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Qi Baishi: telling stories through brushstrokes

Four framed scrolls by Qi Baishi, titled ‘Flowers of the Four Seasons: Wisteria, Lotus, Chrysanthemum and Prunus,’ sold for $217,600 in March 2021 at Hindman in Chicago. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

Anyone familiar with Chinese art history would be familiar with Qi Baishi (1864-1957), the renowned painter whose whimsical depictions of common objects and creatures made him a darling among collectors and art aficionados. Largely self-taught, Qi Baishi painted everything from animals to scenery to figures to vegetables. He was particularly fond of painting shrimps, fish, crabs, frogs, insects and peaches, which he rendered using heavy ink, bright colors and vigorous strokes that express his love of nature and of life.

A Qi Baishi scroll titled ‘Cricket & Leaf’ sold for $312 in April 2021 at Converse Auctions in Paoli, Pa. Image courtesy of Converse Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Qi Baishi was not born into privilege not by a long shot. He grew up in a large peasant family in Xiangtan, Hunan, as a sickly child who only attended public school for one year. At the age of 14 he decided to become a carpenter, but when he discovered a copy of the book Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, it sparked a desire in him to create art. He initially painted the human form, recruiting anyone he knew to pose for him. Later on, he received formal training in the gongbi mode, which emphasized fine brushwork and meticulous detail, and his subject list expanded.

A Qi Baishi painting titled ‘Chen Banding’ sold for $4,750 in Canadian dollars in June 2017 at Bowen Auction in Markham, Canada. Image courtesy of Bowen Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

He was taught that every aspect of painting mattered, from the subject matter to the way the ink was applied to the paper. Subsequent mentors steered Qi Baishi toward landscapes, which he executed with precision. Although he was trained in gongbi, he abandoned the approach and started painting in the freely expressive xieyi (“sketching thoughts”) style. He once said, “Paintings must be something between likeness and unlikeness, much like today’s vulgarians, but not like to cheat people.” He focused on life’s smaller things and not the larger landscape.

Qi Baishi was not his real name; he was born Qi Huang, but chose Baishi (Chinese for “white stone”) as a pseudonym. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he ventured beyond his home province to see and experience more of China. Already adept at the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving (he once described himself as “the rich man of three hundred stone seals”), he came upon the Shanghai School, which was popular at the time, and was taken under the wing of Wu Changshuo, who inspired many of Qi’s subsequent works. About 15 years later, another influential teacher, Chen Shizeng, mentored him until he finally settled down in Beijing, in 1917.

A Qi Baishi Chinese traditional painting, signed and featuring red seals, sold for $156,000 in December 2018 at Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Ga. Image courtesy of Lauren Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Tommy Curtis, the president of Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Georgia, said Qi Baishi is without a doubt one of the best-known artists in China. “He began painting while still a teenager, and with no formal training,” Curtis said. Although Qi Baishi was best known for his painting and calligraphy, he considered his seal carvings his best work. Some of his major influences were the early Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren and the Ming dynasty artist Xu Wei.”

Qi Baishi’s works are highly prized by collectors today. His paintings sell for between $20,000 to more than one million dollars,” Curtis said. “The value is based on the story of the painting as well as the colors and provenance. It does seem that his paintings are increasing in value.”

Qi Baishi watercolor painting of a group of carp, which sold for $193,600 in May 2015 at Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Ga. Image courtesy of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Mel Delzer, president of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Georgia, said Qi Baishi’s works are known for their spontaneity and freshness. “Their value depends on the theme or story of the painting, the complications, the variety of colors and, of course, provenance. His paintings have been on a steady rise, excluding the 2020 pandemic market,” Delzer said.

It is estimated that Qi Baishi produced anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 distinct artworks. Of these, 3,000 are in museums. Since 1993, more than 16,000 of his paintings have appeared at auction. In 2011, an undated painting that was only attributed to him, titled Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, sold for $65.5 million. In 2017, his 1925 painting Twelve Landscape Scenes, which had solid authentication, soared to a staggering $140.8 million.

Jasper52 sale revels in the glories of Japanese woodblock prints

The Japanese began printing with wooden blocks sometime in the eighth century, but only in 1765 did they come up with a process that permitted printing in full color. That innovation, credited to Suzuki Harunobu, allowed for a golden age of ukiyo-e, the Japanese term for woodblock prints. The images caused a sensation all over the world, and influenced prominent artists such as Mary Cassatt, Vincent Van Gogh, and most notably, Claude Monet.

