Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Ancient Tools of Chinese Teamaking

This item is SOLD.

Today I went to an estate sale.  It was an absolute bust.  On the way home, I spotted a sign that said “Attic in the Street”.  The whole block was shut down and it was full of yard sales.  I had to stop, because you never know.  I found parking and began to make my way through the tables.  A woman next to me started speaking with me and said she was an antiques dealer and there was a man with a jeweler’s loop studying cufflinks (which I later bought).  The competition was pretty rough.  A beautiful morning on a crowded street around 8:30.
I was making my second pass through on the way out and I spotted something.  I’ve been reading about jade lately.  So, I have the tone of jade in the forefront of my attention.  Spectrum really, because jade has so much variation.  Jade, or nephrite, can be nearly white to deep green and lots of other possibilities as well.  Anyhow, I spotted a near translucent piece of pale jade on a very short teapot.  It was interesting immediately.  Normally, I don’t go for Asian antiques.  Too much I don’t know.  Too much fake stuff.  It’s a challenge for me, not having grown up with any exposure to it.  But, this was interesting.  Not only did the teapot have a jade handle, but a jade spout and a jade knob on its little square top.

The Maker's Mark
of Fan Shuzeng

I picked it up.  My immediate reaction was that it was sterling silver.  It was covered in Chinese characters on one side engraved into the metal.  On the other, was a graceful flower.  It screamed old.  I carefully lifted the lid and inside was a large and intricate hallmark.  I had to buy it.  But, I had no cash!  I asked the man if he wouldn’t mind holding it for ten minutes while I hit the ATM.  Sure, he said, no problem.
Got cash, bought the teapot, and headed home, eager to do some research.  Chinese teapots are not my field of expertise.  I began reading about Chinese silver and realized that actually the Chinese aren’t well known for their silver work.  So, I thought, it’s pewter.  After a bit of searching, I chanced upon a website that had exactly what I was looking for.  A blog post: turned me on to the term “Yixing” which is the type of teapot I purchased.  From there, I got to Christie’s and saw that Yixing teapot with jade handle at auction in 2005 went for $3,466.00 and though the style is a bit different, I was getting excited.  Though it certainly seems costly, I spotted one nearly identical to mine selling out of Beijing on for about $10,000.  I don’t speak Chinese, so I needed to get more information and I found a guy named Chris in London who is an expert at pewter encased Yixing teapots.  Amazing!
I sent him the photos and he wrote back with the following incredibly scholarly email:

“Hi Nathan,
One Similar to Mine
Listed in Beijing
at 10K

Now that is very curious would you believe that earlier this week I saw another almost the same and inscribed by the same scholar.  At first I thought it was the same one but the poem is different.  I have attached the picture of the other one.
The scholar is Er Quan who was well known both for inscribing pewter pots and traditional style yixing wares.  Your pot doesn't appear to be dated, some are marked with a cyclical date in the chinese style, but yours would probably dates between 1830-40.  The inside would normally have a yixing inner lining with a seal  stamped on the bottom of the inside of the pot.  ON your pot if present it will on the raised section between the two feet.  Most examples I have seen signed by Er Quan the pots were made by Fan Shuzheng who was possibly one of the most prolific makers of pewter encased pots.

Inscription by Scholar
Er Quan on my Teapot

The shape of your teapot is actually derived from an ancient Chinese  bronze coin called a Spade coin.  I am not sure I have ever seen this shape in other materials but this the seventh one I have seen in pewter so quite popular.  If you are able to get a shot of the inside of the pot assuming there is anything inside to photograph I will try and confirm who the maker is.
Hope this helps.  If you have any other questions feel free to ask."
I had hoped that Chris could translate the poem for me, and give me a value for the item and I called on his obviously deep knowledge base for a bit more.  He responded with the following:

