AB’s Uncle served in Vietnam, and brought this sculpture back in the 1970’s. AB wants to know if it's jade, and what the figures represent. Because jade is HOT and VALUABLE in the wealthy and active Chinese market today, let's start with the material, jade, and how to tell if AB has the real deal. Jade is treasured!
Other semi-precious stones and minerals have been used to imitate jade from the 13th century onward, when the Chinese began to dye jade to enhance its colors, making it more valuable. I say colors, because jade can come in many delightful colors, and the key to its beauty is the color depth because of density. Here’s how AB can do a few tests to determine if piece is real jade (Jadeite and Nephrite are jade as well):
Why go to all the trouble of faking jade? If the difference in value between real jade and fake jade is $200 to $12,000, AB can see why Asian artisans created fakes and imitations.
The list of HOW fakes were made is impressive and creative. In the 1970’s when this piece was purchased, artisans were known to bleach poor quality jade. Or perhaps they shaved poor quality jade and then spun with a polymer to make an amalgamation of “jade.” This looks like jade and is in fact jade, but not altogether, but it isn't a lie to say that it's jade. Because the photo AB sends shows a near perfect finish, I would guess that this is the type of imitation; the surface of a polymer amalgamation was coated with a plastic finish that is uniformly smooth. If this scupture was coated, and left in the sun or exposed to household chemicals, it would have faded, but AB had it in a box. AB’s piece looks a little too perfect.
The modern techniques to make fake jade, created from high pressure or high temperature treatments, using modern chemicals and tools, is a far cry from jade ancient craft techniques, in which hand carvers bathed the piece as they worked in plum juice, and buffed the finish to a glow with beeswax. Asian artisans sold many other materials in sculptures that looked like jade: Aventurine Quartz, forms of garnet, forms of marble, serpentine, or prehnite. All these can be dyed and are of lesser value.
To AB’s second question: what does this piece represent? The tall female figure is Kwan Yin, whose name means “the one who hears the cry of the world.” Often referred to as the female Buddha, she is, on AB’s sculpture, pictured with a small laughing Buddha. Like Siddhartha Gautama, Kwan Yin became enlightened, yet she was acutely aware of human suffering. As she entered Nirvana, legend says that she heard the wail of a suffering being on earth, so she returned to this plane. Thus, she is the East’s compassionate mother, whose children are identified by their suffering.
Kwan Yen was and is a popular subject for small sculptures meant for the home, and perhaps AB’s Uncle was told that a sculpture of Kwan Yin would bring good luck and household protection. She has been venerated by Chinese Buddhists since the first Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Lotus Sutra in 406 AD. She is associated with the white lotus: AB’s sculpture shows the Lotus leaves twining around her head.
AB, if your Uncle’s sculpture is 100% pure fine unbleached jade, we are talking some big money, upwards of $10K. However, I suspect this piece is an amalgamation, a polymer composite, perhaps Peking Glass, or dyed semi-precious stone, as the piece looks too uniform and perfect. If I am right, the value would be closer to $300 depending on the size and condition.
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