Antique Chinese Furniture
decided to write this article about antique Chinese furniture although
it is not within the frame of this site. That is... my personal interest in antiques started really with antique
furniture and wooden objects, as used in everyday life.
this page may be of some benefit to the reader.
Evaluating the age of antique Chinese furniture and carved panels
As of now the export of antiques over 50 years old from China
has effectively been stopped. For this reason there is an even higher need to be
conscious of some of the techniques used in the repair, restoration and the production of antique Chinese furniture.
Yes, and I really meant it to be "production of antique
Chinese furniture" above ...
needs to be paid to multiplication and ageing techniques employed to make
more "antique" furniture.
Buying antique Chinese furniture?
When buying a piece of antique Chinese furniture or carved wall panels always check the following:
- Was it handmade, or is it made with electric or
(Check for electric tool traces and/or the distinct signs of hand work.)
- Perhaps made in Vietnam
or SE Asia?
(Styles are slightly different, even if Chinese
subjects are shown in carvings, etc.)
- Is it
vintage or antique?
is sometimes difficult to decide. Furniture was commonly hand made until
at least mid-20th century. Are there any repairs or restorations
indicating a higher age? Is there a patina indicating that it is very old?)
- What wood type is it
(Certain types of wood are now protected, others
are/were imported from SE Asia.)
Points To Check
To check if a piece of antique
Chinese furniture or wooden panel or screen is antique, the most important
things to check are:
- Back panel
antique furniture as well as wall panels, etc., the uncovered / raw
back or bottom is the best place to check age. But wood can be easily
made to look old, thus it takes experience to make sure that the age
signs are genuine.
Carving and other details must be checked to make sure all was
hand made. When antique Chinese furniture or panels are made using hand tools,
there are always some minute details showing this. Generally, the
traces of hand tools, electric tools or machines are different. When
decoration details are repeated, either on the same or different
panels, check if the details look 'exactly' the same, or if there are
minor differences. With hand carving intricate details always show some
differences. If there are none, then the item most likely was machine
made or carved. Some knowledge of hand tools and
electric tools, as well as the actual methods of making furniture may
be of advantage. Lots of people fall into the trap of buying machine
made items because they lack this knowledge. As electric and machine
tools mostly are rotational action tools, some things simply cannot be
worked, or at least not in the same way as they would be with hand
tools. And, they are recognizable to the trained eye.
For example, if there is a place where the wood was not further worked,
apart from cutting it with a saw (e.g. bottom or back of figurine or
carving), there are usually traces of the tools used for cutting or
sawing the wood. Hand saws leave a different type of trace than
electric saws, which appear more regular. Circular saw traces are
especially easy to recognize.
- Cracks, fissures, warping
wood types used in antique Chinese furniture develop cracks, fissures or
warping over time... some more, some less. Complete absence of such, or
the absence of repairs and restorations of such is likely to mean the
wood is more recent.
lodged in fissures and recesses
Age old dirt is usually
present to some degree, especially if items were exposed to the weather
or were cast outside or in a shed. Note: the
appearance of dirt can and IS used for age faking
Inlays of Chinese
antique furniture, where one type of wood is inlaid into the wood of
another color can be extremely intricate and carefully made. Sometimes
the inlays show in relief, protruding from the base wood. Newer,
machine made inlays often are crude and easy to recognize. Antique
furniture is never made using such crude methods.
- Wood type
type of wood used is closely related to the value of an item. Certain
hardwoods command very high prices, regardless of the
the item itself. This is due to the rarity, or use of now protected
local wood species. Due to over-exploitation
certain wood types were already rare a long time ago, in the late Qing
Newer products often use similar or the same wood
types native to and imported from Southeast Asian or other countries.
While some were imported already early on, others were imported only
from the late 20th century. This simply means that items made with such
wood are recently made, HOWEVER OLD THEIR APPEARANCE may be.
- Lacquer, gilt, painting, wax
the wood is covered with non-transparent lacquer, gilt or paint, do not
expect the underlying wood to be made of a top quality wood. It is
that the furniture in the Qing palace was only waxed, showing the
beautiful grain below. Of course, this is not limited to the palace.
