Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (2023)

Specialist Michelle Cheng shares expert advice on everything from what the woods collectors look for to investing in climate control — illustrated with standout works from our sales

Classical Chinese furniture generally refers to a wide variety of pieces made during the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the end of the 14th century through to the beginning of the 20th century. It includes tables, cabinets, chairs, stools and bedframes, as well as other furnishings used in domestic settings. Materials, condition, age and provenance are the greatest determining factors of value.

  • 1
  • Familiarise yourself with the most commonly used woods

Chinese furniture is made from a variety of hard and soft woods, and is also found in bamboo and lacquer. The price differences between two similar-looking pieces from the same time period in different materials can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. ‘It doesn’t mean that they’re not great examples,’ says Christie’s New York’s Michelle Cheng of the less desirable woods. ‘It’s just that the furniture market is very material-driven.’

The most valuable and precious of all of these materials are zitan and huanghuali, two types of hardwood found, among other places, on China’s largest island, Hainan. Along with having beautiful lustrous qualities, the woods are difficult to harvest and mostly found outside China, making them even rarer. ‘If you’re a collector looking to have your collection grow in value,’ says Cheng, ‘focus on examples in huanghuali and zitan.’

Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (1)

Learning how to properly identify the materials used in individual pieces of furniture takes time and patience. Cheng suggests ‘examining as many pieces as possible, whether through auctions, exhibitions, speaking to respected dealers or looking at objects in museums.’

Fortunately, there are exemplary collections throughout the world, including at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. If you don’t have access to a museum or an auction house, Cheng suggests looking through old auction catalogues or books written on the subject. ‘Education is a really important part of collecting,’ she explains.

  • 2
  • Know how the furniture is constructed

Chinese furniture is generally made without any glue or nails — rather, the pieces are held together by a complicated network of joints. ‘The sophisticated technical abilities of the cabinetmakers and carpenters who made them were incredibly advanced,’ Cheng notes. ‘It’s very impressive to see the complexity and intricacy of the joints.’

Beyond adding to your appreciation of the object, learning how a piece was made will help you assess how it might have been altered or repaired — factors that can affect the overall value.

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Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (2)

Beyond adding to your appreciation of the object, learning how a piece was made will help you assess how it might have been altered or repaired — factors that can affect the overall value.

  • 3
  • Don’t be afraid to get underneath a piece of furniture

Given that Chinese furniture was used in daily life, it’s likely that even the most exemplary pieces have gone through some restorations. ‘They have a history because they were used objects, part of a home, moved around,’ says Cheng. ‘Restoration work might include replacements, patches in woods, or mended legs.’

To preserve the look of a piece restoration is often concealed on its underside. The best way to check what has been done is to flip it over. ‘It’s the only way to assess the condition,’ Cheng notes.

Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (3)

To preserve the look of a piece restoration is often concealed on its underside. The best way to check what has been done is to flip it over. ‘It’s the only way to assess the condition,’ Cheng notes.

  • 4
  • Befriend a great furniture restorer

A furniture restorer can assess the condition of a piece better than anyone else. ‘They understand how the joints work, and how they affect the overall structural integrity,’ Cheng explains. This can determine how you integrate the work into your daily life.

A restorer can help with everything from repairing a surface to replacing old parts that have decayed with age. They are also a good educational resource. Cheng suggests being involved with them during the restoration process. ‘If you watch them resolve the problem of putting back together a system of joints, it adds to the appreciation of the piece itself, and of Chinese furniture in general.’

Also, as your collection grows, a good restorer will develop a working knowledge of your collection and will be able to advise on how best to care for it.

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Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (4)

A restorer can help with everything from repairing a surface to replacing old parts that have decayed with age. They are also a good educational resource. Cheng suggests being involved with them during the restoration process. ‘If you watch them resolve the problem of putting back together a system of joints, it adds to the appreciation of the piece itself, and of Chinese furniture in general.’

Also, as your collection grows, a good restorer will develop a working knowledge of your collection and will be able to advise on how best to care for it.

  • 5
  • Invest in climate control

Chinese furniture is made from organic materials that react to the environment. In humid weather, wood can expand, and in cold weather, it shrinks. Subjecting wood to unstable environmental conditions can lead to cracking panels and movement in the joints, among other problems.

Serious collectors overcome this by installing humidifiers and other forms of climate control in their homes. ‘Part of maintaining the integrity of a collection is making sure the environment is ideal for the works, so that they can retain their shape and lustre,’ says Cheng.

Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (5)

Serious collectors overcome this by installing humidifiers and other forms of climate control in their homes. ‘Part of maintaining the integrity of a collection is making sure the environment is ideal for the works, so that they can retain their shape and lustre,’ says Cheng.

