Sourcing Chinese Antiques


When Lorna Wong of Phinn’s Antiques addressed a SACS group on the subject of buying Chinese antiques, she told us that most of the antique furniture available in China today was made in the late 18th, and even more often, the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These pieces are classified as “vernacular,” rather than as “fine furniture.”

There are two main strands of traditional Chinese furniture: the Ming and the Qing, which are related to the dynasties of the same names (the Ming, 14th-17th century; the Qing, 17th to early 20th century). The Ming style, in particular, is characterized by high quality in design and craftsmanship thanks to the general economic developments of the era, the rise of a wealthy class, and the ‘consolidation of skills and traditions’ to serve this new class. The lines are simple and elegant. (NB: Beware the distinction between Ming and Ming-style furniture: the former is just what it purports to be, the latter is furniture made during the Qing era as Ming reproductions.)

During the Qing period, partly due to the emperor’s penchant for novelties, designs became more extravagant, and Western influences appeared; particularly the “rococo” style, it is characterized by ornate motifs in wood carving.

There are a few features specific to Chinese furniture, such as floating panels and the use of moldings and latticework. Chinese furniture is traditionally built using tongue-in-groove techniques. Frames such as cabinet doors hold a “floating panel” that can expand or contract relative to changes in humidity. Sometimes, this means that minuscule gaps can be seen all around the edges of central panels. These are called expansion gaps and, as long as they are not larger than 2mm they’re actually a good thing as they keep center panels from cracking. Moldings and latticework include the use of “convex and concave moldings, raised and recessed panels, and linear or geometrical lattices.” Also noticeable is the “extensive use of elaborate carvings, either in relief or openwork, or even a combination of the two. Techniques like paintings on lacquer pieces should never be overlooked [as they are hallmarks of some of the] most artistic, unique and valuable pieces.”

And what about wood? Guangdong is a treasure-trove of hardwood pieces made from rosewood or zitan, which can be very ornate (typical Qing pieces) while some pieces are made from redwood. Furniture from other regions in China is made of semi-hard or even soft woods “such as Ju (southern elm), elm, cypress, fir, basswood and pine.

Lorna Wong suggests that if you want to judge the age of a piece, look for dents, burn-marks, scratches and imperfections—marks of long use—especially on the inside, back and bottom. Besides expansion gaps and marks of long use, another acceptable ‘flaw’ is the adaptation of pieces to modern uses such as finding a Ming-style cabinet that has been modified to house a TV. Unacceptable alterations include cracked panels, the addition of new carving to old pieces or re-painting and touch-ups on lacquered pieces.

One final, and important, furniture category to consider, if you just want a memento of your sojourn in China or a Chinese accent piece but make no claims to being a true collector, is “reclaimed” furniture. This is furniture made from the reclaimed wood of genuine pieces. A new spice cupboard can be made from part of a much larger and genuine armoire.

This is just your starting point. To learn more, you can contact an expert.

Getting There

Address Phinn’s Collection offers antiques, reclaimed and bespoke furniture. Prices are a little bit high (no bargaining allowed), but quality is assured. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays. For appointments, call Lorna Wong (English speaking). 309, Huangpu Dadao, Yangcheng Creative Industry Zone, B-3-04 (next to Metro & B&Q)
Chinese Address NA
Phone Lorna Wong (English speaking) at 138 0920 5594, 3803 1598
Fax 3803 1598
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Website [email protected]