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Being An Asian Art Appraiser: Issues and Anecdotes

Being An Asian Art Appraiser: Issues and Anecdotes

Lemur monkeys and Asian art. What is the connection? Being an appraiser of Asian art means encountering the unexpected. And my “monkey experience” represents the sort of adventure which would make the appraisal profession and auction world rich material for a reality TV show.

The appraisal process often begins with a call from a client who is interested, most commonly, in knowing what his/her piece is “worth”. The word “worth” requires some explanation as I will outline later, however, determining value almost always entails a visit to the client in order to visually examine and evaluate the objects in question. It was on one such occasion many years ago while employed at an auction house, that I went to look at what was described as an assortment of exotic objects from various parts of the world acquired through travels. The home contained, among other bizarre things, an elephant skull, an African penis sheath collection, a taxidermied elk (covered in an inch of dust) in the living room, and as I was to be startled by, a pair of live lemur monkeys hopping about, with glowing yellow eyes and ringed tails. In fact, there were no familiar objects such as Chinese porcelain or Japanese prints to appraise, but to this day, that experience remains one of my most memorable.

I wish I could say that I had discovered an extraordinarily valuable Qing dynasty vase, like the ones recently appearing on the market in England, but that dream remains illusive. One such vase sold in November of 2010 at Bainbridges auction house outside of London, for the astounding record-breaking price of $85 million (includes buyer’s premium and taxes). The Qianlong vase, c.1740, was found during the routine clearing out of a bungalow belonging to a deceased senior. It is a rare reticulated double-walled vase featuring pierced archaic-inspired chilong dragons, and four reserved roundels depicting pairs of fish. Its trumpet neck of primrose yellow highlighted by a delicate Y-pattern in pink. While the happy relatives who inherited it were overwhelmed by their unexpected good fortune, imagine what might have happened to the vase if it had not been noticed by an auction employee with a good eye?

Much closer to home there is the true story of an elderly woman who in the 1980s unknowingly purchased a 17th century Qing dynasty rhinoceros horn libation cup (featuring finely carved detail of the ‘Hundred Boys’ motif) at a church yard sale of donated items here in Toronto for $1 (yes, that figure is correct, $1), which she consigned for auction at Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisers. Estimated at $40,000/60,000, it sold on Monday December 13, 2010 for $893,750. (Both of these auctions can be viewed on YouTube.)

That sort of experience, akin to winning the lottery, although infrequent, reinforces the lesson that individual owners need to educate themselves on their works of art. It is crucial to get an objective appraisal by a qualified professional appraiser before making decisions to donate, sell or distribute objects. Knowledge, as the cliché goes, is power, and could be of significant financial benefit as well.

What makes a good appraisal and appraiser?

Whether having Asian or other works of art appraised, the principles are the same. The selection of an appraiser is key to the quality of information received in the written appraisal. The client must consider whether this person is a member of an appraisal society which adheres to the code of ethics and practices of the Uniform Standard of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). The International Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America are such organizations. Fortunately, public awareness is growing about the standards they uphold; standards which are required to be used, for example, if applying to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board when donating cultural property for tax credit.

A proper appraisal will follow the standard Getty Object ID format of description which includes the artist’s name/object type; title; date/period of manufacture; medium; dimensions; signatures/marks; description; provenance; condition; and very importantly, a photo of each object because an image really is worth a thousand words. The appraiser’s certification should include the statement that he/she has no undisclosed past, present or future interest in the property; the values he/she determines should not be contingent upon reporting predetermined results desired by the client; and the compensation/fees for the appraisal should never be contingent upon the value of the items, because it is unethical to charge a percentage of the overall value of the appraised items for his/her services.

The purpose of the appraisal will determine the type of value sought. Simply explained, on a scale from from high to low value, there are four typical kinds of appraisals: for insurance (which is at the top because the values are comparable to retail replacement value); for fair market (which is defined in Canada as “the highest price, expressed in terms of money, that the property would bring in an open and unrestricted market between a willing buyer and a willing seller who are knowledgeable, informed, and prudent and who are acting independently of each other”); for auction (which is an estimate range the object might sell for within that environment); and for probate (which is done for estate tax purposes).

Other factors, in addition to the most basic ones of workmanship and age, which affect the determination of value are: condition of the piece, its provenance, and current market trends. It is the trained eye of a professional appraiser who knows what to look for and how to look at an object to find hairline cracks, ‘invisible’ repairs, and aspects of a work of art which could indicate that it is a newer reproduction. The Chinese are skilled at reproducing earlier pieces, often unfortunately with the intention of deliberately deceiving the buyer for monetary gain.

