About Chinese Furniture About Korean Furniture About Tibetan Furniture

About Chinese Furniture

Determining how much restoration should be done creates a dilemma or even controversy amongst Chinese antique furniture collectors.  As with any antique furniture, the most valuable pieces are those in un-restored condition with the fewest blemishes. These pieces are available but hard to find and, as expected, expensive.

Most Chinese antique furniture has gone through a rough time, first due to the Cultural Revolution when much of the furniture were carted off to giant warehouses owned by the government, where they sat for the better part of a decade.  After the Revolution, many pieces were redistributed to new owners who might not have any idea of their antique value and carelessly used them in their daily life, leaving them with gouges, cracks, breaks and worn coloring.  Such “provenance” describes the fate of a significant portion of Chinese furniture that finds its way to Western shores.

It is important to look at these antiquated pieces from a Chinese point of view, not a Western one. There is cultural value in pieces that have been worn down and worn out. They tell an accurate story of changes in the Chinese society.  One must know the object’s history and uses and restore only when absolutely sure the action would not risk damaging the integrity of the piece.  Chinese craftsmen were masters of layering different colors to produce a desired tone and depth in the final finish.  Any major effort at reproduction is time-consuming, expensive, and often beyond the reach of modern-day craftsmen.  The goal of restoration should be to refinish in such a way that preserves and enhances the existing patina..

Chinese Domestic Furniture As Art

Chinese furniture is unique in the furniture tradition of the world.  When created by highly skilled craftsmen, Chinese furniture can be viewed as a fine art, functional sculpture in wood that transcends time and place, and be at home in a contemporary American house as they were in Chinese houses for which they were created.  Reproductions in no way match the artistry and beauty of the original pieces.  We have a huge collection of Chinese classical and vernacular furniture we acquired when China opened to the outside world in the 1990s.  It dates from Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), to early 20th century.  Our interest in collecting Chinese domestic furniture is that they truly reveal the richness and complexity of the life of most of the Chinese people.  We welcome connoisseurs and collectors to come to our gallery to study some of these pieces.  Our collection was acquired with aid from Chinese antique experts in the 1990s when China just opened to the West.  None is from estate sales.

Of special mention is a Chinese wood indigenous to northern China.  This wood, the Sophora or “Huai” as the Chinese calls it, was the wood of choice as furniture-building wood during the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.  It was a favored wood because it is extremely dense, naturally resistant to insects, deterioration, and warping, plus, it has such beautiful deep grain patterns it makes painted decorations unnecessary.  Its over-use, however, caused the extinction of the wood as building material by the end of the Ming period as the tree grew only about an inch a year.  Thus, any furniture made of this wood is commonly dated to that early age.

For collectors interested in collecting a piece of furniture made of this wood, it has an historical reference in a chronicle about ancient China:  “Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China” by Lin Yutang, in which it says in 1643, the last Ming Emperor, Tsungcheng, hanged himself on a Sophora tree when he realized he was about to lose his kingdom.  It might also be interesting to know that according to the publication ” Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture” by Sarah Handler, hardwood like huanghuali was widely used for furniture only after the mid sixteenth century.  That would be about the time the Sophora was starting to die out. We surmise the need to look for another quality wood made Huanghuali one of the choice hardwoods to supplement the Sophora.  Huanghuali is a more refined wood with more attractive coloring than the coarse-grained Sophora, so with the Ming merchant class about that time became wealthier and more sophisticated in taste and Huanghuali became more available, it became the wood of choice for furniture-making.    Since most of the pieces were individually hand-made, they were quite expensive and only members of the high society were able to afford them, and furniture made of this wood continue to be affordable mainly to high society.

The Sophora, being such an early extinct wood, is not well-known among Western wood craftsmen and antique dealers because very few survived centuries of social upheavals in China in good condition to reach to reach Western markets.  The pieces in good condition are worth collecting as they are made of an extinct wood that is now rare and one that resist warping and climate changing conditions so it can be moved around without much damage in a very mobile society like today.  Furthermore, its characteristic deep grain patterns cause less worry about the piece of valued furniture being marred by ugly scratches and splitting!


