Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese “antique furniture” is actually a genuine antique?

restored-painting-comparison-2 Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?

If you read my previous post “blurring the line” you know how difficult it can be at times, to honestly decide whether or not an item should be considered a “genuine original Chinese antique.” Answering this question becomes slightly more difficult, when you consider the awkward journey a piece may take, as it travels through the “antique-reproduction” supply chain.

IMAG0295-antique-restoration-retouched-paintings-1 Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?
A Chinese antique kang cabinet with a new red & gold “miao jin” painting
IMAG0300-antique-restoration-retouched-paintings Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?
A Chinese antique kang cabinet with a new red & gold “miao jin” painting

Consider this attractive low kang cabinet from Shanxi, which we purchase and restored for a customer in Italy. These two images above are the final result AFTER cleaning & restoration where it’s sitting at the warehouse waiting to ship out. However in order to really determine just how original it is, we need to look at what the piece looked like BEFORE restoration.

Here is the same cabinet in found form in the antique market for wholesalers.

A quick visual inspection shows that:

  • its extremely dirty
  • it shows signs wear and tear
  • the finish is worn away in many places
  • it clearly needs further restoration.

These are markets where wholesalers purchase raw goods (in this case “raw antiques”) which they then repair, restore and resell thus adding value and taking a margin in the process. These are not places where fakes are generally sold (with some exceptions) as this is not a retail environment – this is a specialist environment. In this regard we can call this a somewhat “higher” level of trust environment.

So on first glance we would reasonably assume the cabinet itself is both antique and in original form.

PB170327-chinese-antique-before-restoration-1024x768 Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?
A Chinese antique kang cabinet awaiting restoration
IMAG0703-chinese-antique-before-restoration Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?
A Chinese antique kang cabinet awaiting restoration

Looks are often deceiving.

Now here is where it gets a little tricky. And in order to understand why, we need to look at how the supply works for the antiques world.

First it was collected from a peasant on a farm by a “materials collector,” who then sold it onward to what we would consider to be a wholesale antiques flea market far off in Shanxi province, hours away far west of Beijing.

P1030687-chinese-antique-furniture-market-1024x680 Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?
A wholesale antique market in China

Then it was bought (in bulk along with many, many other pieces) by a local furniture factory who re-laquered the front and completely retouched (actually repainted) the beautiful gold painting you see on the front of the piece.

So what DID the front look like in the first place?

Maybe there never was any red lacquer and the piece was just a common wood color. Or perhaps it was lacquered but the paintings were in a completely different style.

So while the delicate gold “miao jin” paintings and trim look old, they are in fact completely new.

Why is this?

Its all about economics

The answer is mostly about business and economics. The cost of labor in the areas in the country side is less expensive, which means that artist costs less then if he were located near the city. So a painter in Shanxi will earn less then say, a painter working in a major city like Beijing. So this is cost of labor issue.

And another added (perhaps unintended) bonus is that the retouching was probably done by a local peasant craftsmen or artist who has been painting the exact same motifs, patterns and styles as his fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers have for generations. This adds to the authentic feel because unless you are a craftsmen from Shanxi province you will probably not know how to paint those particular motifs in “just the right sort of look.”

IMAG0300-antique-restoration-retouched-paintings Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?

So the paintings on this piece LOOK authentic because in this regard, the paintings ARE authentic.

They are just not original-antique.

Still a long way to go

At this point, the piece is still unrestored and this back in its home province. That means it will later be loaded into the back of a flatbed truck, along with a hundred or more other pieces and trucked overland in the open air for the long journey where it will eventually reach Beijing.

shanxi-to-Beijing-1 Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?

Chickens may catch a ride in the same truck and who knows what else. Along the way, it will hit bumps, dirt, dust and maybe even rain, taking on a fresh layer of dirt, grim and dust. Again, this all adds to that antique aged look. Arriving in Beijing it will be unloaded by workers who see it not as an antique but rather as yet another piece of junk to be sold and therefore the scratching and scrapping really doesn’t matter.

DSC03706-1024x768 Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?
Chinese antiques being restored in the workshop

It will eventually be sold to a restorer which means it will then be loaded into another warehouse – or maybe left in the open air for a few days before finally being restored.

And all this BEFORE we got it into the workshop and restored it….

So, is it antique or not?

IMAG0295-antique-restoration-retouched-paintings Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese "antique furniture" is actually a genuine antique?

Technically yes, although the paintings and finish are indeed not.

This means when assessing a piece we must be careful not to draw easy conclusions. We must use our eyes to look carefully at all aspects. Asking ourselves questions:

  • Is the piece itself or its frame old? (looking for signs of wear and tear or repair)
  • If yes, what about the finish? Is the finish old or perhaps its brand new?
  • What about any paintings? Are they new or retouched?

Sometimes the answer is not so clear 🙂

3 Replies to “Blurring the line further: How to tell if your Chinese “antique furniture” is actually a genuine antique?”

  1. I like this cabinet even it looks to old It looks very expensive..Thanks for sharing this to us!

  2. Nice kid of furniture..Thanks for sharing..

  3. I love the beauty of different cultures expressed in their every day furniture and ceramics , textiles etc . time only makes it better their lives their history …so awe inspiring.

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