Its always interesting to see the progression from idea to reality. When people come to me with raw ideas, my task is to walk them through process from the initial concept to final product. Usually that’ means helping them determine on the specific requirements, narrowing down the details and deciding on the “overall look and feel” before making the final selection. This is generally step one (aside from determining their budget, delivery time etc). The rest of the “magic” then occurs on the back end – and believe me it is magic. Actually sometimes it feels like a mix of art and voodoo if anything. From controlling quality, to anticipating unknown variables to understanding materials, construction and finishes the process is exceeding more complicated then most imagine. But the final product, especially when it finds its new home with a happy customer usually makes it worth while.
In this example, the customer wanted a sideboard that while based on an antique incorporated contemporary elements. Step two is usually narrowing down the specific style or “look of the piece.” Since nothing stood out to this customer from within our existing designs, we looked through various examples of antiques from which to build upon. Eventually we selected four pieces which had elements which appealed to them. Of course, none of these antique cabinets fit their needs exactly in terms of style, design and color/finish but rather provided us with a template in which to build upon.
Eventually we decided that we like the look and proportions of B and the size and configuration and of C. We also need to have fold back doors to allow for the maximum accessibility within the lowed compartment. Armed with this information, step three is the actual design drawing, where very specific dimensions must be worked out and checked by the carpenter. After all, carpenters work from detailed drawings specifying every measurement. They don’t work from vague ideas. While some customers do have drawings most do not. And many times when customers do have a drawing it either lacks the detail necessary for the carpenter or it does factor in specific materials and construction issues. Anyone can do a drawing but a drawing that makes sense in terms of carpentry is a different matter. Note that I have deleted the dimensions on the example below. After all, if you want to make a similar cabinet yourself, then you will need to work out the dimensions on your own. Joinery is not shown here either as it was not necessary in this case as the carpenters themselves will choose the specific joinery based on tradition construction methods.
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I get several emails each week asking for information on pieces. Questions regarding origin, value, age etc. Unfortunately I can’t answer them all, though I do try to answer as many as I can. Anyway, here is one from the latest batch of emails in the interest that my answers can be shared with others who may have the same question.
“I found your website on Google.com. Your background is very impressive! I thought, perhaps, you might be able to answer some questions for me about Chinese furniture, if you have time. I am interested in learning about a piece of furniture we got as a wedding gift. We were told that it’s a Chinese Antique cabinet. It’s 3″ X 3″ and about 2″ deep. Would you happen to know anything about this type of piece? Such as the approximate age, what it’s worth, etc? Any information would be greatly appreciated. There is a Chinese symbol on the front, at the bottom. I’m wondering what it means? I am attaching some pictures of the cabinet. It’s sitting by a window, so the lighting isn’t that great with my camera…”
These are often called “book cabinets” 小书箱/小书柜 (or also sometimes shrine cabinets) however these are just colloquial western names. Generally cabinets like these were not placed directly on the ground, and were often on the tops of both higher and lower cabinets or even low platform like stools. Often they were in sets and over the years, both the sets themselves as well as the tops/bottoms were separated and are now found as individual pieces. In fact, many smaller cabinets and low tables were in fact bases for larger trunks, shrines or other cabinets.
I have seen a few variations of these like the one from Gansu (see below) with the trunk built into the top of the cabinet. Personally, I find the most attractive ones being the top portions of compound cabinets,especially if they are still found as an original set. Usually the general proportions will give some clue as to the the type of cabinet it was placed upon, as can be seen in the image below.
This one looks northern in style and my guess would be Hebei or maybe Shandong region (or even a bit further south). Again, the images are not so clear but this piece does not look that old to me.The hardware is new. There is minimal signs of repair and little wear and tear. The doors in particular look as if they are made from new wood. I would put it at around 80 years old maximum. Its a very provincial softwood piece and its value is more aesthetic rather then monetary. The images are too dark and grainy to see clearly but I am guessing the character on the bottom is probably “Shou” 壽 which essentially is longevity. Its used a lot on these type of pieces. See here for more information.
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You never really know what you will find when you start on restoration of an antique. Experience helps but its nevertheless often times more art then process. Since some customers, particularly those in the know, prefer to select antique pieces in un-restored form, which while exciting and educating, can present some tricky problems for the restorer, especially if what the customer is after is the color of the piece. So where does the problem lay? Well… what you are seeing is not color. That beautiful patina on the un-restored piece is actually dirt and grime built up over the years, as opposed to actual color. Like that rustic “limed finish look” on that un-restored antique table? Then know that its actually just gray dust and after restoration we will need to somehow recreate that effect. For the restorer, the challenge is to remove dirt and build up while retaining the patina. Other times though, this is all part of the fascinating and revealing process with at times, very pleasant surprises.
Take this antique sideboard from the Shanxi – Shandong region in northern China. Though a fairly common sideboard, the eight painted figures were remarkably well preserved and this alone makes this piece worthy of a purchase decision. The image above was taken at the time of purchase.
Note that this sort of sideboard would open across the top front in three half depth panels which lift up. Many of these antique Chinese sideboards seen on the market today have been in fact been modified for contemporary use and the doors are rarely original. In this case, the customer (wisely) choose to retain its original form and opted out for such modifications, which would have detracted from the value of such a wonderful cabinet. The next step is careful cleaning to remove the years of use in the countryside and in this case the results were better then expected.