Provenance is another critical factor in determining the value of a piece. Knowing where an object was purchased, and having receipts and documents to prove whose hands and collections the object has passed through, can significantly increase the value of a piece. Therefore it is important to keep receipts when acquiring objects.

Market trends are a factor beyond an owner’s control. At present, Chinese art in the auction market is on fire. This trend has lead to the dramatic increase of prices across various media (painting, jades, bronzes, ceramics) for high quality or rare pieces. For example, prices for white jade carvings, prized in Chinese culture, have increased astronomically. A recent New York Times article noted that white jade from Xinjiang province in China is now surpassing gold in value, selling for $3,000 an ounce which is a tenfold increase from a decade ago. In November of 2010, again in London, an Imperial white jade carving of a deer sold for over $6 million. The growing and volatile market for Chinese art is fuelled by many newly wealthy Mainland Chinese buyers. This kind of electric atmosphere in auction houses has lead to frenzied buying and strong prices.

As an appraiser, one of the most pleasurable aspects of the job is having the chance to handle beautiful objects, and being challenged by identifying unusual objects, rather like a detective solving a mystery. I enjoy learning new things, such as I did when appraising a Korean celadon-glazed stoneware cup with pointed base which is displayed in the permanent Korean gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum (see illustration). Its function was initially perplexing, for how could a cup of such unusual shape be used? It is in fact an “equestrian or on-horse” cup (masangbae) for a rider to drink wine from while on horseback. The green glazed stoneware cup is inlaid with sangham-coloured chrysanthemums, and dates to the 12-13th century (Goryeo dynasty), part of a collection gifted by Mrs. George G. R. Harris in 2003. The cup is also exceptional because when it was chipped on the rim, the original owner valued it so highly, he had it repaired in gilt.

In conclusion, it has been my experience that individuals have varying levels of awareness of the value of their art objects. While collectors are often knowledgeable, many surprisingly leave themselves vulnerable because they do not insure their collections; and other owners who may have acquired pieces handed down through their family may not be aware of objects’ true values and lost their stories of origin over time. Then there was the gentleman I spoke with once, who religiously watched the Antiques Roadshow, and was convinced that his early 20th century Japanese Satsuma-style vase (broken and glued) was identical to one he saw on the TV show (which was an 18th century Edo piece in pristine condition with a maker’s mark and documented provenance.) Delivering disappointing news to the owner who was hoping for a luxury holiday on the sale proceeds of his vase, required the skills of a diplomat to reduce the impact of this information. However, regardless of whether the news is pleasantly surprising or disappointing, knowing the value of one’s objects should always be viewed in a positive light.

Japanese and Chinese Ceramics in the Gardiner Museum

Toronto, Canada is home to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, one of a handful of North American museums devoted exclusively to the art of ceramics. While renowned for its comprehensive collection of Ancient American ceramics, Italian maiolica, English delft and slipware, as well as its 18th century European porcelain, it is the most recent additions to the museum’s collection which distinguish it as a special place for the appreciation of ceramics. With the initial gift of the Robert Murray Bell and Ann Walker Bell Collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain in 1998, followed by the on-going donation of Japanese porcelain by Bill and Molly Anne Macdonald, the Gardiner now also boasts a remarkable collection of Asian ceramics.

As part of the completion of a $20 million dollar expansion in 2007, these Asian collections enjoy permanent galleries and provide the critical historical context for understanding the development of the European porcelain industry. Chief Curator Charles Mason describes both collections as “smart” because they are closest to what a curator would ideally put together in a collection in terms of coherency, and reflect intelligent choices by the Bells and Macdonalds from what was available and affordable.

The Macdonald Collection embodies unusual pieces, including many European-inspired copies of Japanese pieces. It represents the largest and best collection of its kind in Canada consisting of more than 100 fine and rare Edo-period porcelains. The strength of the Bell Collection is its 17th century Chinese blue and white porcelains. The book Cobalt Treasures, written by former Assistant Curator Patricia Ferguson in 2003, describes the approximately 150 pieces the Bells gifted to the museum, which they purchased in New York, London and Toronto primarily during the 1960s.

Two current outstanding exhibitions feature porcelain from these collections and serve to illuminate the broader story of porcelain. The exhibition Hot Commodity: Chinese Blue and White Porcelain and Its Impact on the World describes the history of the first manufactured commodity that can be considered a truly global brand. It features a selection of Chinese blue and white wares from the 16th to the 19th century, the majority of which come from the Bell Collection.

