I was recently looking over a gilded and painted antique Chinese book cabinet (书柜), with a customer in a very expensive Hong Kong antique dealers shop. I casually remarked that the gold paintings have been retouched and in some cases were completely new. (Though the dealer would swear the paintings were original, whether they knew this or not, would be a separate discussion). This then led to the inevitable question of “how can you tell..?” I was tempted to quip back “with my eyes of course,” but the joke might have been lost or even worse, misinterpreted. So instead, today I will share a little bit about how “use your eyes” to tell if its original or not.
First, a little back ground on Chinese gold painted furniture.
- Miao Jin (描金, 彩绘描金) is the term used in Chinese and means to trace or outline in gold. In English we generally called this gilded and painted furniture.
- This technique reached the height of its popularity during the Ming dynasty and continue onward into the Qing Dynasty and can be considered a form of luxury goods for the upper class.
- The two most commonly seen base colors are black and red.
- Darker colors like black were more stable then lighter colors (which are partially tung oil based) which is one (of several reasons) you may see the remaining darker under tones, where as the lighter gold and other such colors have degraded over time.
- Vermilion (or simply just red lacquer ) ( 朱红大漆 ) was derived from a mixture of tung oil and cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) and was quite costly. In addition, the blending of tung oil made it slightly softer and consequently not as durable and rot resistant as pure black lacquer. Therefore its common for red lacquer to have suffered more corrosion and damage then black lacquer.
- The gold is particularly fragile. Its difficult to clean during restoration without damaging it. Poor conservation (such as scrubbing with lye or other chemicals) along with daily use/wear and tear has made real miao jin in good condition very rare.
We could discuss the technical and historical aspects of this endlessly but in this post I prefer focus on my eyes and some experience, which I can hopefully pass along to you. Lets start buy looking at an obvious example. The item on the left is brand new. The one on the right is original.
- Form: The butterfly on the left is crudely painted with minimal detail. This smells of commercial production in large quantities. The one on the right is lively, detailed and full of life. It can be described as art.
- Color: This is difficult to see in photos but contemporary commercial red lacquer tends to be brighter and more brash then real cinnabar lacquer. The same can be said of the gold, which tends to be more orange in new pieces which has almost no gold in them. This can be seen quite prominently in the left image.
- Condition: The butterfly on the left shows no sign of age, wear, cleaning or damage. Even more importantly its perfectly smooth on the surface of the lacquer. The one of the right not only reveals its age but the degradation and damage follows perfectly the crackling in the base layer of lacquer.
Here is another example. In this case both color and condition are easy clues that the painting on the right is likely new (or very heavily retouched). As we learned above the content of the natural Chinese lacquers differs significantly from whats used in the market today and thus color differs as well (This applies to gilding as well). The original on the left is a deep vermilion red which has faded to a pleasant orange-red. The example on the right is a brash contemporary commercial red lacquer. An additional obvious sign is the black outline on the right example actually surrounds the gold since it was applied after the fact. In real miao jin, often (but not exclusively) the red or black (depending on the surface color) is often reveled only when the gold has worn or degraded away thus revealing whats underneath. (This can be very clearly seen in the example below on the left).
These first two examples were taken from a new brand new obvious reproduction. But what happens when we look at a genuine antique? Often antiques are repainted and even though the dealer bought it in this condition, the painting may in fact not be original. There are many reasons this may occur ranging from damage during the cultural revolution (which is very commonly seen with figures and faces), or even simply a repaint sometime over the years. During poorer times in the Chinese countryside when funds were scarce, it was not uncommon to take an antique cabinet, repaint it and offer it as new. This was not deceptive but rather resourceful utilizing whatever was within their means. So these are all factors. This particular cabinet below was found on Worthpoint (original here) and is listed as a Chinese red lacquered low cabinet circa 1800. They are probably right and the cabinet is likely an antique. But what about the miao jin?
