J. from Santa Barbara has two framed Japanese engravings on copper plates, overlayed with layers of gold and silver wash, then acid-etched and hand-tooled. Acid-etching refers to the lines that form the outline of the scenery being drawn in with a chemical then burned out to create a line with reactive acid. This technique is cheaper and faster than the traditional engraving on metal, which was originally done with a burin, a metal incising tool. J.'s two framed images are considered "chokin art," an ancient form of Japanese pictorial gilding.
Since chokin is a traditional art form that goes back 900 years, Japanese connoisseurs would expect traditional images that are recognizable: peaceful scenes of nature, mountains, pagodas, graceful geishas, arched wooden bridges, phoenix birds and dragons. The origins of chokin, and the objects this art form originally decorated, are anything but peaceful. This method of detailed engraving, overlaid with precious metals of silver and gold, was used for objects worn in battle, decorating Samurai armor in the 12th century onward.
J.'s images, however, date form the mid-20th century; the chop (signature) is a facsimile of the chokin artist Risho Arita, a master and teacher of the art form in the 20th century.
Although occasionally antique chokin armor comes up for auction, most of it is so rare that we see it only in museum collections. Yet the Japanese people celebrate chokin-decorated armor in a unique, gender-based way. After all, the style originated with the warrior class. Chokin-decorated Samurai dolls may be presented to boys or displayed in homes by parents of young boys. These dolls are called "May" dolls or "Tango no Sekku" dolls. These chokin-armored, helmeted, fierce figurines are gifts to boys on Children's Day in Japan — the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar.
Tango no Sekku was originally a national day for boys and fathers, but in 1948, the holiday was changed to include girls and mothers. It's now a celebration of youngsters of both sexes, called Kodomo no Hi. Children have a day or sometimes a week off school (the celebration is one day of Golden Week), perform in plays, join in the Kids' Olympics, and have ceremonies to thank their parents, relatives and teachers.
The chokin-clad Samurai dolls pay tribute to a child of long ago who was also a great and strong Samurai warrior — Kintaro, the model for many young boys. These chokin figures might be displayed by parents in celebration of their boy's strength and bravery. Parents might choose to purchase such a doll, set in luminous folding lacquer screens, sitting upon a dais, to celebrate their boy's health or to impart good luck on future endeavors.
Chokin metalwork, always associated with armor, is meant to convey nobility and dignity. Present-day dolls in chokin armor can sell for up to $900.
J.'s set of two framed metalwork engravings, therefore, have a great historic tradition behind them. They tell the story of honor and tradition by virtue of the medium. However, these are the tourist versions of that medium. They lack the richness and craftsmanship of more valuable antique chokin work. And, of course, the antique chokin is real gold and silver over copper, and entirely hand-worked.
A label on the back of one of J.'s pieces states it dates from a tradition of the 12th century, but J.'s pieces are from the 20th century and imported by a firm in Arlington Heights, Ill. At the time these pieces were imported, Arlington Heights was the archetypal Midwest town, far removed from the chokin tradition (and home to my mother!). EBay lists framed pieces like J.'s as well as other "chokin" works from the 1950s-1980s: vases, trinket boxes, collector plates, bells, clocks, lamps, mugs.
J.'s pieces each bear a label with a single number: 130 and 137. If we saw a fraction, such as 130/200, we'd know that only 200 were made. J. owns the 130th version, but a single number without an edition number does not convince us of rarity and does not add to the piece's value.
These framed works are a popularized version of an ancient art form, much like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's versions of Egyptian cats or Greek Hermes, and are worth less than $100 each. J., I'm afraid eBay is your only market.
DL sends me an Asian style painting on fabric glued to a backboard and framed in a mid 19th C. frame. The frame is from the mid-19th C. European, but the painting is mid-20th C Asian. But where in Asia? Interestingly my research led me to a little known area of Asian art. This is “Forgotten Art,” the kind of souvenir art produced in Korea during the darkest days of the Korean War.
It’s been 64 years since the Armistice Agreement; DL’s piece is at least that old; because of the non-traditional “traditional” subject matter, we see the meeting of an Asian aesthetic watered down for Western eyes. I draw information from a catalogue of a Smithsonian Institution Exhibition: “Undiscovered Art from the Korean War: Explorations in the Collection of Chester and Wanda Chang” of 2014. As artists “negotiated their own paths of production through the devastation of the war, many turned to the creation of souvenir crafts in order to support themselves and their families, (creating) a substantial body of art and craft work missing from mainstream Korean art history, misrepresented in museums,” says the Smithsonian. This is in contrast to the work of the great American photographers shooting that conflict; their art is well represented in the collections of the US Army, Navy and Air Force Museums.