  • 6
  • Don’t be afraid to make the furniture a part of your life

Classical Chinese furniture is surprisingly sturdy, Cheng points out. She has seen clients actively use everything from tables to bookshelves. In fact, one of her clients placed an ordinary mattress on a Ming dynasty bed. ‘Make Chinese furniture a living part of your home,’ she suggests.

Chairs and stools are often set with mat seats. Over time, the seats will tear or collapse. Replaced mat seats are very common and an expected condition issue that does not affect value. Replacing seats, when necessary, will help to integrate a chair or stool into your daily life.

Surface wear, she notes, can be restored. Which is not to say that you should not use coasters on tables or take care with the objects — rather, that you shouldn’t be afraid to use your furniture.

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Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (6)

Chairs and stools are often set with mat seats. Over time, the seats will tear or collapse. Replaced mat seats are very common and an expected condition issue that does not affect value. Replacing seats, when necessary, will help to integrate a chair or stool into your daily life.

Surface wear, she notes, can be restored. Which is not to say that you should not use coasters on tables or take care with the objects — rather, that you shouldn’t be afraid to use your furniture.

  • 7
  • Be realistic about a piece thatdoes not fit into your lifestyle

No matter how much you love an object, if it’s too big to fit in your dining room, for example, it’s just not the right piece for you. While it’s possible to put a piece in storage for future use, what furniture really asks for is to be integrated into your life. ‘I want people to think of tables as both part of their daily life and a beautiful object in their collection,’ says Cheng.

  • 8
  • Learn about Chinese furniture’s wonderful history in art

‘There are amazing interior spaces in paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties,’ says the specialist. Seeing how people relaxed on a daybed, or what they placed on top of a table, for example, gives a contemporary collector a better idea of how the furniture was used.

‘We’re so far removed from their history,’ Cheng adds. ‘It’s hard for us to think today, “Oh, that’s right, these stools are meant to be portable, or this bed is meant to have curtains around it”.’ In the latter case, she explains, curtains were closed for privacy during the night.

‘We’re so far removed from their history,’ Cheng adds. ‘It’s hard for us to think today, “Oh, that’s right, these stools are meant to be portable, or this bed is meant to have curtains around it”.’ In the latter case, she explains, curtains were closed for privacy during the night.

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  • 9
  • Provenance matters

If you’re looking to build a collection of long-lasting value, then you should pay attention to its origin and where it’s been. ‘Our collectors are very interested in distinguished provenance,’ Cheng says.

This includes not only the owners of the piece in the distant past, but also those who have owned it in recent times. ‘Many collectors in the field respect the eyes and knowledge of certain collectors and experts,’ she says. Along with the type of wood used and the condition of a piece, provenance can add significant value.

Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (8)

This includes not only the owners of the piece in the distant past, but also those who have owned it in recent times. ‘Many collectors in the field respect the eyes and knowledge of certain collectors and experts,’ she says. Along with the type of wood used and the condition of a piece, provenance can add significant value.

  • 10
  • Collect what you love

‘Whether it rises or falls in value, whether your children will inherit it, and whether or not it’s important in the history of art, it is you, at the end of the day, who will have to say good morning or goodnight to it,’ Cheng concludes.

Collecting guide: 10 things to know about classical Chinese furniture | Christie's (9)

If you don’t have the money to enter the market at the highest price points, there are still many opportunities. While a stool in zitan and huanghuali will sell for $100,000, a classical piece made from a softer wood might sell for around $18,000. Ultimately, though, what’s most important is that you enjoy the process of collecting. As Cheng points out, ‘Collecting what you love makes you happier in general’.

FAQs

What were the main features of Chinese furniture? ›

Chinese classical furniture represenative of the Ming and Qing dynasties used hardwoods such as rosewood and padauk. The common characteristics of these woods are hardness, corrosion-resistant, having distinct textures, and furniture made of them is beautiful and durable.

How can I tell if my Chinese furniture is antique? ›

To determine the age of a Chinese furniture piece, look carefully at the joinery and finish. Natural expansion and contraction of the wood over time will cause a joint to protrude or retract, distorting a once-seamless fit. Antique lacquer finishes become crackled and worn over time.

How do I know if my Chinese pottery is valuable? ›

How do I know if my Chinese pottery is worth anything?
  1. Firstly, check the shape of the item to be clear about the piece you're dealing with.
  2. Then make note of the style, colour and decoration of the piece. ...
  3. Assess for marking on the item or damages. ...
  4. Finally, check the base of the piece to see if there are any markings.