Furniture used in the Ming dynasty often did show the grain. Antique
Chinese furniture made of fir or pine wood is almost always covered
with mineral paint or non-transparent lacquer on the front side.
of antique Chinese furniture
to give an example how this works:
there are both complete and damaged chairs remaining, the
chairs may be disassembled and their parts would be re-built and intermixed with
newly made "replacement" parts to obtain a larger number of complete "antique" chairs.
Another one that is frequently encountered are cupboards, etc. with
antique or old
front boards used for drawers and doors; inspection of the
interior often shows that all or part of the interior boards and
back panels are newly
made. Sometimes old boards are used to make this less visible.
signs of wood
age signs of wood used in antique Chinese furniture can be quite different depending on age and wood
type. The places to most easily detect signs of age are the back panel
or underside of furniture and carved panels, respectively.
is especially the case if they are made of fir or pinewood. Old Chinese houses are not tight. Even after
only a couple of decades exposure to the air in a traditional
Chinese house, the back panel of pine wood furniture turns gray as
untight house allows it to dry out fast. Often the
completely dry to the core, and the gray color is the same even in
deeper layers of the wood. It is now very brittle at this stage and
repairs, etc. may encounter serious problems as the wood is not strong
enough anymore for working it or supporting the furnitures' overall
weight. Sometimes braces or other means are required to support the
Not all coniferous wood types do display
erosion or drying to such a degree, however.
cypress wood, for example, which has a fine grain and high oil content, can remain
in good condition in its interior over a very long time. Old
cypress wood can frequently be worked or planed anew, and reused
without a problem even after almost a hundred years. We frequently see wood being reused that was taken from pieces of furniture, door and window frames, and wooden building materials used in houses built in the early 20th century! This wood shows often little loss of strength, only
the surface shows erosive or drying damage. Once the surface layer is
planed off, it looks the same as new cypress wood. The same is
valid for many tropical or subtropical hardwoods that are used for furniture.
Some woods will even give off their fragrance anew when re-worked decades later.
Traces of more recent production methods
made inlays and carvings from China
made inlays or carvings from China are often easily recognizable. The
inlays are frequently crude compared to handmade inlays.
look too regular, especially the curves, and when two or more items are
repeated, they frequently seem exactly the same. With handmade carvings
their proportions differ always a little.
matter whether computerized production machines or electric hand tools
are used, they have one thing in common – these
either in a circular movement, like carving tools, or a regular
movement up and down or forward and backward (with some saws). Unless
much effort was spent to remove all tool traces carefully, which seldom
is the case, it is possible to detect these.
Age faking methods used with "antique" Chinese furniture
- Age faking by adding dirt or dark colors into crevices and
- Woodworm: some people keep woodworms to
make the age of furniture seem real
- Rat bites:
the wood is damaged in a way to resemble gnawing by rats
Why some experts do not
trust what they see…
or new? Even before the export of antiques from China was restricted,
some dealers were very skeptical regarding the authenticity of antique
Chinese furniture. Unless they could see the actual item in its bad
condition before its restoration, they would not believe that a
restored item was really antique.
The reason is the
incredible ability of some Chinese wood workers making the new look
old, and the practice of multiplying antique furniture used in China.
In fact, repaired
furniture items can look pretty new after a restoration, with all age
signs and blemishes virtually invisible.
Not necessarily a good thing as this may lower an item's antique value.
Always be critical.
Few furniture or wooden items are in
good condition after centuries, without at least some restoring.
Perfect items should always get the alarm bells ringing, if you are
looking for REAL antiques.
application methods used in China
The method of wet wax application used
in China is basically the same method as that used in the
west. A paste wax or semi-liquid wax is applied to the surface of the
Dry wax application
wax application is something different altogether. In old times
probably a torch would have been used. Electricity has made it possible
to use this method without fire. Hard wax shavings are placed on the
wood surface (positioned horizontally) to be waxed. Then a heating body
like a hot air hair blower, induction coil or heating iron is held
close to the surface to soften und liquefy the wax, which then flows
and spreads over the wood. It fills all crevices and the wood grain.
The wax is polished after the wax has cooled down. The result is a
completely smooth and rather hard surface, hiding uneven grain completely.