Great figures of the American art world came out of that conflict; the head of the Asia Department of Art at the National Museum of Natural History was formerly the 1950’s U.S. Information Agency’s Chief Branch Officer in Seoul, Eugene I. Knez. U.S. Asian scholars were born from their service in the conflict. For example, Knez in 1950 assisted the Director of Korea’s Natural Museum in Seoul to transport innumerable treasures by train boxcars from Seoul to Busan, a Korean conflict “Monuments Men” story.
The Smithsonian maintains the Korean Heritage Project. The Korea Gallery opened in 2007, seen by millions each year. Yet the Smithsonian directors realized in 2014 that collectors of art like DL’s had a less distinguished “art historical” voice – they were G.I. collectors, buying souvenirs: art’s popularity as souvenir amongst visiting foreign troops led to, in some cases, mass production. I suspect The Smithsonian would be interested in DL’s piece had DL been able to trace its original owner. And she writes me that she has tried diligently.
The back of the frame reads “owned by Capt. John L. (last name torn away) 4114 E. 74th St., Cleveland, 5, Ohio.” DL’s is a diluted Asian scene on thin fabric (not typical for fine Asian works of art) with a limited palette (grays and whites) bearing no Asian character signature. The inscription on the back points to proud ownership by a US military man, the composition points to souvenir Asian art of the mid-20th C: “forgotten” Korean souvenir art.
DL should know that the Smithsonian has recorded Korean War vets who can be connected with their “Forgotten Art” to document specific dates and locations for their acquisition. This material culture sleuthing is an important part of their project. Says the Smithsonian: “We hope that one result of this (exhibit and catalogue) will be that Korean War veterans and their families (will) take part in this ongoing effort by facilitating the study of their own collections along with the associated documentation about where and when objects were obtained.”
A study in the creativity of an occupied land, DL’s lovely piece is part of the narrative of wartime art and craft. Much of the Smithsonian collection was donated by one Korean national, Dr. Chester Chang, whose father was First Korean Consular official in Los Angeles. Chang began life in the US but returned to Korea just as war broke out, attending high school with the now-renowned Korean artist Park Sang-ok, who sparked a life-long collecting passion in the young Chester. Dr. Chang eventually returned to take a Ph.D. in California, becoming a success in aviation.
Out of the turmoil of the Korean War, Korean artists created an “internal” export market, selling souvenir art to GI’s and UN personnel. Some of this art is valuable, executed by established master-artists, such as the work donated by Chang. Artists created new techniques and media to suit foreign troops’ tastes, even the lowest-brow of tastes. A great example: scenic wall plates in the mock-Asian style for a military wife back home to admire in her U.S. kitchen. The value of DL’s art is under $100. I suggest she share it with the Smithsonian.
In 1987, an American "hairy paw" chair was purchased at auction for $2.75 million. M.S. of Santa Barbara has a hairy paw table from the 19th century, made of American golden oak. Unfortunately, it's of much less quality; in fact, it's made by machine.
In this country, furniture bearing an animal foot design was beloved before the American Revolution. The furniture was made by the finest carpenters with fine fruitwoods, both native and imported. Animal feet surfaced again after the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the middle class. A furry animal foot on antique furniture is so ubiquitous that we forget how strange it must have looked as a new style.
British craftsmen of the 19th century originated the style after seeing what the Romans did with animal feet; excavated ruins showed hairy paw
antiquities. After the fad, British connoisseurs labeled it garish. Having graced the homes of aristocrats in London, such 18th century furniture was sent to Ireland and the colonies.
American makers imitated the high style (no Englishman told us it was vulgar) and it became a fashionable design here for 100 years. By the time Americans purchased tables like M.S.', the style had trickled down to the middle class.
Beasts' feet came in many forms on furniture: lion and dog paws, goat and bull hooves, eagle talons. I have yet to find a chair or table with mixed animal feet, however.
