade, chances are you’ll find it near impossible to authenticate the age of a piece. After all, the stone itself is millions of years old. However, there are some simple ways to check if you are indeed buying jade and not some other less valuable material.

Yang Yang, the owner of jade boutique Ni (No. 4, Lane 254 Nanchang Lu, Tel: 5306-6295, by appointment only), says to burn the jade with a lighter. If it’s real, it won’t emit any smell, but if it’s fake, it will usually smell like burnt plastic (don’t worry, it won’t harm the stone).

For jade bracelets, most stores will have a special stone to test authenticity. When struck against a real piece of jade, the stone will produce a sound like a wind chime, but if the piece is fake, the sound will be dull.

She recommends heading to Fei Cui Yuan (514 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Tel: 5383-8099), a small shop that has reasonably priced jade with spectacular carvings. Although the Yu Gardens area, especially near Cheng Huang Temple, is renowned for jade shops, Yang warns that most pieces will be heavily overpriced.

As for taking care of your jade, it is a very durable material. In fact, it is one of the hardest stones in the world, but just make sure not to bang it hard against anything or it could shatter.

By Jordan Calinoff

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