Eastern Artifacts: Eastern art and culture inspire and excite collectors in the West

Asian art (aka “Eastern Art”) is highly prized by collectors. They are attracted by its fine workmanship and exquisite attention to detail, plus the undeniable lure of the exotic.

Often lumped under the generic header “Oriental,” Asian art actually embraces a wide variety of cultures. Among the many countries falling under the Asian/Eastern art umbrella: Bali, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Tibet, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands. Also in the mix: art forms indigenous to the native cultures of Australia and New Zealand, and works of art celebrating the traditions of such Eastern-based religions as Buddhism and Hinduism.

The influence of Eastern art on Western art is strong. As Western artisans absorbed the cultural traditions of the East, stylistic similarities crept into their work, whether subconsciously or deliberately. (The soft matte glazes popularized by Van Briggle Pottery, for example, resulted from founder Artus Van Briggle’s ongoing quest to replicate the “dead” glazes of the Chinese Ming Dynasty.)

This rare 21-inch blue and white porcelain vase, Yongzheng mark and 18th century, fetched $5.9 million at a Bonhams auction Dec. 10, 2012. It was part of the collection of former First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. (Photo courtesy Bonhams)

Chinese porcelain was one of the first representations of Asian art to entice buyers in the United States; export of the ware began in the 1780s.

Japanese porcelain, originally billed as “Nippon,” began to make its way to U.S. shores near the end of the 19th century. Early Chinese porcelain was often distinguished by a liberal use of blue and white; Japanese porcelain, by a similar reliance on floral and landscape motifs. Consumers found the products of both countries desirable, not only because of their delicacy, but also because pieces of comparable quality were not yet available domestically.

Porcelain was not the only outlet for Eastern creativity. Among the many other materials utilized: ivory, jade, bone, hardstone, marble, bronze, brass, gold, silver, wood and fabric (primarily silk). Decorative treatments ranged from cloisonné (enamel sections in a pattern of metal strips), to intricate handcarving, to the elaborate use of embroidery, gilt and lacquer.

Asian art in any form offers a unique blend of the decorative and the functional. The richness of the materials and treatments utilized transforms even “everyday” objects into dazzling works of art. Among the myriad of items receiving this Cinderella treatment: bowls, vases, planters, chess sets, snuff bottles, rugs, robes, tapestries, tables, trays, jars, screens, incense burners, cabinets and tea caddies. Even a simple item such an oil lamp could be reborn through imaginative artistry: a Chinese version from the 1920s, its exterior worked in cloisonné, emerged as a colorful, ferocious dragon.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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This multitude of products makes Asian art an ideal cross-collectible. Some may be interested only in the output of a specific country or region. Others may be drawn to a specific type of collectible (kimonos, snuff boxes, depictions of Buddha). There will even be those attracted solely to pieces created from a specific material, such as jade, ivory or porcelain. Aficionados of any of these categories have a lifetime of collecting pleasure in store.

During a Dec. 10, 2012 auction at Bonhams this ink and color painting, mounted and framed, sold for $20,000, far above an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000. (Photo courtesy Bonhams)

The timeline of Asian art is a long one, with value often determined by antiquity. Due to age and rarity, minor flaws (jade nicks, porcelain cracks and chips) are not generally a detriment to purchase. Any restoration should only be done by a professional, and only after careful analysis as to whether or not restoration will affect value.

Asian art continues to be produced and imported today at an overwhelming rate (and often of “souvenir-only” quality). Collectors seeking museum-quality pieces are strongly advised to purchase only from reputable dealers, and to insist on proof of provenance. A Chinese gilt bronze figure of Vajrasattva, with an incised “Xuande” mark, sold for more than $1.5 million at auction. Modern replicas fetch considerably less. ■

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