NEW YORK – Jade is at the center of a story of money and magic that goes back over 8,000 years. In China, its use dates back to the Neolithic period, between 6000 and 5000 B.C. The mysterious bi discs and cong vessels found in burials of this period testify to its ritual significance.
Confucius (551-479 B.C.) said, “The wise have likened jade to virtue,” and went on to link its various strengths to human qualities. Difficult to find, almost impossible to work with tools, the mineral’s pull on the heartstrings began early. Then and now, jade displayed the owner’s wealth and also served as a protective talisman to ensure longevity and good fortune.
This very fine pure white Hetian jade representation of Lingzhi, a naturally occurring fungus that is said to ensure longevity, brought $54,450 at a Gianguan Auction. The 15½-inch-long Qing Dynasty sculpture includes a small dragon and other long-life symbols. Courtesy: Gianguan Auctions
After well over a decade of headline-grabbing prices, the market for Chinese jade – both objects and jewelry – remains complex and difficult to navigate. Buyers who appear discriminating and highly selective at one moment can be maddeningly capricious at others. Museum criteria are not always valid. Neither age nor appearance nor history guarantees a sale. Emotion may trump reason on the auction floor. When a particular object speaks to more than one bidder – when they must have it in their life – rational estimates are left far behind.
Beginning in the 17th century and continuing into the 20th, Europeans, and later Americans, formed collections of Chinese art, including jade. Much of what they gathered entered the permanent collections of museums. As part of the centennial celebration of their Asian Art department, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized “A Passion for Jade: The Heber Bishop Collection,” a 2015-2016 exhibition of a hundred examples. When the patron of the arts donated his jades to the museum in 1902, it was considered so important that the Metropolitan re-created Heber’s ornate ballroom as a gallery to display the collection.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, Asian collectors began competing in the international market to buy back jade objects that emerged from Western private collections, a trend that has driven up values. In March 2015 in the New York Asian sales, Christie’s presented the collection of noted American dealer/collector/scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in multiple parts with a separate catalog devoted to Qing Dynasty ceramics, glass and jade carvings. Among the “top ten” were a diminutive green and russet jade seal, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that sold for $221,000 (est. $4,000-$6,000), three strands of archaic jade beads, $209,000 (est. $6,000-$8,000), and a jade cong, Eastern Zhou Dynasty, 7th-6th century B.C., for $161,000 (est. $30,000-$50,000).
This Imperial Chinese whitish-celadon jade mountain, early 18th century, sold for $195,200 at I.M. Chait. The scene of two sages on a pathway near plum blossom trees beneath an incised and gilt poem would have been an object of contemplation in a scholar’s study. Courtesy: I.M. Chait
At one time, Chinese buyers were cut off from the market, but over the past 15 years, they have been very active buyers, not only of jade, but also luxury goods of all types. . The whole market changed. Because of the Ellsworth name, a thousand Chinese from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou flew in on private jets just to vie for pieces from the fabled collection.
Before buying jade, it is advisable to study the origin, history, varieties and styles of jade production. There are two important varieties of jade: nephrite, found in China and Central Asia, which was used for most of the archaeological, historic, and antique jade objects made in China; and jadeite, imported from Burma beginning in the late 18th century, which is a precious stone used principally for fine jewelry. The Chinese word for jade – yu – is vague and refers to either material, as well as several other hard stones.
A more technical analysis is provided by the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin: “Jadeite is a sodium-rich aluminous pyroxene; nephrite is a fine-grained, calcium-rich, magnesium, iron, aluminous amphibole. All jade is composed of fine-grained, highly intergrown, interlocking … crystals of one of both of these minerals. Though neither mineral is very hard (6-7), jade is one of the toughest gem minerals known because of the intergrown nature of the individual crystals.”
A small amount of Cr [chromium] in jadeite accounts for the translucent color known as imperial jade. This article deals principally with antique nephrite artifacts, because the jadeite jewelry market hinges on the quality of the individual precious stones, regardless of age. In 2014, a string of exceptionally large, perfectly matched jadeite beads with a ruby and diamond Cartier clasp, once the property of American heiress Barbara Hutton, sold for $27.44 million in Hong Kong [at Sotheby’s], more than doubling its estimate.
Variations in color on a piece of nephrite jade often inspired craftsmen; this unusual stone became light and dark cats playing while a rust-colored bat flutters at one end. The Qing dynasty sculpture is one example from a large collection formed by Avery Brundage (1887-1975), which became the foundation of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Courtesy: Asian Art Museum
Great American museum collections of jade are a source of scholarly research illustrated with important examples. Industrialist Avery Brundage (1887-1975) was president of the International Olympic Committee for 20 years and a determined collector of jade objects. When he gave his collection to the City of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum was created to display it. The unique properties of jade, cited in the geological analysis above, directly influence how jade objects are created.
Although market descriptions often refer to jade “carvings,” the Asian Art Museum provides the following “how it was done” information for visitors: “Jade cannot be carved. Because of its hardness, it can rarely be shaped by chiseling or chipping but must be worn away by abrasion with tools and hard sand pastes. This is a process that requires immense patience – even with modern machinery…. Because the process was so labor-intensive and time-consuming, jades reflected the ability of a ruling elite to command resources, and therefore came to symbolize power, status, and prestige.” The difficulty of working jade makes the results achieved by craftsmen even more remarkable.
Collectors interested in exploring the museum’s collection further can turn to Later Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century (2007) by Terese Tse Bartholomew, Michael Knight and He Li, which contains 400 individual object entries. The volume focuses on a particular period: “Nearly a decade in the making, this will become the definitive guide to Chinese jades from the Ming dynasty through the early twentieth century. This was a particularly rich period in jade production. As this book reveals—based on the most current scholarship—many jade objects previously thought to be of ancient manufacture were actually produced in these later periods.” For example, the museum owns a very pale green nephrite vessel with handle, made in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty, which copies a bronze jia wine vessel from the much older Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.).
An essential accessory for a scholar’s desk, this brush pot of brilliant green spinach jade, a type of nephrite, is decorated with a mountain forest scene featuring scholars playing chess. The large pot, with a earlier Spink & Son Ltd. label on base, sold for $75,000 at an I.M. Chait auction. Courtesy: I.M. Chait
Although “jade green” is a common description, both minerals come in a range of colors, which occur because of the presence of trace elements. Nephrite can be pure white, soft yellow, pale to bright green, deep spinach green, violet, or brown with varied mottling and mixtures. Coloration often suggested subject matter to craftsmen; the light and dark cats illustrated emerged from a particularly interesting piece of stone. Bright green, transparent or translucent jadeite has always been in demand for jewelry, but the mineral also comes in other colors including white, violet, and orange. Unfortunately, jade colors can be enhanced with dyes. Auction houses will often require that jade consignments be submitted to GIA – Gemological Institute of America – for testing to rule out tampering. Just as later Chinese artists copied earlier jade styles, clever artisans today make reproductions of popular styles and periods, so it makes sense to buy only from reputable specialists.