Again, if take a closer look using the doors as an example using form as our guideline, we see the figures on the left are lifeless in comparison to an original untouched antique on the right (an example taken from an un-restored early to mid Qing dynasty cabinet). The painting on the left is flat, washed out, lacking in detail and does not reveal the black/gold layers seen in the right example. In fact, the painting is most likely even physically flat to the touch with no texture in comparison to the antique. The color is wrong as well. Essentially the entire front of this particular antique cabinet has been newly painted and then either given a wash or brownish varnish in order to create the appearance of age.
Look for signs of retouching
Sometimes pieces are antique and rather then being completely repainted, they have been retouched only. Maybe an area of heavy damage requires it, or its simply to enhance areas so faded as to push the piece completely off balance. So how does one recognize this? The same rules apply – use your eye! This antique book cabinet (书柜) (original is here) has been nicely restored. However, I suspect while some of the original painting has remained, a portions of it have been retouched in varying degrees.
By looking closer we can see several places feel “off” , in other words, slightly off color, flat appearance, dull and lacking in character. Clearly several portions have been retouched.
The touch up is not bad though and much better then in some cases like the cabinet below which has been ruined by poor paintings. Unfortunately in the rush to turn a quick dollar, some restores have gone this route with no regard for preservation of the original piece.
That’s clearly the case with the tall cabinet below from ebay (where everything apparently is antique – wink wink), though you would never know it from the paintings. The awkward, unbalanced form in the paintings alone tells us if the cabinet is antique, the gold paintings surely are not.
Faked wear and tear
Condition is always an indicator and while wear and tear can be faked, the end result is often awkward and unnatural. The reproduction antique cabinet below on the left is from Supatra and to their credit, they make no claims of it being antique. Its a very pleasant and practical reproduction. To create this illusion of wear and tear, the gold painting has been lightly sanded resulting in an aged effect. It works well in this case. However its easy to see the differences when compared to the closeup of an antique on the right using the same pattern. The genuine antique reveals a natural degradation of the painting over time, where as the reproduction is rough and splotchy due to the hand sanding. Unfortunately, some workshops will employ the sanding technique in order to claim the painting is original.
Is it pleasant to look at?
In Chinese, we often say that the main difference between new and old pieces is, that old pieces 看起来很舒服. In other words, they possess that ethereal quality which is hard to quantify other then to say they “feel nice to look at.” This is where the form really comes into play. In many ways when we talk about form, what we are really discussing is the difference between genuine art (which may have gradually aged over the years) verses commercial product. Antiques have “soul.”
If a piece has been skillfully repainted and artificially aged, determining original verses authentic can be more of a challenge but form provides obvious clues. The panel on the left is taken from a reproduction cabinet. The painting is somewhat delicate and quite detailed. Its not bad for a reproduction. However the key point here is the craftsmen’s focus is on reproducing a scene, much like a sign painter who is working from a photograph. The intent is commercial. The goal is to copy a image only, not the scene itself. This results in some strange oddities like mismatched perspective, clunky windows, and funny looking figures. In some ways it feels as if the scenes are “cut-outs” that are pasted on. It lacks flow and rhythm.
The vase on the right is from a 300 year old trunk. The painting is in almost perfect condition for its age, which might lead one to assume its new. However, unlike the left painting this one on the right has “soul.” One could say it was painted with the pride artist takes in his own work. The lines flow and the flowers seem as if they genuinely were stuffed delicately into the thin mouth of the vase. Branches and leaves delicately hanging from the side, yet the stems feel stiff and hard. One can almost feel gravity pulling the lighter ones downward. There is balance, there is composition, there is beauty. In this case, the primary difference is clearly visible: the focus was on creating a work of art, rather then copying an image. (Note the odd perspective on the vase is due to the photo, rather then painting itself.)
My favorite example: These bunnies seem almost alive. I can almost feel their noses and whiskers twitching, frozen yet ready to flee in a single hop at the slightest loud noise.
Related Books & Reading
Digital Sheet Music of The Little Red Lacquer Cage
Composed by: Irving Berlin
Arranged by: Charles N. Grant
From the show(s): Music Box Revue (Second Edition)