On June 30, beginning at 8 pm Eastern time, Jasper52 will offer 153 lots of Japanese woodblock prints.

https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/105934768_utagawa-hiroshige-1797-1858-tree-bridge-gokanosho

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

CHINESE GINGER JARS ADD SPICE TO DECOR

Kangxi period ginger jar depicting a gathering of Chinese figures, which realized €11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy Veilinghuis de Jager and LiveAuctioneers

Ginger jars Chinese high-shouldered, ovoid, lidded, utilitarian porcelain vessels were long used to store and transport oil, wine, salt, and spices. Decorative ones, however, date from the Ming Dynasty era (1368–1644). Created in mineral-rich Jingdezhen-area kilns, such jars were produced for domestic use, bestowed at festive ceremonies, or destined for the Chinese Imperial court. Large quantities of ginger jars were also exported to Europe.

Ming porcelain ginger jar featuring eight Immortals against a landscape, which sold for $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Sofe Design Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Many ginger jars feature underglaze cobalt blue images of scrolling foliage, warriors, phoenix birds, or sinuous dragons set against milk-white grounds. Others, known as “three-color,” or sancai jars, display deep violet, yellow, and turquoise floral motifs defined by cloisonne-like raised lines. Eye-catching five-color wucai jars have underglaze blue designs enhanced with bold, overglazed yellow, green, and red enamel detail.

During the decline of the Ming Dynasty, the Jingdezhen kilns not only lost Imperial support, but were largely destroyed. However, they and other private kilns regained artistic and technical distinction under the auspices of Kangxi (1661-1722), an early Qing Dynasty emperor. As the demand for porcelains increased, production evolved into specialized, more efficient subsets – e.g., mining, mixing, and shaping. Firing at extremely high temperatures created pieces that were glossier and brighter than those of the Ming era.

Imari export glazed ginger jar, which realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

With the expansion of Chinese maritime trade, merchants protected delicate exports, such as silks and tea leaves, by lining ship holds with rows of sturdy, waterproof porcelain jars. These commonly held precious spices, including ginger, a staple of Chinese medicine and cuisine. Because the British associated these vessels with treats such as ginger beer, ginger biscuits and gingerbread, they commonly called them “ginger jars.” Due to the fact that they were obviously finer than locally produced porcelain, they became valued more for their beauty than their contents.

Once ginger jars had become coveted decorative items, Chinese potteries exported them by the millions. Those depicting traditional blue-and-white figures, florals, or landscapes are not only most common, but remain the most desirable—especially if they still have their original lids.

Chinese famille rose foliage ginger jar, which sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Bernards Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Antique ginger jars are often classified according to their dominant color palette. Those featuring vibrant shades of green, a type that emerged during the Ming dynasty, are known as famille verte. Ginger jars featuring famille verte elements against a ground of yellow, a hue reserved for high-ranking Qing officials, are known as famille jaune. Famille rose, another ornamental jar type, features motifs such as birds, peonies, prunus, or chrysanthemums in pale pink to ruby-red tones.

Chinese export famille verte ginger jar depicting warriors in a garden, which sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

From the mid-1700s, China began flooding the European market with their lucrative ginger jars – dubbed “Chinese Imari” vessels – which were inspired by exceptionally fine porcelain items that had long been popular in Japan. These highly glazed pieces typically feature blue underglaze oriental motifs adorned with overglaze fauna, flora, and figures in vivid shades of green, yellow, red, and black.

Because porcelain ginger jars associated with particular historical eras frequently were copied by subsequent generations of ceramicists, they may prove difficult to date. Some bearing Kangxi reign marks, for instance, were actually produced centuries later to honor that vibrant artistic era.

Carved cinnabar covered ginger jar with figures against landscape, which garnered $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Midwest Auction Galleries, Inc. and Live Auctioneers

Following an ages-old tradition, Chinese craftsmen also decorated ginger jars with highly detailed three-dimensional designs carved in red-orange cinnabar, a sap derived from the Chinese lacquer tree. Numerous examples depict opulent peony blossoms amid scrolling leaves, vines, or bamboo branches. Others portray charming images of villagers in popular pursuits set against lush Chinese landscapes. But those featuring auspicious five-clawed dragons or raised bat motifs against finely wrought so-called “diaper” or geometric latticework grounds may be most desirable of all.