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During a recent buying excursion, I stumbled across these beautiful lacquered / painted armoires, from Shanxi province in Northern China. While not nearly as prized by Chinese buyers, who often prefer hardwoods like Hua li or Hong mu, the status of Shanxi painted furniture has nevertheless risen significantly over the years for its beauty and stunning colors and is a favorite of the noted Chinese collector Co La Ma.
Particularly interesting, is this close-up section of a door panel. Notice the change in color and patina which has occurred over the years? Once covered by a brass plate which was removed/lost within the last twenty or thirty years, (possibly during the great leap forward), the left side (where the colors are beautiful and subtle) has survived the years, protected by the brass or iron plate that would have originally been there. The colors on the right are faded and muted by comparison. The effect of daily life, pollution, coal dust and years of rough handling and exposure to the elements is clearly visible.
And yet, it remains beautiful. Known as “Bu Wen Qi” or “Da Qi,” the process used in this style of Chinese lacquering is both complex and unique. The first step would have involved covering the raw wood construction with a base layer of hemp, horsehair, straw or other fabric depending on the period in which it was made. This allows for the wood frame construction to shift to some degree without damaging the rigid upper layer of hardened lacquer. On older pieces this sometimes still visible in damaged areas and can be a good indicator of age.
The second step is the application of an even layer of gesso known as “ni zi, ” consisting of plaster mixed with pigs blood (which must be applied within a set period of time lest it spoil). This provides the base material and smooths any impurities or flaws in the wood, straw or fabric below. The third step is multiple coats of natural resin based lacquer, with vibrant red or “ink black” being the two most commonly used colors. Each coat of lacquer must be dried, and carefully wet sanded by hand with a very fine abrasive paper before receiving the next coat. The process is then repeated several times with even the most common pieces receiving at least five to seven coats, until the surface becomes smooth, glassy and mirror like. Finally in the forth step, an artist carefully hand paints motifs ranging from flowers and vases to city scenes to people.
Restoration of such pieces requires a extremely skilled craftsman in order to avoid further damage to the piece and to restore it to its former beauty.
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- Item: A pair of late 18th to early 19th century Qing period Chinese compound cabinets
- Region: Shanxi Province in Northern China
- Materials: Nanmu (楠木 – Phoebe) and Chicken Wing wood (鸡翅木) *
- Price: 60,000 to 80,000 Chinese RMB (SOLD) **
- Condition: Purchased un-restored. Minimal restoration. New hardware. Carvings likely replaced after being defaced during the cultural revolution.
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A customer recently sent me these photos of a Chinese Noodle cabinet which they purchased from an estate auction. Their inquiry was pertaining to its age, value and authenticity. In other words, a quick antique appraisal. The question of course was the one I am asked most frequently which was “Is it old and is it valuable”
Is it really old?
|If you read “Blurring the line” you know answering this question becomes even more difficult when you consider the awkward journey a piece my take as it travels through the “antique-reproduction” supply chain.
The first question of “is it old” is quite easy to answer: Yes and No. Before going any further, take a moment to read a post from a while back entitled “Blurring the line further… How to tell if its a genuine antique?” which will explain just nicely the points to consider here. Finished yet? Ok, great – back to this item.
In this particular case, the actual cabinet itself is a very common tapered edge Chinese Noodle cabinet or “Mian tiao gui” since the shape of the cabinet itself or the hardware (depending on who you talk to) slightly resembles the shape of a noodle. With carved doors like this, it may be mistaken for a scholar cabinet. In un-restored form, a cabinet like this may be referred to by the workers as as a “la ji gui” which literally means “trash cabinet.”A Chinese country antique cabinet such as the one above, in un-restored form, built from common woods (value is often placed on exotic hardwoods), of a non-descript style and in poor condition will often hold minimal value on its own, with its true worth being essentially as parts and raw materials. From a materials cost perspective, a badly damaged cabinet will be cheaper to restore then to build new from scratch.
A quick look at the overall process...
Here is a quick overview of what typically occurs:
- Take a fairly standard poor condition country antique cabinet ranging in age from 30 to 80 years old, which can be used for parts & materials
- Restore main structure, replacing damaged panels and other sections with replacement wood.
- Add in additional details to spice it up like carved panels.
- Add shelves and drawers for additional functionality (easier to sell)
- Add a new lacquered finish to cover inexpensive woods, repairs, etc.
- Use aging technique so item does not look “too new.”
- Add detailed gold “miao jin” painting for an additional touch.
- Install new hardware.
- Claim to customer it is Qing dynasty scholar cabinet, at least 150 years old and sell at a premium price.
A "trash cabinet," like the one pictured above,may often be worth more for its parts then the sum.
Is it worth anything?
The answer is yes! However, maybe not for the reasons you might expect. Its worth something, because of the time and effort that an artisan put in hand-painting the gold trim and other details. Its worth something, every time someone visits your home and remarks what a beautiful cabinet it is. And its worth something, because you probably have a story about where and how you purchased it. So while it may not be worth an extreme amount in dollars, money is not the only value of worth. Its a beautiful piece and would look great in any home, and you never know – in 100 years down the road it just might be someone else’s genuine antique!