Collecting guide: Chinese jade

A guide to starting a collection with Chinese Works of Art specialist Vicki Paloympis, illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s

jade ceramics

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, head of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘Learning about them is a journey.’

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, are often found in white, translucent stones, and sometimes, in coloured stones.

In China’s history, there were two major peaks of intense antiquarian interest: the first during the Northern Song dynasty, 11th-12th centuries, and the second during the late Ming-early Qing dynasty, 16th-18th centuries.

Think small

‘When I first began learning about jade carvings, I was attracted to the flashier, larger carvings. As my expertise grew, I began to value the finesse of the smaller carvings,’ says Paloympis.

A white jade reticulated rectangular plaque, Jin-yuan dynasty, 13th-14th century. 2⅞ in (7.3 cm) wide. Estimate: $5,000-7,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

‘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 just a small stone.’

Familiarise yourself with Chinese forms

Chinese artists have a certain aesthetic taste, and this is seen in diverse mediums such as porcelain and pottery, 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 for forms that you are already familiar with in other mediums. ‘Once you have mastered these jade objects you can branch to the less familiar,’ says Paloympis.

Explore hidden messages

The below scepter bears significant meaning. Ruyi means ‘as one desires,’ and is associated with expressions such as jixiang ruyi, ‘may all your good fortunes be fulfilled.’ The ruyi-form head symbolizes peace, prosperity and longevity. Ruyi scepters were known to have been commissioned by Qing emperors either to commemorate birthdays or to be bestowed as birthday gifts.

A pale greenish-white jade ruyi scepter, 19th century. 15¾ in (39.5 cm) long. Estimate: $60,000-80,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Assess the quality of the piece

Chinese jade lapidary artists exercised their superior technical abilities to demonstrate their understanding of the material. ‘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 very rare and finely carved white jade circular box and cover, Qianlong period (1736-1995). 4³⁄₁₆ in (10.6 cm). Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Become familiar with composition

A good example of the high technical skill of Chinese artists is this finely carved parfumier. ‘To carve with such detail in the 17th-18th century would have taken an enormous amount of skill and care so as not to fracture the narrow segments between the pierced openings in both the top and bottom. The artists additionally utilized the opaque are of the stone to highlight ‘two bats on the lid.’

A well-carved pale grey-green jade reticulated parfumier and cover, 17th-18th century. 6⅜ in (16.2 cm). Estimate: $20,000-40,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Study content

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.

A rare imperial incised and gilt-decorated jade nine-tablet book, dated by inscription to the first year of Yongzheng, 1723. Each plaque: 5⅛ x 11⅜ in (13.1 x 29 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

For collectors who appreciate Chinese history, they should consider this rare imperial incised and gilt decorated book. It was created to commemorate the conferral of an additional posthumous title on Empress Xiao Kang Zhang (1640-1663) the grandmother of the Yongzheng Emperor. It praises her for her extraordinary elegance, self-discipline and exemplary management of the inner palace household.

Understand the market ...

At the height of the Chinese market in 2011, prices were high for both white jades and spinach-green jades. But more recently clients are searching for 18th-century white, 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 find a different area and collect spinach-green jades or Ming jades, for example. The prices will be a little bit more affordable,’ Paloympis says.

... And find the right place to start

Small jades can be a good place to start for new collectors, such as this splendid carving of Shoulao with a deer. Appealing for its purity of white color as well as the natural use of the russet skin at the base, it also conveys movement and serenity through the circular glances of the figures.

A white jade carving of shoulao and a deer, 18th-19th century. 3¼ in (8 cm) high. Estimate: $5,000-7,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21-22 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

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‘If I were a new collector, I would go for those really 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.

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