Today, antique ginger jars, whatever their style, are not restricted to private collections and museums. Whether gracing entrance halls and mantelpieces or repurposed as vases or centerpieces, they lend an air of classic Chinese elegance to any interior design.

Japan’s finest woodblock prints offered in online auction Feb. 24

A Jasper52 auction composed of vintage Japanese woodblock prints set for Wednesday, Feb. 24, will include what is considered by some to be the most beautiful work of its kind ever printed in Japan. A Book of Drawings of Flowers and Birds by Imao Keinen (1845-1924) contains 164 large oban format prints in four volumes.

Imao Keinen (1845-1924) ‘A Book of Drawings of Flowers and Birds,’ Series 164, 1891-92, large oban-sized prints in four volumes, approximately 15 x 10in each volume. Estimate: $14,000-$17,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jasper52 presents fine Asian jewelry April 14

A select collection of fine antique Asian jewelry is offered by Jasper52 in an online auction that will take place Tuesday, April 14. Gold rings, necklaces, bracelets and uncommon forms—most set with precious gems and pearls—are featured.

A gold and diamond bangle. Estimate: $5,500-$7,000 Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Swords, netsukes on the rise in Asian arts auction April 8

Antique Japanese bladed weapons and finely carved netsukes are the featured attractions in an Asian arts auction that will be conducted online by Jasper52 on Wednesday, April 8.

Japanese tanto, Mino province, signed Kanenori, 1532-1555, 11¾in. Estimate: $4,000-$5,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Large Burmese Buddha graces Asian art auction Dec. 26

Jasper52 will conduct a finely curated Asian antiques and antiquities auction on Thursday, Dec. 26, bringing together ancient Chinese artifacts, impressive Buddha statues and much more, creating a comprehensive representation of the Far East tradition.

Shan Buddha, Burma,18th century, wood with lacquer, 24in with mount. Estimate: $3,500-$4,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jade: why some buyers are obsessed

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.

Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian Art offered by Jasper52 July 17

Jasper52 will conduct a finely curated Asian antiques and antiquities auction on Wednesday, July 17, offering more than 50 lots of ancient Chinese artifacts, Indian jewelry, impressive Buddha statues that create a comprehensive representation of the Asian tradition.

Indian gold hair ornament, 19th century, 2 5/8in. diameter, repousse gold with resin fill, 79.8 grams. Estimate: $5,000-$6,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Lacquered wares cross many cultures

What started as a utilitarian need for watertight objects eventually became its own art form known as lacquerware. To keep wood, pottery tin and other metal objects watertight, layers of natural lacquer were brushed onto boxes, buckets, trays and other household items. Once dried, though, lacquer turns a distinctly dark black which is not always a designer choice of color. That’s why, over time, artistic designs were added to help make the item more decorative as well as useful.

Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, is a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer and carved with small knives. Image courtesy Bally Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Lacquerware:  5000 BCE China, Japan, Korea

Around 7,000 years ago, sap from Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a tree grown and cultivated only in East Asia, was refined into a useable waterproof compound used to coat household items such as tableware, boxes, furniture, trays, bowls, screens and even coffins.

Known in China as a varnish tree, the sap is tapped by cutting into the bark and collected. Smaller branches are soaked in water and its sap is collected, all of which contains urushiol, the skin irritant in poison oak. Once exposed to air, the sap slowly turns black. After being strained and heated to remove moisture, the final product, lacquer, is stored in airtight containers ready to be brushed onto wood, tin or another metallic object.

A 17th century Chinese lacquerware dish in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The process of applying lacquer is a time-consuming process, usually over several days. Each successive layer, 20 or more at times, is left to dry and harden before another layer can be applied. Curiously, in order for lacquer to dry it must be placed in a moist atmosphere such as caves, according to early Chinese accounts. This process can take as long as 18 days before a design can be introduced. This process was eventually spread to Japan and the Korean peninsula by the sixth century.

Decoration can include gold, silver, charcoal, white lead, and mother of pearl surrounding decorative plants, animals and intricately carved domestic scenes. Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, started with a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer (red, known as cinnabar, green, brown and even purple) until it was quite thick. Once dried, an intricate design was carved by hand into the object.

Chinese lacquerware was prominent throughout each dynastic period with its process a closely guarded state secret. Exports of generally mundane consumer items began in the 17th century to Europe but by the middle of the 19th century Chinese lacquerware was no longer a stable export.