The impact of Chinese blue and white porcelain was felt throughout Asia, the Islamic world and Europe. Charles Mason notes in his introduction to the exhibition that “…by the 17th century it had reached every continent on earth except Antarctica.” An example of influential export porcelain made during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) at the famous kilns of Jingdezhen (located in Jiangxi province, Southeastern China) is an early 16th century ewer (with later mounts) intended for the Islamic markets in Asia or the Near East. The ablution ewer would have been used for ritual purification before prayers. Its elegant shape is derived from metal prototypes and decorated with a scrolling lotus design in soft cobalt blue. Another highlight, a kendi, also dating to the Ming dynasty ca.1600-40, is a form used in communal drinking vessels made for the Southeast Asian market.

Blue and white pieces appeared at Jingdezhen in the late 14th century. It is believed that traders were shipping Chinese ceramics as early as the 10th century. Archaeological evidence of the trade of blue and white porcelain has been found in shipwrecks, mostly off the coasts of the Philippines and Vietnam, dating from the 15th to the 18th century.

Chinese blue and white porcelain eventually inspired local potters in other countries to develop their own industry. For example, Japan, which first received significant quantities of blue and white in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The demand for Chinese porcelain was a major impetus for the development of its domestic porcelain market. In particular during the Transitional period (1620-1683) between the Ming and Qing dynasties, when the Chinese porcelain industry suffered and blue and white exports were even banned for a time, Japanese potters were creatively filling the gap.

As trade increased with the West, initially through the Portuguese in the 16th century and then the Dutch, the Chinese created products specifically for European consumers. European potters were also inspired to create blue and white wares in imitation of Chinese porcelain. An early attempt of European potters to copy Chinese blue and white porcelain is the jug with bird and floral design, an example of Delft tin-glazed earthenware dating to the early 17th century. The advantage of producing locally made copies was that they were less expensive and more available than Chinese imports.

In the first section of the exhibition Private Pleasures: Japanese Porcelain of the Edo Period, which examines the place of Japanese porcelain in the elite culture of samurai and geisha of the Edo period (1603-1868), blue and white Chinese export porcelains made for the Japanese market from the Bell Collection are highlighted. Private Pleasures is organized into three sections: the first, presents a concise and highly informative stylistic overview of porcelain in Japan from 1600-1750; the second, focuses on the meaning of porcelain designs and their connection to other art forms; and the third, explains the cultural context in which people integrated ceramics into their lives during the Edo period.

Charles Mason brings the porcelains to life by selecting Edo-period works of art from other media to indicate the extent to which porcelain was integrated into so many aspects of society. He juxtaposes the porcelains with prints, textiles, paintings and lacquer ware to demonstrate how the people of the Edo period would have used and experienced the porcelain. For example, a kimono with multi-coloured dense medallion decoration on loan from the Detroit Institute of Art, is displayed beside a Nabeshima dish with a medallion pattern, from the 18th century. It demonstrates how designs were borrowed by porcelain makers from the textile industry, such as this type of admired Noh theatre costume.

Highlights from the Macdonald Collection in this exhibition include a double gourd flask (once part of the Richard de la Mare collection) with a twisting diaper pattern superimposed on a floral-decorated white ground. It has lost part of its original tall neck, but it is just this type of imperfection which appealed to the Macdonald’s collecting sensibilities.

During the Edo period there was a growth in the middle class, and as a result, samurai and monks had wealth to spend on ceramics. Another outstanding piece, a moulded, scalloped dish of a tiger in a bamboo grove (c.1650, Arita, Japan) was perhaps used in an elite samurai household, since the tiger was a traditional symbol of bravery and power. It is displayed beside a remarkable folding screen, ink on paper, Tigers in a Bamboo Garden by Tosetsu Sogetsu (active early 18th century) on loan from the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art.

Other porcelains are juxtaposed with prints to provide pictorial evidence of the use of objects, such as the woodcut from the Sir Edmund Walker collection on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum depicting a woman using a porcelain bowl for cosmetics. (Of note, Ann Walker Bell is the granddaughter of Sir Edmund Walker, who was instrumental in the founding of the Royal Ontario Museum, The Art Gallery of Ontario, and the National Gallery of Canada.)

There are many delightful pieces in the exhibition, such as the porcelain censer in the form of a cricket cage, and rustic kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) wares and tea ceremony pieces. Many are food and drink vessels, such as the round food tray (Japan, Arita, c.1690-1700), originally part of a set of stacked trays used for serving a meal, which is decorated with a scene inspired by yamato-e painting.

