Heading out to China for another antiques hunt

Heading out to China for another antiques hunt

After a short break over Easter I will be heading off to China again next week to meet up with suppliers and to source more antiques and home accessories to be shipped on our forthcoming containers. First stop will be Shanghai, where I have timed my visit so that I can check personally on a shipment of elm furniture in our Classical Chinese range before it leaves a few days later.

It is now twelve years since I first visited the workshop that produces this range exclusively for Shimu. Whilst their business has changed to focus more on the internal market over that time, they still retain a core number of highly skilled carpenters and ‘patina’ workers that have worked on our furniture over many years and who understand the nature of the product. It’s always good to see these faces again each time I visit Shanghai and, as well as making sure the quality of our standard pieces remains consistent, going at this time means that I can also check on the ‘bespoke’ items of furniture that will be shipped in a couple of weeks, ready for delivery to customers around the end of May.

From Shanghai I fly to Beijing to spend several days visiting the various suppliers and warehouses where I source the antique Chinese furniture that has become such a big part of Shimu’s offering. Again, I’ve known some of these business owners and their staff for many years so it’s great to catch up with their news and views on the antiques market – often over a meal cooked on site using some of the produce grown in the factory grounds.

We already have about 20 or 30 antiques lined up from when I was last over in China, but I’ll be looking to select another 60 or so pieces to ship with these around the beginning of May, along with some reproduction furniture and more accessories. I try to mix antiques from different parts of China to provide our customers with the widest choice of style and finish.

Different antique restorers in Beijing tend to have their own contacts for sourcing antiques from around China, so they will each lean towards antiques from specific regions. One of my favourite suppliers always seems to have superb elm and walnut pieces from Shanxi province in central China that others can rarely match, and restores these in a very natural way to maintain the beautiful original character. Another always has a good choice of painted furniture from Gansu in the west, which they restore with a new, shiny varnish that brings out the vivid colours and designs.

  Shanxi Armoire shelf with open carving Shanxi Armoire in Shimu’s showroom Detail of Shanxi Armoire Shanxi Armoire

On each visit recently I’ve tried to find at least one piece that, whilst not being the type of museum quality hardwood furniture that sells these days at Sotheby’s or Christies for tens of thousands of pounds, is still very special. The Chinese themselves have become far more interested recently in good quality ‘vernacular’ antique furniture in elm and other woods that they previously felt were of little interest. As a result prices for these items have dramatically increased over the past few years.

Once such example is a huge, imposing painted armoire that we shipped on our last container and have just added onto our website. This now has pride of place in our showroom and I can admire it as I type this post. It dates from the mid nineteenth century and stands at around four and a half feet wide by well over seven feet high! Four of us struggled to unload it off the container and bring it up the few steps into our main showroom, but the effort was definitely worth it after we removed the packaging.

The armoire is from Shanxi province, and is in a wonderfully original condition – the once bright red lacquer and paintings of flowers, birds, butterflies and blossom now softened over the years to lovely autumnal reds, browns and oranges. This style of piece, with an open shelf section above the doors, is referred to in China as a display cabinet (or ‘wanli’). The top section would have held the owner’s prized possessions for display, whilst books and other personal items would have been stored behind the large doors. The shelf in this case is framed with some wonderful open carvings that include a central long life symbol, along with carved bats at each corner to signify good luck.

As well as the beautiful design, the cabinet’s impressive size and proportions – finished off with the old, heavy brass door hardware – make it the ultimate statement piece, although you will need a large space to house it! We’re not in a rush to find it a new home as this type of unique, good quality piece will only increase in value, but it’s well worth an admiring look if you’re passing the Shimu showroom any time soon.

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