Collecting Asian Art



What this means and how you apply it could mean the difference between acquiring a collection that is merely pretty and one that has investment potential, or will be a much-appreciated inheritance.


The beauty and scarcity of the raw materials used in a piece, along with other factors such as hardness and durability (or lack of it), add up to what we may call intrinsic value. Simply put that is the value of the raw material itself, separate from the quality of the carving or its historical significance or any of the other factors that add to the desirability of the piece. Determining intrinsic value requires some understanding of the relative value the raw material carried during the time period the artisan was working it.

Jade and ivory, for instance, have had value since very early in the Asian cultures. Certain kinds of woods, the roots of particular trees, the burl of the root and other organic substances such as amber, also have found their way into some of the best representations of Asian art. With the exception of bronze and a limited number of cast materials, most of the materials used in Asian art could be found naturally or traded. When altered in some way, by carving or firing, and turned into art, they became valuable.

The most important differentiation is usually between the natural materials and man-made imitations.


The age of an object places it in history, gives it significance as an historical artifact and generally makes the object rare or unique. In order to make sound decisions on your purchases, it is important to be familiar with the key points in Asian histories and how they relate to the price of an object. This timeline charts the major epochs in Chinese history. [Don’t understand the formatting of the time periods. Make uniform? LJ]

You should also become familiar with Japanese history, the Shogunates and the influence each exerted on the artisans and arts of each epoch.

A more recently important and valuable sub-category of “age” is “provenance.” This is the history, or lineage, of a piece. A Ming vase that can be documented as having been sold in the 1970’s at an important action, for example, would be worth many times more than an “unknown” Ming vase. A piece that has been in the J.P. Morgan collection or the Herbert Hoover porcelain collection has additional value because of its “important provenance.”

Particular time periods have also become particularly collectible and valuable. Most recently is the 1950’s, the period of the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese created pieces with Communist “flavor.” For many years these pieces had very little market value in the West. As the world has changed, the Communist-inspired pieces are becoming increasingly collectible.


Just as materials have intrinsic value, the skill of the artisan commands a premium. Measurable criteria include the appropriate and best use of the raw material. This often determines, as does the artistry involved, the success of a carving or painting. While one workman can take the finest jade and produce something that people do not find pleasing and will not want to display, another can take a mediocre material and produce a masterpiece that people will fight to own.

It is important also to understand the mindset of the Asian artisans, particularly in the earlier periods. A carver, for instance, would generally have been well educated and quite likely a poet or scholar in his own right. In one scenario, he could be walking by the Yangtze River when he spies an interesting stone in the shallows. He recognizes it as jade. Picking it up and turning it in his hand, he envisions a bird. He takes the stone to his workshop and carves the bird. In the mind of the maker, he would have been removing the excess stone and revealing the bird that was present in the stone all the time. The artistry involved, and the care this carver took to reveal this bird as he originally envisioned it in the jade reflects easily in the best works of Asian art.

To sum up: get to know your materials; allow yourself the opportunity to become familiar with the major historical periods and what types of objects they producedand , always take into consideration the technical skill of the maker.

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