The exhibition is complemented by a lavishly decorated 200-page catalogue of the Macdonald Collection titled Dragons, Tigers and Bamboo: Japanese Porcelain and Its Impact on Europe. Published in 2009 by the Gardiner Museum in collaboration with Douglas & McIntyre, it is comprised of essays by Christiaan J.A. Jorg, Charles Mason, and the late scholar Oliver Impey. In fact, it was Mr. Impey, friend of the Macdonalds and acknowledged leading Western authority on Japanese porcelain, whom they credit with guiding the formation of their unique collection.

Charles Mason’s statement that, “Collectively, the objects testify to the extraordinary power of ceramics to connect people from widely different places and historical periods, to enrich our material and aesthetic environments,” is certainly evident in both exhibitions. Fortunately for Toronto, The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (built and opened to the public in 1984 by the late couple George and Helen Gardiner, in order to house their magnificent collection) continues to grow with the generous legacies of the Macdonalds and Bells, who have passionately collected different areas of porcelain, but similarly decided to share their collections with their community. And in doing so, reach an even broader audience and contribute to the understanding of human history and life through ceramics.

Private Pleasures: Edo Porcelain continues until September 12, 2010
Hot Commodity continues until January 9, 2011.

Permanent galleries of the Macdonald and Bell Collections are located on the 2nd floor of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, 111 Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON Canada

Written for the Asian Art Newspaper

Kashmiri Shawls: Fashionably Wrapped

Fashionably Wrapped: The Influence of Kashmir Shawls
Until July 4, 2010 at the Textile Museum of Canada, 55 Centre Avenue, Toronto

‘Connecting cloth, culture and art’ is the slogan of the Textile Museum of Canada, and it readily accomplishes this purpose with its current colourful exhibition Fashionably Wrapped: The Influence of Kashmir Shawls. The exhibition is curated by Central Asian and Caucasus textile expert Natalia Nekrassova whose previous well-received shows at the Textile Museum of Canada have covered topics on weaving traditions in Asia, the Silk Route, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here she has selected thirty-three shawls from the museum’s permanent collection to demonstrate the transformation of the Kashmir shawl both in style and production technique after its arrival in Europe.

The shawl’s evolution from part of traditional costume worn by Kashmiri men for several centuries to an everyday accessory in Victorian England amongst women of all classes was a rapid one. As a significant international trade item, the most distinctive aspect of the Kashmir shawl was its fine, soft under-wool derived from the Himalayan mountain goat. This wool, known as ‘cashmere’ in English, was indeed named after the well-established textile centre of the Kashmir Valley in India.

Interestingly, the Empress Josephine of France played a pivotal role in the meteoric rise of the Kashmir shawl as a highly desired fashion item when Napoleon gifted her several exorbitantly expensive shawls in 1801. She appreciated them for their lightness, warmth and exotic qualities, and since other affluent ladies in Europe viewed her as an arbiter of good taste, these luxurious shawls quickly became popular.

In imitation of the Indian style, the British produced the “Norwich shawl” in the early 1800s. Shawls which had originally been hand woven by Kashmiri craftsmen were copied by weavers in France, Great Britain and Russia using the recently invented Jacquard loom and mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution, thus dramatically reducing production time and cost for consumers.

With their distinctive floral motif, the shawls marketed in Europe were commonly referred to as ‘paisley’ shawls after the city of Paisley, Scotland which eventually dominated shawl production in the 19th century. The characteristic motif of the delicate Kashmiri boteh (flower), a slightly curved floral cluster with bent tip, morphed into the familiar teardrop-shaped design used in a repetitive pattern preferred by European tastes.

Highlights of this exhibition include a Kashmir goat-hair tilikar (a type of shawl made of a patchwork of twill tapestry pieces sewn together) from 1850-1860; as well as an elegant and very feminine Norwich shawl from 1810-1820 made of wool and silk, with a supplementary weft patterning on twill-woven ground featuring the typical paisley pattern. Visitors also have the opportunity to view finely embroidered examples of mid-19th century coats or choga, long-sleeved garments worn by Indian men.

Although the fashion trend of the paisley shawl waned in the late 19th century, the pashmina descendants of the treasured Kashmir shawls are enjoyed cross-culturally today. This exhibition vividly demonstrates their importance as examples of exceptionally beautiful and practical textile art.

Susan Lahey, MA, ISA
President, Eastern Art Consultants Inc.
Written as an exhibition review for the Asian Art Newspaper