The popularity of American hairy paw furniture can be traced to Thomas Chippendale (1781-1879). He never came to America, nor did he make his furniture for Americans. But his designs were popularized through his catalog of work called "The Gentleman & Cabinet Maker's Director." The 1762 edition came to the U.S. on ships. Chippendale created one unique design involving animal feet: the "ball and claw" style. The ball is a round piece of wood around which any number of animal toes might grasp; designers' expert techniques can be seen in their intricate carvings. The bottom of the ball is slightly flattened to support the chair, or the base is fitted with a brass caster. The artistry of the wood carver is most challenged when the foot of the lion or eagle must transition to the actual leg.
M.S.' table is an everyman's version of this hairy paw style from the third quarter of the 19th century. It is not, as the 18th century American versions were, expertly carved in an elegant wood. M.S.' table merely suggests a lion's hairy paw with three toes and claws; at the backsides of the feet, a little hairy frill suggests the lion's fur. Lion's feet on anything suggests nobility and grandeur.
When the American middle class was forced from the farms into the factories, a little grandeur was necessary and the style had a resurgence. Almost all of the American furniture from this era is made of oak. It was durable, cheap and plentiful. Machinery to join these tables was invented, and large furniture factories employed hundreds. No longer was one American carpenter hand-carving pieces for the American upper class.
In fact, there's a reason that the 18th century American upper class lost interest in the style. Right after the Revolution, especially in Philadelphia, anything that smacked of royalty was discouraged. American furniture did a quick about-face to the Federal style, based upon the French furniture. You might argue that French furniture of the day was overseen by Louis XVI, himself a king. But Louis was not George III. Most Americans wanted nothing to do with George III. Not
even his table legs.
American homes in the late 19th century typically had a round dining table with hairy paw feet extending from a central pedestal. American ingenuity created a ratchet of metal underneath the tabletop — the table expanded to fit multiple leaves. Oftentimes, the quality of these tables is seen in the leaves — leaves that follow the curve of the circle into an oval and boast a drop cornice come from a better table. Most had "service" leaves, made of a cheaper wood that relied on a
Golden oak hairy paw furniture was so plentiful in the late 19th century that M.S.' table is worth $300. But find an 18th century table and you are golden.
MLB from Chicago sends my worst nightmare, a turn of the last century German bisque piano baby figurine at about 8 inches long. In size, anywhere from 3-4” to 30” long, these infant-style figurines gratuitously laid on top of grand pianos, holding down ubiquitous piano shawls draped over piano lids. All of these piano babies are life-like, chubby, blue eyed and blonde. Most display fat naked thighs and bottoms. They usually lie on tummies or backs; some are in the act of playing with their toes, and toes are often seen inserted into little pink mouths set with tiny realistic baby teeth. In all, revolting! But like all fantastic fads of material objects that once captured the market, the object tells us about the philosophy of their time. In this case, we will learn something about the mixed sentiments around children in 1900.
Some late Victorian parlor pianos had whole menageries of these little bisque figures perched on top of the grands. Some piano babies are naked: the reason for this is unfathomable, yet some collector’s guides give the following excuse for this prurient practice; they say, “The baby is freshly bathed,” as if that story makes a (licentious!) difference. That’s what is dangerous about hyperrealism: it taints the imagination. To be more than real is to invite a nightmare.
The worst feature of this particular realism is the attention to meticulous life-like detail. This detail lies in the threefold process of the medium: firstly, the bisque, which is a low-fired type of porcelain, was incised, an “intaglio technique,” used, for example, around the eyes where a line was etched to create depth. Secondly, detail was applied in diluted pastel paint colors, horribly but expertly applied. Thus, little baby teeth are molded in the bisque, then etched, then painted pearl white, and surrounded by a coral pink bow-lipped mouth.
Most of these piano babies are, as I have said, (most unwholesomely) half-naked or naked: baby dresses, gowns, and sleep shirts (tantalizingly) open, either exposing bottoms and legs, or falling off rounded shoulders. The most notable manufacturers of these piano babies, the German Heubach Brothers, tinted the bisque medium called slip (which is usually bone white) a delicate “baby flesh” PINK, so baby’s skin looks and – because bisque is smooth – feels real, including artfully placed (concupiscent) dimples in cheeks. I mean in all cheeks.
Some of the poses of these babies are voyeuristic, to say the least. Here’s some popular attitudes: a little girl in a sunbonnet drooling over a peach, a baby in an adult’s shoe, a baby crawling from an egg as if newly hatched, a child on pillow teasing a puppy, or reclining with thumb in mouth, or in all-white underwear, or on a tummy, naked, reading an oversized book, or a little toddler with torn romper and long blond curls, with trembling lip.