What type of furniture did the ancient Chinese use? ›

The ancient people in China created the first piece of furniture for people to sit on: the floor mat. Various prototypes of wooden furniture were designed around the sitting mat, such as short-legged wooden desks for the lap, chopping boards with legs, and short tables. Wealthy and important Chinese sat on platforms.

What is Chinese style furniture called? ›

Oriental furniture, in particular the furniture of China, is popular because of its beautiful styling and solid construction. Because Asia is the largest continent in the world, the term is sometimes limited to only furniture made or originated from the Far East of Asia, such as China, Korea and Japan.

What is Chinese furniture made of? ›

Chinese furniture is made from a variety of hard and soft woods, and is also found in bamboo and lacquer. The price differences between two similar-looking pieces from the same time period in different materials can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How do I find out what my china is worth? ›

In general, the value of fine china depends on the brand, condition, location, and age. This may go without saying, but an older, antique piece of china will command a higher price than newer pieces. The location or origin can also help determine its value.

What are the best vintage china to collect? ›

15 Most Valuable Antique China Patterns (Identification, Marks & Value Guide)
  • Blue Willow Pattern.
  • Spode Blue Italian.
  • Portmeirion Botanical Garden.
  • Wedgwood Classic Jasperware.
  • Mottahedeh Tobacco Leaf Pattern.
  • Wedgwood Fallow Deer Pattern.
  • Wedgwood Florentine.
  • Lenox Holiday Pattern.

How can I tell if a piece of furniture is valuable? ›

The most valuable vintage furniture is rare. Consider whether your furniture is an unusual size, shape, or made for a specialized purpose. A unique carving motif, less common glass color, or otherwise atypical design may increase the value of your furniture.

What vintage pottery is worth money? ›

Certain makers are always desirable. Look for names like Grueby, Marblehead, Newcomb College, SEG, TECO and Rookwood. Other names can be valuable but do not always bring top dollar. These are makers such as Fulper, Hampshire, Roseville, Van Briggle and Weller.

Are old china sets worth anything? ›

Depending on the pattern, condition and current supply and demand, you can make a few hundred dollars when you sell Nana's china plates collection. But, unless you have some of the more rare patterns that can fetch $1,000 a plate, don't expect to get rich.

How do you know if pottery is vintage? ›

The bottom of authentic pottery will usually have an unglazed area, which lets you know what kind of clay was used to construct the piece. If this is old weathered, it is more likely that your piece is authentic, as a faux one will ordinarily be much newer and therefore less worn.

What wood is used in Chinese furniture? ›

Northern Elm (Yumu): By far the most common wood used for furniture production in northern parts of China, 'northern' elm has a yellowish-brown sapwood and darker heartwood.

What kind of wood is used in China? ›

Both the Southwest and the South regions of China produce small amounts of tropical hardwood and a variety of softwood and temperate hardwood. From these regions, species such as Chinese beech, birch, paulownia, alder, maple, rosewood, and mahogany are used for furniture.

Is Chinese furniture good quality? ›

Chinese furniture products are usually handcrafted without glue, nails, or screws. They are made of high-quality wood so they are ensured to last for a lifetime. Their design is engineered in such a way that every component is seamlessly connected to other parts of the furniture without making the connections visible.

How many types of Chinese styles are there? ›

These eight culinary cuisines are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan and Zhejiang.

What are the three types of furniture? ›

Types classified by materials
  • Wooden furniture.
  • Bamboo furniture.
  • Wicker or rattan furniture.
  • Metal furniture.
  • Plastic furniture, also known as acrylic furniture.
  • Glass furniture.
  • Concrete furniture.
  • Bombay furniture, also known as blackwood furniture.

Where is most furniture made in China? ›

Chinese furniture is usually concentrated in the Pearl River Delta region and the Yangtze River Delta region. The Pearl Delta region is centered on the Guangdong, whereas the Yangtze is mainly focused on Shanghai and Jiangsu.

What is Chinese decor called? ›

What is chinoiserie? Rooted in the origins of the word chinois – French for 'Chinese', Chinoiserie is a decorative style inspired by the art and design of China, Japan and Asian countries.

How do you date furniture? ›

Make sure to search for labels, stamps, or manufacturing tags that can tell when and where a piece was made. Furniture companies and makers often listed their names, locations, and year of production This information can be found on the inside of drawers, the backs of bureaus, and on the lower edges of pieces.

What item was most sought after from china? ›

Silk was the favorite product along the Silk Road. Chinese silk was regarded as a treasure in ancient Central Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Europe. The European market had the biggest demand for silk and Chinese silk was highly appreciated in Europe.