An example of a 19th century European ‘japanned’ tea tray on display at the Birmingham History Galleries, UK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Japanning: 17th Europe

Chinese exported its lacquerware to Europe by the early 17th century, mostly to the Netherlands, Italy, France and Great Britain by the East India Company, but it was mostly utilitarian items, not its most noted artwork. Yet, Chinese lacquerware became popular at all levels of society. The process of lacquer production as practiced in East Asia for thousands of years was limited to the sap from the varnish tree which grew only there. And China wasn’t sharing its secret. An alternative needed to be developed.

A viable lacquer was finally discovered from the secretions of the female lac bug known as Kerria lacca. Mixed with ethyl alcohol, these secretions became known as shellac, which dries into a high-gloss finish.

Black lacquer as a base with Japanese motifs such as this 18th century pocket watch was made in the UK and is on display at the Walkers Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With this discovery, Italian craftsmen saw an opportunity to expand a market for the popular East Asian lacquerware, particularly from Japan, by creating their own Asian-themed designs that they felt represented daily life there usually on heavily lacquered tin and ironware in stark black or red with gold painted decoration. Because Asian societies were generally closed to outsiders, particularly to Europeans, scenes depicted by Italian craftsmen were more imaginary than realistic.

Still, japanning, as the art form was known in Europe, became popular from the early 18th century until the late 19th century. Once its popularity declined by 1920, the focus moved away from japanning metal items to japanning bicycles. In fact, by 1887, the Sunbeam bicycle company was formed to create the ubiquitous black japanned bicycle with gold stenciled markings.

A painted toleware coffeepot that sold for $1,200. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware: 18th century Americas

By the time lacquerware was introduced in 18th century America, rolling mills were being perfected in Pontypool, England. Pressing bars of steel and iron between rotating wheels allowed for the cost-effective formation of plates, coated with tin, then stamped into household goods like trays, candle holders, breadboxes, plates and utensils for export and commercial trade.

Once formed, the goods were coated against corrosion with a special blend of linseed oil, an asphalt compound, turpentine and other industrial compounds. The final dark varnish (a version of lacquer) is called “japan black.” Henry Ford’s Model T was painted with “japan black” giving rise to his quote that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Once the varnish is applied to iron, steel or tin-plated items and cooled, the item is decorated similar to the Japanese lacquerware, known as japanning.

An example of a hand lamp that is varnished with basic ‘japan black’ without the added decoration that sold for $50. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Rather than import these items from England and France, communities in North and South America, particularly in 18th century New England (mostly Boston and Hartford, Conn.) and the Pennsylvania Dutch, manufactured, hand-painted and later stenciled their own tin, pewter and metal goods for trade and home use. It was called toleware from the French term tôle peinte or painted sheet and practiced as tole painting.

The production of hand-painted toleware lasted from early 18th century to late 19th century when its popularity declined. There has been a resurgence of tole painting from the late 20th century within communities as an individual art project with classes, workshops and even organized groups such as the Society of Decorative Painters or the National Society of Tole and Decorative Painters.

Collectibility

Acrylic paints have replaced the variations of natural and industrial lacquers common before 1950 or so. Their use is simply more efficient, cost effective to produce and is more conducive to innovation where the early lacquer was easily more time consuming and toxic to create.

Lacquers aside, in the end it is difficult to distinguish vintage lacquerware in any of its forms. The use of different lacquers might just help on an atomic level (which is why this article focuses on types of lacquer) but the decorations applied, styles used or even what colors are predominant simply don’t lend itself to specific periods, which can be easily categorized without knowing each local style. Even the carved lacquer of early China is faithfully reproduced today.

Varnishing with lacquer wasn’t limited to just household items. Furniture was also ‘japanned’ such as this chest of drawers that sold for $375. Image courtesy Dumouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

Still, certain characteristics do stand out. Japanned items from France in the 17th and early 18th century, for example, have a rougher surface and more rust from peeling varnish because they hand stamped their iron or steel plate which produced more uneven surfaces.

What do collectors like? Collectors like bright colors, intact inlays like mother of pearl or gold leaf, regional styles such as “thumb work” of the Pennsylvania Dutch, flowers, Japanese or Chinese motifs, or any number of combinations. Decorators love the blend of colors that stand out. Most examples after 1950 are widely available for under $100.

Since variation is the main theme of lacquerware, whatever its name, the first rule of collecting applies: Collect what you like first.