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30 Jun 2011

Final days in Beijing – checking out unrestored Chinese antiques

Posted by James Cottrell

Airport again, but this time half way home. The past week or so seems to have flown by as I’ve hardly had a chance to draw breath in between getting around the various markets, suppliers and workshops out here. It has been a great trip though. We will be soon be stocked up again with plenty of smaller pieces that help to add extra interest to the showroom, including a few new items – pottery and textiles that will be sent over with our next container. As well as that I’ve been able to pick out some superb pieces of antique furniture which we will ship soon. These all need to be photographed so it will be a few weeks before they are up on the website but there are some real gems. I’ve lined up far more than we can ship, so as usual it will be a question of prioritising what goes on the container and what has to wait until next time.

I spent Tuesday and yesterday afternoon visiting four more antique suppliers here in Beijing, a couple of which I had visited before but the other two were new to me. One of these in particular had a very wide variety of stock from almost all regions of China other than the south. I picked out some lovely painted furniture from the central province of Shanxi as well as one or two more unusual pieces from Gansu and a few very attractive little boxes. The difficulty is deciding what to leave behind, particularly as certain pieces are becoming more and more difficult to find in good, original condition so there is likely to be only a limited time period when these are still available. It’s a balance between not holding too much stock in the UK but not missing out on certain finds, at least before the prices rocket as has been the case already with Tibetan and to a lesser extent Mongolian and Shanxi pieces.

This morning (or now yesterday morning) was a little different. I met up with Roger Schwendeman, an American who has been in the Chinese antique business in Beijing since the end of the 90s and has a wealth of knowledge about the subject. You can check out his very informative blog here. I went with Roger to one of the two large markets in the city that sell unrestored antiques. These are both made up of many warehouses, run by the people who go out and source antiques from the various regions of China and bring them back to Beijing. They then sell them on to the many workshops who restore them for retail or in most cases for export. Each warehouse tends to specialise in furniture from a particular region, with the people who run them being from those areas – so there are a couple that are filled with Shanxi pieces, another that specialises in walnut furniture from Gansu and so on.

Antique cabinets and trunks from Gansu and Qinghai ready to be restored

Antique cabinets and trunks from Gansu and Qinghai ready to be restored

Looking around these spaces it was reassuring to see that there are still large quantities of pieces available, much of which is still of good quality – two hundred year old cabinets with the original lacquer, paintings and hardware, or beautifully decorative altar tables with their carvings almost entirely intact. However, I understand that several years ago there were far more of these warehouses. For example, rather than just one or two Shanxi specialists there were about twenty. This is partly indicative of the increasing scarcity of some furniture but is also likely to be down to other factors. Demand has reduced in some parts of the world, although seems to be holding up in the UK. Also it is becoming more time consuming and expensive to source antiques from the countryside – again because they are more scarce, and this type of work is less attractive to workers in the provinces who see easier money to be made in the cities. Not only that but most of the workshops who once specialised only in antique restoration have recognised that their supply is finite and have moved towards reproduction pieces. Interestingly they are also concentrating more time on the rapidly expanding domestic market, although this means a complete change in style as the Chinese are almost exclusively interested in Western style furniture!

That’s about it for now. Once we have some good quality photos rather than the ones I took in the dimly lit warehouses I will pick out one or two of the more interesting pieces that we will be shipping but if you can’t wait until then and are after something in particular then give me a call or contact us on the web.

James

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