What china brands are worth money? ›

The Kantar BrandZ Top 10 Most Valuable Chinese Brands 2021
Rank 2021BrandBrand value 2021 (US$M)
1Tencent279,618
2Alibaba201,863
3Moutai110,579
4Meituan52,878
6 more rows
18 Oct 2021

What can I do with my grandma's china? ›

20 Ways To Recycle Upcycle and Repurpose Old China
  • Candles. One of the easiest transformations is a candle. ...
  • Lamps, Chandeliers, Candelabra, Nightlight. ...
  • Mosaics. ...
  • Jewelry. ...
  • Bird Feeders. ...
  • Centerpieces. ...
  • Paper Flower Bouquet Vessels. ...
  • Napkin Rings.
7 Sept 2020

What is the most sought after vintage item? ›

Here, you'll find a list of the most popular vintage items that are currently in demand.
  • Records. Records are a popular collectible item among various age groups. ...
  • Vintage Advertising Signage. ...
  • Vintage Books. ...
  • Automobilia/Petroliana. ...
  • Vintage Toys. ...
  • Jewelry. ...
  • Mid-Century Modern. ...
  • Art Deco.
1 Mar 2022

What is the most sought after bone china? ›

Which Is The Most Expensive Bone China? The most expensive piece of bone china is commonly known as Joseon Baekje. The costliest Joseon object ever sold was a whiteware vase painted in cobalt blue. It was sold at $4.2 million US.

Do people still collect fine china? ›

Some people still collect it, but nowadays it might not even end up on a couple's wedding registry. “More and more younger people don't see the need to use their space for things that are ceremonial,” said Cecilia Jones, a personal organizer and productivity coach in Silver Spring, Maryland.

What types of furniture have the best investment value? ›

That's why we've prepared a list of the furniture that is most worth investing in.
  1. The Sofa. This is the big one for the living room. ...
  2. Your Bed Frame and Headboard. ...
  3. A Desk for the Home Office. ...
  4. The Dining Room Table.
15 Sept 2020

Is there a free app to identify antiques? ›

Hallmarks - Identify Antique on the App Store.

What is the most sought after McCoy pottery? ›

McCoy Pottery Cookie Jars

McCoy cookie jars are some of the most popular forms of vintage McCoy pottery among collectors of these vintage collectibles.

What retro items are worth money? ›

15 surprisingly valuable things you might have lying around the house
  • Old Magazines. If you're one of those people that find it hard to through away magazines, it may have been worth those years of lugging them around. ...
  • Vintage Furniture. ...
  • Old cameras. ...
  • Rare coins or notes. ...
  • Books. ...
  • Stamps. ...
  • Old china. ...
  • Glassware.
2 Jun 2022

What is the most valuable vintage china? ›

Blue Willow is arguably the most collectible – but it's also one of the most widely produced. Even today, companies are creating Blue Willow patterned china. The rare, original, and very old Blue Willow china pieces are the most collectible and the most valuable, if you can get your hands on them.

How old does china have to be to be considered vintage? ›

Most antique dealers consider an item to be vintage if it is at least 40 years old.

What is the best way to sell vintage china? ›

If you have old dishware that you no longer use, here are the best places to sell used fine china dishes.
...
7 Places to Sell Used Fine China Dishes
  1. The International Association of Dinnerware Matchers.
  2. Replacements, Ltd.
  3. OfferUp.
  4. Facebook Marketplace.
  5. Mercari.
  6. eBay.
  7. Etsy.
28 Nov 2022

What does P mean on pottery? ›

soft-paste porcelain. p. painted.

What are the four types of pottery? ›

Now you know about the 4 main types of clay for pottery: Porcelain, earthenware, stoneware, and ball clay. Want to know even more about clay? Check out our article on everything you need to know about pottery clay.

What is the mark on the bottom of pottery called? ›

potter's mark, also called factory mark, device for the purpose of identifying commercial pottery wares. Except for those of Wedgwood, stonewares before the 20th century were not often marked. On some earthenware, potters' marks are frequently seen, but signatures are rare.

What is the difference between Chinese and Japanese furniture? ›

Chinese furniture has traditionally been made of harder, rarer tropical hardwoods while Japanese furniture uses much softer woods which were locally accessible in their climate. At the moment we have several Chinese cabinets — two in red-lacquered wood and one large one in elmwood.

What are the 8 materials of Chinese instruments? ›

This system was based upon the material used in the construction of the instruments, the eight being stone, earth (pottery), bamboo, metal, skin, silk, wood, and gourd.

