Oriental Arts - Furniture Buying Guide
The golden age of Chinese furniture production is
usually defined as the years between 1550 and 1750, a
time of great prosperity, and during the transition
from the Ming to the Qing dynasties, a time of
political upheaval and turmoil. That transition
between the dynasties fostered creativity and
innovation in design in all the decorative arts.
Furniture made during this period reflects this
transition; many examples are based on much earlier
forms, and others are entirely new.
So how do you know whether a piece is authentic and
fairly priced? The value of a piece of antique
furniture depends on five factors: its age,
materials, overall condition, craftsmanship and
rarity. An understanding of these factors will
therefore help you to make informed judgements.
All other things being equal, the older the piece,
the more valuable it's likely to be. It could have
particular historical value, it could be very rare or
in exceptionally good condition, or it could have a
And how do you determine the age of a lacquer piece?
You need to consider three factors: the style, the
workmanship, and the level of oxidation of the wood
This is not necessarily the best indication, since
the style of an old piece can be copied by later
craftsmen. However, to a certain degree, it can give
you some useful clues about the authenticity and
value of a piece.
In classical Chinese furniture, there are two basic
forms: pieces without an inset panel between the top
and the apron (known as the 'waistless' form), and
pieces with an inset panel (known as the 'waisted'
form). Waistless furniture, such as the narrow table
and the recessed-leg table, is very ancient and
already existed in the Shang dynasty (16th - 11th
century BC) and the Zhou dynasty (11th century - 221
BC). Waisted furniture appeared much later.
In many Ming dynasty paintings, we can see that the
interiors were quite simple and the furnishings
rather sparse. It was not until the Qing dynasty that
rooms became increasingly crowded and the furniture
Ming designs (1368 - 1644) are relatively
uncomplicated, with the basic outline of the form
usually consisting of straight lines and simple
curves. Common features include horse-hoof feet,
giant arm braces, ice-plate edges, protruding arms
etc. Qing designs (1644 - 1911) are usually more
complex, with numerous small elements and elaborately
Not surprisingly, some furniture combined features
from both periods, and plain and decorated furniture
co-existed, satisfying the demands of a markedly
Not surprisingly, craftsmen in different periods used
different kinds of techniques, which tended to change
every 40 to 50 years.
Oxidization of the wood and lacquer
When buying wooden furniture, collectors need to
consider the extent of wear and tear on an item
(though a piece that was known to have been used by a
famous or powerful person can be valuable even if it
is not in immaculate condition).
As for lacquer finishes, they can be considered a
common denominator in traditional Chinese furniture.
Throughout China, most furniture was finished with
lacquer coatings to provide durable, sealed surfaces
as well as decorative effects - a technique practised
since ancient times. In fact, lacquer is one the best
indicators of the age of a piece, since lacquer ages
and oxidizes at predictable, measurable rates.
Lacquering processes varied from period to period. In
the Song and Ming periods, for instance, lacquer was
generally applied over a fabric underlay (daqi),
which was soaked in a mixture of thickened lacquer
and pasted onto the surface of the wood. Sometimes
the entire surface was covered with fabric; sometimes
small strips were pasted over the joints only.
The base-coat was generally composed of raw lacquer
mixed with a binder powder made of horn, bone, shell,
stone, brick, pottery or charcoal. This thickened
filler coat had high adhesive properties as well as
stability and hardness. However, this
labour-intensive technique eventually fell out of
fashion, and in the Ming and Qing periods customers
preferred pieces with only a thin layer of lacquer
and no fabric underlays.
The finely crackled surfaces and mellow tones of
lacquer finishes have been a study of connoisseurship
Timber and lacquer are the most widely used materials
in furniture, with the lacquering technique or
process having a significant affect on the value of a
piece. Other materials used are stone, marble, shell,
coral, pearl, ivory, bone, gold leaf or various
metals. Again, all other things being equal, the
harder the timber, the higher the value of the
furniture (for instance, huanghuali is regarded as
the hardest and most expensive timber, while pine is
the softest and least expensive).
Timber can be classified into six categories. In
descending order of hardness (and value), they are:
1. huanghuali (yellow rosewood), zitan (sandalwood),
jichimu (Chicken Wing wood)
2. hong-mu (blackwood), tielimu (ironwood), jarjingmu,
wu-mu (ebony), ying-mu (burl), hua-mu (gingko)
3. ju-mu (southern elm wood), hetaomu (walnut wood),
huang-yang mu (box wood), lung-yan mu (tiger-skin
wood), zuo-mu (Oak)
4. nan-mu, kundianmu, shizimu (persimmon)
5. yu-mu (elm), zhang-mu (camphor), hualimu
(rosewood), huai-mu (Locust), tao-mu (peach), li-mu
6. pai-mu, song-mu (pine), shang-mu (cedat), qiu-mu
(Catalpa), duan-mu (poplar), Bai-yang mu (paulownia),
3. Overall Condition
The better the original condition of the piece, the
higher its value will be. If a piece of furniture is
missing some parts, so that a lot of replacement work
is needed, the relative value is lower. If
restoration is carried out only on the joints, the
aprons and near the bottom of the piece, it is
generally accepted as being intact. It is desirable
if the fittings (in most cases, the brassware) are
original. Patina is valued since this can indicate
how good the condition of a piece is, and sometimes
Craftsmanship is an important factor in determining
the value of a piece of furniture. Sometimes, when
the craftsmanship is superb, a piece made out of elm
wood can be more valuable and collectable than a
piece made out of hong-mu (Blackwood), all other
things being equal.
The level of craftsmanship is assessed by looking at
the proportion of the details, the accuracy of the
joints, and the piece's fluidity, complexity (or
simplicity) and dynamism.
This is actually a supply-and-demand issue - if a
certain style is not easily available in the market
then pieces in that style are considered collectable,
and their value in the market goes up.
For example, when the trend in the market is for
classical Ming-style furniture but not very many
pieces are available, then the price and value of
pieces will increase. Similarly, pieces with special
features or unusual functions tend to be more
valuable. For instance, hunting chairs, which were
rare in the old days, could easily be ruined simply
due to the conditions in which they were used, so not
many of them have survived. They are therefore
considered highly collectable, and their value has
increased over time.