All this begs the question of the turn of the last century’s social attitude regarding young children. Ironically, children were seen and not heard, AND highly romanticized. Most children’s clothes were miniatures of adult’s styles and just as restricting and structured. Boys and girls wore bows, dresses, stockings and high-topped boots, hats, collars and little fitted jackets, if the family had money. If the family was urban or rural poor in 1900, a child might dress in rags, and work in the mines, or clean chimneys, or hawk newspapers, or tend the farm animals. Realize that when these idealized baby figures were modeled, most children worked to support their families, some to their death. It was not until the late 1930’s that Congress passed a law protecting children across the U.S. For example, my grandfather, born in 1899, delivered ice as a child. His brother stoked the coal-fired heater and stove, his sister filled the kerosene lamps. (Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb until 1879 – and by 1910 many cities were not yet wired for electricity.) When a child took sick, in 1900, a child was dosed with “patent medicines,” tonics and syrups claiming to cure anything. Not until 1906 did Congress outlaw miracle cure-alls for children. So how pink and chubby were the children of the turn of the last century? Not as pink and chubby as these piano babies, I’d wager.
Yet there are collector’s clubs for these piano babies, and I read with interest on three such club’s homepages that many collectors of these figures are men. I leave that bit of information with you. The piano baby is worth $400.
S.J. sends me a Chinese snuff bottle at 3” long. This form has a bad reputation, often labeled opium bottles. These were a fashionable accessory for carrying powdered tobacco ground with herbs and spices for a small spoonful of snuff, conveyed to the noses of upper-class men. Just as a gent might make a show of checking the time in male company if he could flash his Patek Phillipe, men offered a dose of snuff in a flashy bottle.
Beginning with Chinese imperial court, the use of tobacco was banned after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Because tobacco had another side, medicinal, it was believed to cure head and stomach aches. Medicines in China were carried in little glass bottles, thus if a man carried tobacco in a glass bottle he used it as a medicine, scrumptiously, of course. Europe at this time also had a penchant for sticking this stuff up noses, but their snuff was contained in boxes, of silver, for example, and not in little bottles, as in China.
Fashionable bottles, some costly and hugely symbolic, were collected by the elite from the 17th to the 19th C., much as a trendy gent today might collect expensive shoes. The finest of Chinese artisans, not necessarily China’s fine artists, made further inventive designs for snuff bottles in all kinds of materials: glass, jade, agate, tourmaline, ruby matrix, amethyst, porcelain, all manner of precious stones.
S.J.’s bottle is glass, but glass with an artistic difference. The center bottle is blown clear glass, which later was painted in its interior, executed with the tiniest of brushes. The outside darker portion is also glass, blown OVER the clear glass, called “cased, overlay or cameo” glass. This is both painstaking and fraught with the potentiality of breakage, due to the non-existence of thermometers in the glass furnace.
The interior painting depicts a bird, and since Chinese figurative imagery is symbolic, a picture is a close relative to the Chinese alphabet. Both tell a story. Birds were decidedly a male symbol, as the Chinese word for bird “niao” also means penis, used not in a pornographic or pejorative way, but in the meaning of an indicator of the approach of love. Often these snuff bottles were passed between men to ask for, or to answer to, a favor or a bribe. Snuff was offered to friends, the bottle as an object of status and admiration.
Furthermore, an image painted inside a bottle might have a double meaning, as in a pun, causing a smile of deference to a superior wit. For example, a picture of a bat, when identified in language with a certain intonation, means “blessings.” Likewise, ‘two magpies’ is pronounced the same way as to say ‘two happinesses,’ meaning, two lovers. Birds carried attributes: an oriole is a musical joyful bird, a symbol of women who are also “fun.” A duck mates for life, a swallow symbolizes brotherly love, and a quail is a symbol of courage (as quail fights were a favorite male sport). The bird pictured on S.J.’s snuff bottle is a robin, not a good omen, perhaps meaning mourning.
Other snuff bottles depict Chinese pictographs: these bottles were presented to young scholars about to sit their civil exams. Luck was necessary: only a few passed; scholarship ate away 12-years of a young man’s life, and out of all the scholars in China, only 1000 passed each year. These bottles say, “Wishes for Your Success!”
These bottles exhibit a microcosm of Chinese art, in vogue between 1600-1900, a short time for a Chinese art form. But formative years for China, which witnessed the coming of the European Jesuits, who learned the art of these bottles. They specialized in painted enamels on metals, picturing European people and European themes: rare and valuable, a recent find sold for $800,000 (remember how small they are).