About Korean Furniture

Authentic traditional antique Korean furniture is rare, even in Korea. This is partially because of the drain of traditional objects from Korea into Japan and the West, and also because after the many wars Korea got involved in, many furniture were burned as firewood so the people could survive the bitter cold winters, with wind blowing in from Mongolia and Siberia.  Not many old pieces were left after the war.  With the dearth of original pieces, reproductions have become popular with salvaged old wood.  Antiques that have been preserved in good condition are rare and are dear.  Pieces sold at tourist areas at comparatively low price are usually reproductions.

Korean furniture in general has a quietness and dignity that does not call attention to itself but rather fits into most interiors with grace and ease.  It seems at home in “mixed” contemporary settings as in traditional surroundings.  The Korean “model” is based on Neo-Confucian model that existed throughout the Chosen, or Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), when Koreans of every social class lived by Neo-Confucianism in their political, socio-economic, cultural, educational, and every aspects of daily life.  Furniture was characterized by restrain and austere simplicity of line and proportion.  Yi woodcraftsmen used a rather limited range of woods in creative and decorative ways.  Most often, wood with an attractive grain was split into panels and used in a mirror-image composition on the front of a chest, creating a “scenery” to his liking.  When metal fittings, carvings, and mother-of-pearl inlay sometimes appear on furniture, no matter how impressive such detail work is, it seems to take second place beside the form it is meant to complement and embellish.  The resulting product always meets the dictate of simplicity of line and  is easy to live with, complementing most surroundings, modern or traditional.

The dating of Korean antique furniture is difficult because the country has a long tradition of furniture-making during the long Chosen, or Yi dynasty, but furniture production remains relatively unchanged due in part to the very conservative and insular nature of Korean society during the second half of the dynasty.  The Neo- Confucianism socio-political structure favored established simple taste.  The dating is further exacerbated by the lack of knowledge and misconceptions of the early Korean society.  To the West, Korea was the “Hermit Kingdom”; accordingly, experts have difficulty accurately dating Korean furniture and therefore date most of them to the 19th century.  18th century pieces, not to mention 17th century ones, are extremely rare, and are most likely found only in museums.  Almost all our Korean antique furniture is certified by a Korean Professor of Korean History and Antiquity, one of only thirteen certifiers approved by the Korean government in the 1900s.

About Tibetan Furniture

There is no tradition of fine furniture in Tibet, as there is in China.  Since only softwoods, such as pine and cedar were available on the high plateau, the emphasis was not on the wood, as in Chinese hardwood furniture, but on painted decorations.  Like all other areas of Tibetan art, these often reveal certain defining character relating to a strong Buddhist culture, typically taking on Tantric practices originating from India.  Because of their largely nomadic existence, most ordinary Tibetans had little if any furniture.  There were no chairs, as people preferred to sit on the rug, the floor or a low platform.  Small tables, some portable, were used to serve food and drink, and often as altar tables on which offerings could be placed.  Chests were used to store precious things.  Monasteries needed large cabinets to store the vast quantities of precious silks, thangkas, and Buddhist scriptures they accumulated through trade and donations.

Today, it is monastic furniture of various sizes that are some of the most exceptional antique furniture that came out of Tibet since the Cultural Revolution.  This is because from the earliest times, some form of Buddhism has been the dominant religion of Tibet.  Followers of Buddhism devoted themselves to study and medication in the hope of attaining enlightenment and a path to a favorable rebirth.  By supporting the community of monks, give them alms in the form of food or money, or help them build new monasteries and furniture to fill them, they hope to reach this salvation.  Thus, a large part of antique furniture found in Tibet today was originally used in monasteries or homes of religious dignitaries.  Many are exceptional because they were made with money from donations, and artisans back then also contribute their labor, making some of the most fantastically hand-made, painted and decorated furniture the world can find today.  Authentic Tibetan antiques are valuable because they are not allowed out of Tibet today to preserve its heritage.

In general, the imagery and vibrant colors of Tibetan furniture reflect the warm and cheerful character of the Tibetan people.  Yak butter and an exceptionally dry climate on the high plateau help in the preservation of much of the exquisite painted furniture.  Still, often thick layers of grime built up over centuries of exposure to the smoke and grease of the yak butter lamps and stoves are hard to remove.  Traces of the grease help to authenticate antiquity of a piece.  Antique Tibetan painted furniture, especially with religious reference, is rare today as they are forbidden to leave the country.  Interest in the West makes the production of furniture a thriving business for Tibetans who moved to neighboring Nepal due to political problems at home.  These new painted furniture are decorative and they flood the market place, but they have vastly different value from authentic pieces.