Collecting Asian Art


Getting Started

I give beginning collectors the following formula for roughly determining the value of an  art  object:

Value = Materials + Age + Workmanship.

What this means and how you apply it could mean the difference between acquiring a collection that is merely pretty and one that has investment potential, or will be a much-appreciated inheritance.


The beauty and scarcity of the raw materials used in a piece, along with other factors such as hardness and durability (or lack of it), add up to what we may call intrinsic value. Simply put that is the value of the raw material itself, separate from the quality of the carving or its historical significance or any of the other factors that add to the desirability of the piece. Determining intrinsic value requires some understanding of the relative value the raw material carried during the time period the artisan was working it.

Jade and ivory, for instance, have had value since very early in the Asian cultures. Certain kinds of woods, the roots of particular trees, the burl of the root and other organic substances such as amber, also have found their way into some of the best representations of Asian  art . With the exception of bronze and a limited number of cast materials, most of the materials used in Asian  art  could be found naturally or traded. When altered in some way, by carving or firing, and turned into  art , they became valuable.

The most important differentiation is usually between the natural materials and man-made imitations.


The age of an object places it in history, gives it significance as an historical artifact and generally makes the object rare or unique. In order to make sound decisions on your purchases, it is important to be familiar with the key points in Asian histories and how they relate to the price of an object. This timeline charts the major epochs in Chinese history. [Don’t understand the formatting of the time periods. Make uniform? LJ]

Xia [Hsia] Dynasty 2205 – 1766 B.C.

Shang Dynasty 1766 – 1121 B.C.

Zhou [Chou] Dynasty 1027 – 256 B.C.

Western Zhou 1027-771 B.C.

Eastern Zhou 770 – 221 B.C.

Spring and Autumn Period 1066-221 B.C.

Warring States Period 770 – 221 B.C.

Qin [Ch’in] Dynasty 221 – 207 B.C.

Han Dynasty 206 – A.D. 220

Western Han 206 B.C. – A.D. 9

Eastern Han A.D. 25 – 200

Six dynasties Period /

Northern and Southern Dynasties 220 – 581 A.D.

Three Kingdoms 220 – 280

Wei 220 – 265

Shu-Han 221 – 263

Wu 222 – 280

Jin [Chin] Dynasty 265 – 420

Western Jin 265 – 317

Eastern Jin 317 – 420

Southern Dynasties 420 – 588

Song [Sung] 420 – 479

Qi [Ch’i] 479 – 502

Liang 502 – 557

Qen [Ch’en] 557 – 589

Northern Dynasties 386 – 588

Northern Wei 386 – 534

Eastern Wei 534 – 550

Western Wei 535 -556

Northern Qi [Chi] 550 – 577

Northern Zhou [Chou] 557 – 581

Sui Dynasty 581 – 618

Tang [T’ang] Dynasty 618 – 907

Five Dynasties or Wu Tai 907 – 960

Later Liang 907 -923

Later Tang [T’ang] 923 – 936

Later Jin [Chin] 936 – 947

Later Han 947 – 950

Later Zhou [Chou] 951 – 960

Ten Kingdoms 907 – 979

Liao Dynasty 907 – 1125

Song [Sung] Dynasty 960 – 1279

Northern Song 960 – 1127

Southern Song 1127 – 1279

Western Xia [Hsi-hsia] Dynasty 1037 – 1227

Jin [Chin] Dynasty 1115 – 1234

Yuan Dynasty (Mongol) 1206 – 1368

Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644

Hongwu [Hung-wu] Period 1368 – 1398

Jianwen [Chien-wen] Period 1399 – 1402

Hongxi [Hung-hsi] Period 1424 – 1425

Xuande [Hsuan-te] Period 1426 – 1435

Zhengtong [Cheng-t’ung] Period 1436 – 1449

Jingtai [Cheng-t’ai] Period 1450 – 1456

Tianshun [T’ien-shun] Period 1457 – 1464

Chenghua [Ch’eng-hua] Period 1465 – 1487

Hongzhi [Hung-chih] Period 1488 – 1505

Zhengde [Cheng-te] Period 1506 – 1521

Jiajing [Chia-cheng] Period 1522 – 1566

Longqing [Lung-ch’ing] 1567 – 1572

Wanli [Wan-Li] Period 1573 – 1610

Tiachang [T’ai-ch’ang] Period 1620

Tianqi [T’ien-ch’i] Period 1620 – 1627

Chongzhen [Ch’ung-chen] Period 1627 – 1644

Qing [Ching] Dynasty (Manchu) 1644 – 1911

Shunzhi [Shun-chih] Period 1644 – 1661

Kangzi [K’ang-His] Period 1622 – 1722

Yongzheng [Yung-cheng] Period 1723 – 1735

Qianlong(Ch’ien-lung) Period 1735 – 1796

Jiaqing [Chia-Ch’ing] Period 1796 – 1820

Daoguang [Tao-kuang] Period 1821 – 1850

Xianfeng [Xsien-feng] Period 1851 – 1861

Tongzhi [T’ung-chih] Period 1862 – 1874

Guangxu [Kuang-hsu] Period 1875 – 1908

Xuantong [Hsuan-t’ung] 1908 – 1911

Republic of China 1912 – 1949

Hongxian Period (Yuan Shikai) 1915 – 1916

People’s Republic of China 1949 – Present Day

You should also become familiar with Japanese history, the Shogunates and the influence each exerted on the artisans and  arts  of each epoch.

A more recently important and valuable sub-category of “age” is “provenance.” This is the history, or lineage, of a piece. A Ming vase that can be documented as having been sold in the 1970’s at an important action, for example, would be worth many times more than an “unknown” Ming vase. A piece that has been in the J.P. Morgan collection or the Herbert Hoover porcelain collection has additional value because of its “important provenance.”

Particular time periods have also become particularly collectible and valuable. Most recently is the 1950’s, the period of the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese created pieces with Communist “flavor.” For many years these pieces had very little market value in the West. As the world has changed, the Communist-inspired pieces are becoming increasingly collectible.


Just as materials have intrinsic value, the skill of the artisan commands a premium. Measurable criteria include the appropriate and best use of the raw material. This often determines, as does the artistry involved, the success of a carving or painting. While one workman can take the finest jade and produce something that people do not find pleasing and will not want to display, another can take a mediocre material and produce a masterpiece that people will fight to own.

It is important also to understand the mindset of the Asian artisans, particularly in the earlier periods. A carver, for instance, would generally have been well educated and quite likely a poet or scholar in his own right. In one scenario, he could be walking by the Yangtze River when he spies an interesting stone in the shallows. He recognizes it as jade. Picking it up and turning it in his hand, he envisions a bird. He takes the stone to his workshop and carves the bird. In the mind of the maker, he would have been removing the excess stone and revealing the bird that was present in the stone all the time. The artistry involved, and the care this carver took to reveal this bird as he originally envisioned it in the jade reflects easily in the best works of Asian  art .

To sum up: get to know your materials; allow yourself the opportunity to become familiar with the major historical periods and what types of objects they producedand , always take into consideration the technical skill of the maker.

Source by Isadore Chait

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