S.J.’s was painted inside with a tiny brush that bends at a right angle, executed in watercolor, as the bottles were not meant to hold liquid. The vogue for these reverse painted bottles, as a tour-de-force of artistry, surpassed the other forms of snuff bottles, in style until 1930. They are made today for souvenirs but still hand-painted painstakingly, taking a week to complete.
S.J., yours is late 19th C. and falls into the souvenir category because of the simplicity of the figuration, and its value with its rock crystal stopper is $500.
M.K. collects toys – but a friend unloaded a 20th C. Chinese black lacquer 4-panel wall screen, inlaid and embellished with mother-of-pearl, on M.K. at her house in Santa Barbara. The scenes are set in a fanciful garden with tea pavilions housing a bevy of beauties, each panel surrounded by gold framing-style gilding. She is writing to see what level of Chinese screen she has been saddled with.
I receive many questions about Chinese screens, so here’s a good opportunity to talk about the gradations of screens from GOOD to BETTER to BEST. M.K.’s is a good screen, which means it is lacquer, an applied (and toxic) coating built up of many layers, and hand-buffed over time. The inlay is also good, in mother-of-pearl, which is not the finest embellishment, but nice, and the screen is valued at $400.
BETTER would indicate an earlier screen, say 19th C. Chinese, also in lacquer, and perhaps inlaid with semi-precious stones, ivory or bone, and gold gilding to the design features, on more than 4-panels, say 6-panels total. Even better would be a 19th C. lacquer screen inlaid with jadeite, a mineral much prized for its glowing quality in shades of green varying to white. Jadeite is hot today in the market because the Asian market has money and is buying it up.
A BEST approbation would mean that I am looking at a mid to early 19th C. screen of Coromandel lacquer, inlaid with rare stones, mother-of-pearl, gold gilding and perhaps ivory. Coromandel is a much-prized special lacquer technique called ‘kuancai,’ with originations as early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). These wonderful screens may boast up to 30-layers of lacquer (sometimes all in black, sometimes red, and sometimes even yellow) in which each layer of lacquer could be incised and/or painted, creating a dimensional design that seems to float up from the back to the surface. The name ‘Coromandel’ is a seaport in India from which these highly worked screens were received from China and shipped to Europe.
Coco Chanel owned 32 rare Coromandel screens, which she proudly displayed in her home at 31 rue Cambom, Paris.
The BEST OF THE BEST Chinese screens are eight or more panels, 19th C. or earlier, Coromandel, and inlaid with rare jadeite, ivory or mother-of-pearl and sometimes including calligraphy (poetry). Jadeite is truly gorgeous – but for our modern eyes difficult to distinguish from serpentine or quartz. Look for the distinctive colors of apple, emerald, leek, or blue-green, or white, or white with green spots. Look for translucence, cleanliness, and purity of color. Jadeite is one of the minerals recognized as the gemstone jade, the other is nephrite, and was found as diverse as California, Spain, Russia, Canada, New Zealand and South America. The Olmec and Mayan peoples as well as the Asian peoples prized it. In Spain, it was thought to cure kidney stones and took its name from sufferers who rubbed it on themselves: the “stone of the side.”
One of the finest Coromandel lacquer 8-panel Chinese screens recently sold dates from the Ching Dynasty, 1852, which pictured the birthday party and sung the praises of General Guo Ziyi, formerly the Prince Zhongwu of Fenyang, who was born in 697 and died in 781. He was one of China’s greatest generals, and immortalized in Chinese mythology as one of the Eight Immortals: he is the God of Wealth and Happiness, which is ironic because history tells us that as a human general, his victory for the Tang Dynasty littered the battlefield with so many corpses, the ground could not be located. But history is kind to this great general as well. When General Guo was faced by the Tibetan occupation of the capital city Chang’an, Guo who had only 13-scouts, asked the Chinese citizens to shoot fireworks, light bonfires and strike huge gongs, convincing the Tibetans (there were 100,000 or more of them) that Guo’s army was huge. Of this kind of bloodless battle Sun Tzu (known for his book The Art of War) of the 5th C. BC, would have said that this “foil” was the cleanest type of warfare. The poems on this BEST Chinese screen add to the decorative elements of screens from Guo’s illustrious celebration, which no doubt included poems to the great general at the delightful looking birthday party. It sold for $31k at Sotheby’s NY in 2012.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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