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
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter