“Record sales for jade at auction”… how many times has one read those lines recently? For many years, the Chinese art market has been dominated by ceramics. However, over the past 10 years or so, the interest and buying power from the East has increased, and with it the popularity of Chinese works of art. Jade and bronze are currently at the forefront of this development. The Chinese, with their strong growing economy, are finally able to buy back pieces of their cultural heritage. With what seems like limitless resources, they are bidding against each other in a frenzy to secure the top lots. A number of gems have been found in English and Scottish country houses over the past few years. Some hidden in cupboards, others in bank vaults long forgotten. It is hard to imagine in our world of information and technology, where everyone is striving for instant success and quickly earned money, that somewhere in their house, might be hidden the greatest asset of all. Perhaps a green jade elephant on a gilt base, or a gleaming white unicorn nibbling at its foot. Millions of pounds could change hands over a treasure like this, so it is well worth having an extra rummage through the nooks and crannies of the house.
So within all the success, what is the most successful? Jade expert Roger Keverne of Clifford Street, London, author of Jade (Aness Publ 1991), tells me that new collectors to the market are very keen to buy the larger white jade statement pieces of the Qing dynasty; plaques, incense burners and massive boulders in highly prized milky white jade or the darker spinach jade. Eighteenth century pieces fetch high prices and the more elaborately carved, the higher they go. Once collectors have established a collection and have honed their taste, they might move on to smaller pieces, for instance little white nuggets carved in the shapes of animals. These small jades are very personal, often carved from pebbles found in the river bed. They would have been carried in a pocket, handled daily and would slowly build up a rich lustre, giving them a luminous glow. As they warmed in the hand, they would have given the owner a sense of possession in a completely different way from his other ornaments. The small animal carvings crave interaction and contemplation from their owner, and are not, as Roger Keverne - one of the major Chinese art dealers of today - points out, necessarily the beginners’ taste. Interest in the earlier, less ornate pieces, comes with time and understanding of the material. Keverne goes further in saying that the darker more ‘academic’ jade pieces of the Song and Ming dynasties are not fetching as high prices at auction as their larger bright and shining white and spinach jade cousins.
Another fact to take into account are all the fakes circulating in the market. It is hard to tell right from wrong, and without having handled genuine period pieces, it is often impossible to know a fake at first glance. Advice from a jade specialist or dealer will soon help to steer the budding collector on the right path, as well as visiting known collections, for instance at the British Museum.
So what do we buy now, and sell now? White jade is selling extremely well at auction. Spinach jade plaques, vases and larger animal carvings are falling prey to bidding wars at auction houses that don’t have sufficient telephones to cover the bidding. For the budding collector, look out for the more discreet and anonymous little coloured jades, hidden at the back. What you might find, in a few years, is that these are what the buyers want.