What are the 3 main types of wood? ›

Flexible – ideal for making curves on furniture. Hardwood – usually made from beech, mahogany, or oak, this material is excellent for heavy-duty flooring. Softwood – generally sourced from cedar, fir, and redwood, this is used in general construction for roofing and flooring.

Is Chinese oak good for furniture? ›

It has solid texture, firm structure and long service life. Main uses: Oak can be used to make any type of furniture, from oak bedroom furniture and sofa to wardrobe and kitchen cabinet. It is also widely used in decoration materials, flooring materials and so on.

Which Chinese brand is best? ›

The Kantar BrandZ Top 10 Most Valuable Chinese Brands 2022
Rank 2022BrandCategory
1TencentMedia and Entertainment
2AlibabaRetail
3MoutaiAlcohol
4DouyinMedia and Entertainment
6 more rows
25 Aug 2022

What are 3 important features of traditional Chinese homes? ›

Walled compounds, raised pavilions, wooden columns and panelling, yellow glazed roof tiles, landscaped gardens, and a careful application of town planning and use of space are all notable features of the architecture of ancient China, with many of them still playing an important part in modern architecture across East ...

What is the most important feature of Chinese architecture? ›

Chinese architecture is characterized by bilateral symmetry, use of enclosed open spaces, feng shui (e.g. directional hierarchies), a horizontal emphasis, and an allusion to various cosmological, mythological or in general symbolic elements.

What is the most important feature common to Chinese architecture? ›

Some distinct features of traditional Chinese architecture are symmetry, hierarchy in the built environment, the cosmological influence of Feng Shui, horizontal expansion rather than vertical, gardens, courtyards, and a distinct construction system.

What are 3 major physical features of ancient China? ›

The geography of Ancient China shaped the way the civilization and culture developed. The large land was isolated from much of the rest of the world by dry deserts to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the east, and impassable mountains to the south.

What are Chinese Lucky colors? ›

Yellow symbolizes royalty and power of the throne. Red is the Chinese national color and represents happiness, beauty, success and good fortune. Green symbolizes money.

What is a traditional Chinese house called? ›

Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses, and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would be occupied by a single, usually large and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity.

What are the three main types of traditional Chinese architecture? ›

3 Architectural Styles

Ancient Chinese architecture includes palaces, city walls, temples, pagodas, and houses. Their architectural styles varied with purpose. The main three types were imperial administration buildings, traditional residences, and religious buildings.

What is the oldest structure in China? ›

The oldest datable timber building is the small main hall of the Nanchan Temple, on Mount Wutai in Shanxi province, built sometime before 782 ce and restored in that year. Brick and stone are used for defensive walls, the arch for gates and bridges, and the vault for tombs.

What are the three 3 guiding principles of architecture? ›

Principles of Architecture

Below are 7 basic architectural design principles that every architect should know. They are balance, rhythm, emphasis, contrast, visual, proportion, and scale.

What are Chinese design elements? ›

The primary visual design elements being discussed are form, material and color. These elements have been used in traditional Chinese design in a manner that represents Chinese culture.

What are 3 important aspects of Chinese family structure? ›

Several Confucian thoughts are based on family. For example, three of the five important relationships are parent and child, husband and wife, and elder and younger siblings.

What is the most important thing in Chinese culture? ›

The Chinese traditional cultural values of harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety are embodied in China's diplomacy through the concept of harmony, the most important Chinese traditional value.

Why are Chinese doors round? ›

Chinese doorways take on a variety of shapes. This round doorway is often referred to as a moongate because of its shape. It represents the full moon, or happiness. The color red represents joy and the bringing of good fortune.

What are 10 interesting facts about ancient China? ›

10 Ancient China Facts for Kids
  • Ancient China spans over 1800 years. ...
  • There were three main dynasties. ...
  • The Zhou dynasty is split into two parts. ...
  • Proof for the Xia dynasty emerged only recently. ...
  • Sun Tzu lived during the Eastern Zhou period. ...
  • The first parts of the Great Wall of China were built.
30 Oct 2021

What are the five elements of ancient China? ›

In ancient Chinese cosmology, the five basic phases that explain change in the cosmos are earth, wood, metal, fire, and water. These elements were believed to overcome and succeed one another in an immutable cycle and were correlated with the cardinal directions, seasons, colours, musical tones, and bodily organs.

What is unique about ancient China? ›

The Chinese people became unified as one kingdom, which lasted for about 2,000 years. It was the most advanced civilization the world had ever seen. Under the Chinese kingdom, education was highly prized, and the arts, especially music and painting, grew and flourished. The Ancient Chinese were also great scientists.

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