When starting a collection of any sort, it’s important to figure out what kinds of works you’re drawn to, a consideration that’s exponentially more vital when it comes to Chinese jades. Spanning millennia, the material comes in many colours and has been shaped into many forms. ‘It seems basic, but Chinese jades vary so much in both material and form,’ says Vicki Paloympis, an associate specialist in Chinese ceramics and works of art. Learning about them is ‘a journey,’ she adds.
Neolithic jades, which date from about 2-4 millennium B.C., typically consist of tools, such as axe blades, or ritual objects. These objects are interesting from an archaeological perspective, as the ritual functions of many are unknown and no documentation exists. In contrast, Ming dynasty jades (1368-1644) are often carved from different coloured stones and exhibit a soft high polish, while Qing dynasty (1644-1911) examples, which some people argue are the highest-quality carvings, and are often found in white, translucent stones.
‘Someone who likes a translucent white jade vase dating to the Qing dynasty might not be drawn to the Neolithic axe blade, such as the beautiful jade blade sold in the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection,’ says Paloympis. ‘When I first began learning about jade carvings, I was attracted to the flashier larger carvings. As my expertise grew, I began to appreciate the finesse of the smaller carvings. In these smaller examples, you can really begin to appreciate the skill of the lapidary artist, who was able to bring so much detail and life into such a small stone.’
From far away, a small jade carving of a boy or an animal may not look like a whole lot. But when you hold it in your hands, and take a closer look at the object, which may be only two or three inches tall, you may see the carving in a totally different light. ‘They have so much life,’ says Paloympis.
Chinese artists have a certain aesthetic taste, and this is seen in difference mediums, such as porcelain, pottery, jade, cloisonné, and lacquer. Once you have accustomed your eye to the proportions and silhouettes of Chinese forms, this will inform your entire collecting experience.
A good tip for a novice jade collector would be to look in Chinese jades for forms that you are already familiar with in other mediums. ‘Once you have mastered these jade objects, and from there you can branch to the unfamiliar,’ says Paloympis.
A Qing period white jade marriage bowl is not only composed of translucent stone and exceptional carving, but it also contains a feature that often appears in Ming and Qing dynasty jades: decorative motifs which translate into a rebus. These symbols are significant for their auspicious meanings.
This particular marriage bowl is decorated with peonies and butterflies. ‘If you pronounce the word for peonies and butterflies in Chinese, it translates to, “May you have an accumulation of blessings, wealth, and social status”,’ explains Paloympis. The rebus adds a quality of rarity to the piece, and often speak to collectors’ personal situations or interests.
Chinese jade lapidary artists exercised their superior technical abilities by demonstrating their understanding of the material. In the example of the white jade crane-form water vessel and cover from the Sowell collection, the carver has cleverly utilised the russet markings of the stone to pick out the delicately-carved peach perched on the back of the crane. ‘This type of attention to the stone is what separates a master carver from a novice and is a sign of quality,’ Paloympis says.
A good example of the high technical skill of Chinese artists is a green jade brush pot from the Qianlong period, which was sold at Christie’s in September 2012. ‘It shows off the height of the skill of the Chinese jade carvers,’ Paloympis says, noting that the carver worked all the way around the pot, illustrating a scholar set in a landscape with mountains.
‘Each leaf was carved with exceptional technical ability — the rocks, the ocean, and the figures examining a scroll. And the whole vessel was just six or seven inches high, and it had an entire story on it,’ she recalls. ‘When you really look at this brush pot, you can really understand why Chinese jade carvers are so prized for their talents.’
Just as some collectors will connect personally with a marriage bowl, others may be drawn to jades that illustrate scenes from famous texts or poems, or carvings of specific animals. Others still, who like the ocean, may prefer nautical-themed jades.
One particular area that new collectors should consider is Buddhist jades, which flourished especially in the 18th century. The Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors were devout Buddhists, ‘which is why during this period so many exquisite examples of Chinese Buddhist jades were commissioned.’ A great example of this is a Chinese Buddhist triad from the 18th century, which will be offered in our upcoming September auction.
At the height of the Chinese market in 2011, prices were high for both white jades and, say, spinach-green jades. But now clients are searching for white, 18th century, translucent jades with perfect stone, rather than examples in other colours. This presents an opportunity for new collectors.
‘If you’re a new collector and you know the market is really strong for white jade, you might want to try to collect spinach-green jades or Ming jades, and find a different area. The prices will be a little bit more affordable,’ Paloympis says.
Jade snuff bottles, which are also more affordable, are another good place for new collectors to start. ‘A lot of times they’re priced at a more moderate level but still have the same quality and characteristics of other kinds of jades,’ the specialist explains. And they may display some of the same design motifs as the other jades: floral patterns, auspicious phrases, and even the peonies and butterflies.
‘If I were a new collector, I would go for those really small, beautiful, auspicious carvings. The prices are going to be lower because they’re small,’ Paloympis says. ‘So go for something smaller in size, but higher in quality.’
To get the full experience of collecting, you have to love what you collect. It is good to have an understanding of the market, but in the end, the satisfaction will come from living with a piece that you love and can appreciate on a day to day basis.