When starting a collection of any sort, it’s important to figure out what kinds of works you’re drawn to, a consideration that’s exponentially more vital when it comes to Chinese jades. Spanning millennia, the material comes in many colours and has been shaped into many forms. ‘It seems basic, but Chinese jades vary so much in both material and form,’ says Vicki Paloympis, a specialist in Christie's Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department. ‘Learning about them is a journey.’
Neolithic jades, which date from about 2000 to 4000 B.C., typically consist of tools, such as axe blades, or ritual objects. These objects are interesting from an archaeological perspective, because the ritual functions of many are unknown and no documentation exists. In contrast, Ming dynasty jades (1368-1644) are often carved from different coloured stones and exhibit a soft high polish, while Qing dynasty (1644-1911) examples, which some people argue are the highest-quality carvings, are often found in white, translucent stones, and sometimes, in coloured stones.
‘Someone who likes a yellow jade vessel dating to the Qing dynasty, possibly even earlier,' says Paloympis of the above vessel, 'might not be drawn to a Neolithic axe blade, such as the beautiful jade blade sold as part of the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection.'
In China's history, there were two major peaks of intense antiquarian interest: the first during the Northern Song dynasty, 11th-12th centuries, and the second during the late Ming-early Qing dynasty, 16th-18th centuries. The fascination with the art of the ancient past is reflected in this particular vessel, which is based on bronze prototypes from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.)
‘When I first began learning about jade carvings, I was attracted to the flashier, larger carvings. As my expertise grew, I began to value the finesse of the smaller carvings,’ says Paloympis ‘In these smaller examples, you can really begin to appreciate the skill of the lapidary artist, who was able to bring so much detail and life into just a small stone.’
Chinese artists have a certain aesthetic taste, and this is seen in diverse mediums such as porcelain, pottery, jade, cloisonné and lacquer. Once you have accustomed your eye to the proportions and silhouettes of Chinese forms, this will inform your entire collecting experience.
A good tip for a novice jade collector would be to look for forms that you are already familiar with in other mediums. ‘Once you have mastered these jade objects you can branch to the less familiar,’ says Paloympis.
An 18th-century water pot is not only composed of translucent stone and exceptional carving, but it also contains a feature that often appears in Ming and Qing dynasty jades: decorative motifs which translate into a rebus. These symbols are significant for their auspicious meanings.
The above white jade water pot is carved in the shape of a lotus pod, which signifies good fortune for the owner. The lotus flower, hehua, symbolises both marriage and purity. As the lotus is one of the few plants whose seed pods are visible when the flower begins to bloom, it is also associated with the early arrival of sons. The seed pod, bursting with seeds, is a symbol of fertility, and the leaf, heye, is a pun for harmony, hexie.
Chinese jade lapidary artists exercised their superior technical abilities to demonstrate their understanding of the material, as illustrated by the intricately carved archaistic dragon and phoenix shown on the above cup and cover. ‘This type of attention to the stone is what separates a master carver from a novice and is a sign of quality,’ Paloympis says.
A good example of the high technical skill of Chinese artists is the above finely carved white jade figure of a mythical beast, offered at Christie's as part of the Junkunc collection in March 2021.
‘When you look closely at the facial features of the beast, the details of the body and the use of the stone, you can really understand why Chinese jade carvers are so respected for their talents,’ Paloympis remarks.
Just as some collectors will connect personally with a marriage bowl, others may be drawn to jades that illustrate scenes from famous texts or poems, or carvings of specific animals. Others still, who like the ocean, may prefer nautical-themed jades.
For collectors who appreciate the forms of archaic bronzes, they should consider jades in the archaistic style, such as the above jade tripod vessel, jue, that is based on a wine vessel of a bronze prototype seen during the Western Zhou dynasty (c.1046-771 B.C.)
At the height of the Chinese market in 2011, prices were high for both white jades and spinach-green jades. But now clients are searching for white, 18th-century, translucent jades with perfect stone, rather than examples in other colours. This presents an opportunity for new collectors.
‘If you’re a new collector and you know the market is really strong for white jade, you might want to try to find a different area and collect spinach-green jades or Ming jades, for example. The prices will be a little bit more affordable,’ Paloympis says.
Jade snuff bottles are another good place for new collectors to start. ‘Often they’re priced at a more moderate level, but they still have the same quality and characteristics of other kinds of jades,’ the specialist explains. And they may display some of the same design motifs: floral patterns, auspicious phrases, and even the peonies and butterflies.
‘If I were a new collector, I would go for those really small, beautiful, auspicious carvings. The prices are going to be lower because they’re small,’ Paloympis says. ‘So go for something smaller in size, but higher in quality.’
To get the full experience of collecting, you have to love what you collect. It is good to have an understanding of the market, but in the end, the satisfaction will come from living with a piece that you love and can appreciate on a day-to-day basis.