Tips of the Trade
Discovering Chinese Woodcarvings
This cricket cage was created from a specially grown gourd by an unknown Chinese artist.
This brush washer was made for a calligrapher or painter.
This vase stand depicts an owl's head — a Chinese motif similar to decorations found on ancient bronze urns.
This carving resembles a classic position of the Buddha's hand.
To explain the recent appreciation of small and finely crafted Chinese woodcarvings, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser Marvin Sokolow begins with a story about the Yamanaka, the famed international dealer of Chinese antiques from Kyoto, Japan. In the early 1970s, sensing that antique Chinese furniture was going to explode in value, he literally locked up his furniture for a year. He predicted correctly: prices of 16th- to 18th-century examples of Chinese furniture soared.
These lovingly crafted artifacts are often overlooked by dealers and collectors; that means they're affordable if you're willing to hunt
"We started to look around at other old wooden objects from China," remembers Marvin, a Bayside, Wisconsin, dealer of Asian antiques. By examining Chinese artifacts with "new eyes," Marvin and other experts in Chinese antiques discovered an abundance of small, fine woodcarvings, which collectors had routinely overlooked. "We realized that the people who made these artifacts were artists in their own right, although anonymous ones." This separated them from Chinese painters and calligraphers, part of China's long-celebrated artist-scholar class who signed their work.
Over hundreds of years, these craftsmen produced thousands of carvings. Their abundant legacy is good news for collectors, as their objects are available and often affordable for those willing to hunt for them.
"Many of these objects were made for artists," explains Marvin, pointing to the numerous utilitarian objects they carved, including brush handles, brush holders, ink containers, and boxes that held paintings. At the Indianapolis ROADSHOW, Marvin exhibited a wooden brush washer made for artists, who kept them on their worktables.
Carvers also whittled pieces for non-artists. Marvin noted a wooden vase stand that once supported an imperial jade vase. And not all their carvings were high-minded, including a gourd grown in a mold to make a small container. The finished product, replete with holes in its lid, was for crickets, often pitted against each other for entertainment.
Older is Better
Many of the best woodcarvings are older, dating from the 19th century or earlier. "Collectors should look to pieces that have real age, to the oldest examples," Marvin advises. "And look for the way a piece is finished." Older craftsmen were not only more skilled than contemporary ones; they also had access to the most cherished Chinese woods such as rosewood. "China has an enormous population and a tremendous need for fuel in what is a mostly poor and largely rural farm population. So the best wood has been completely denuded. What remains is inferior wood."
Many of these pieces, while they've gained in value, go unnoticed by general antique dealers. Pieces sell from $5 to $10,000, with prices largely decided by whether anyone recognizes a particular carving's true value. Vase stands, for example, are often sold in 10-pound boxes at auctions, cheap modern pieces mixed in with the true standard bearers. States Marvin: "This is a field that is little-known and little-explored, so the potential of buying things where somebody doesn't know their value is great." One reason these pieces are often overlooked is because they are so well done — Chinese joinery is magnificent in its ability to conceal itself.
"They'll escape casual scrutiny because they appear innocuous and unimportant," Marvin says. "Somebody would look at these and not think anything of them."
Marvin, long a devotee of these small wooden gems, advises that beginning collectors touch as well as look their way around the field. "Look with your hands," he suggests. "The lack of sharp edging, the softness of the finish of the wood, the lack of extraneous appendages — these are all characteristic of the best Chinese artifacts." Also look for pieces that have natural themes rather than contrived geometric shapes. Observes Marvin: "Much of the work comes out of the Taoist tradition, with representations of clouds, waves, and rocks." For example, a Chinese jade carving might depict clouds and cliffs, with the wooden stand that supported it carved to look like complimentary waves. At the Indianapolis ROADSHOW Marvin showed a classic example of this naturalistic style, a "hand of the Buddha" made in the form of the citron fruit, which the Chinese revere for its resemblance to the Buddha's hand.
"Everything these woodworkers did was a labor of love," says Marvin. "They just produced amazing works."
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.