Flower Pattern
on the Teapot

"Thanks for the photographs.  I was right, it is definitely Fan Shuzeng.  Ah translate the poem, sigh I really wish I could but this is something only the very best Chinese scholars can do and sadly I am not even remotely close to being that.  Though the calligraphic style is quite accessible he uses early nineteenth century characters,  many of which have fallen out of use and not in current dictionaries but many have been simplified so most mainland Chinese would struggle with them.  The old style traditional characters are only used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.  To compound the problem the poems often use references that are very obscure to non Chinese scholars so even if you can crack the characters the results can seem very bizarre.  On one of my pots the poem made reference to drinking sparrows tongue which was pretty odd until I discovered that this was a type of loose leaf green tea!"
It is simply astounding that you can contact a brilliant collector in London and have all the information you could possibly need, including a price to end an extremely successful day antiquing.  Thank you, Chris.  And, here is his blog, which if you are interested in these types of teapots, you will find extremely informative:
As an addendum, a very kind scholar in Hong Kong translated the teapot!  It reads:

"Plum was adopted as a symbol of the literati.
They enjoy the wine under the moonlight."

Friday, October 8, 2010

What is weighted or loaded sterling?

A customer wrote in today with the following question which I have gotten a lot over the years.  She asks, “Hi, just making sure about the have .925 as a tag yet it says cement loaded. is this solid sterling or plated and what would the weight be of the sterling? thank you”
It’s a great question and there are lots of misconceptions about silver, so I am going to address the question of what does it mean when something is “weighted” or “loaded” and is marked sterling. 
Here’s my response to the customer:
“Thank you for asking.  That's a good question.  This item is Sterling silver (92.5% Silver by content), not plated.  It has the stamp STERLING on the bottom and the maker's mark for Fisher, a well known producer of Sterling silver items.  Here's additional info should you want to know more:
This piece is pretty typical for sterling silver candlesticks and some other types of serving items like bonbon dishes, compotes and so on.  What the makers did was to create these types of items from .925/1000 sterling silver, but they are hollow ware.  The hollow space is filled (aka 'loaded', 'weighted' etc...) with concrete, wax, sand or anything else that would give the item added heft.  There is no way to know the exact weight without cutting the item up.”

Fake Gold Medallion

So, yes, all items marked STERLING are made of metal that is 925 parts out of 1,000 silver.  And no, if they are weighted or loaded, they are not solid STERLING.  The STERLING standard was made law because governments (especially England initially) wanted a way to standardize the use of this precious metal and allow people to distinguish between silver and other alloys.  At one time, these items were required to pass through the hands of a local assay office.  It’s fairly rare in my experience to run into items marked STERLING that are fake, because of the relatively small value of silver (currently about $20/ounce) compared to more precious metals.  Gold on the other hand, is frequently faked.  I myself have purchased fake gold much to my disappointment as shown in the example of a fake medallion stamped 14K that is probably produced in Mexico shown at right.  Yeah, yeah, I should have known better.
Electroplating or silver plate, by contrast, is a process by which a thin layer of silver is applied to a base metal like copper or brass using an electric current.  By LAW, these items can NOT be stamped with the word STERLING.  Frequently, they will be stamped with things like: 'EPNS' (electroplated nickel silver), 'quadruple plate' etc...”  Unscrupulous sellers frequently mark these items with labels like “Sterling silver plate”, which strictly speaking is true, but is deceptive at best.  Sellers also will represent silver plate as “silver tone” which makes it very difficult to determine the metal content.  Generally, I recommend that buyers avoid such items if they are looking to make a good purchase of silver.  These items have virtually no value on the antiques market unless they are very old, very interesting, or have very fine craftsmanship.  The serving dish that grandma used that’s marked EPNS on the bottom and was used to serve the green beans at Christmas, sadly, is worth very little on the antiques market.

If you are interested in sterling silver, I might have the item you need.  Check out the shop:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Antique Shops at Kensington

Gold Buddha

Today, I went for an adventure in Kensington, MD to check out antique row.  Amazing.  Very cool little area with more antiques than you can comfortably absorb in a day.  The shopkeepers were amazing and kept recommending the next shop in the row, which I have to say shows very good manners and respect for one's colleagues.  One shop was extremely enjoyable.  A cheerful young woman was working there and began to tell me the history of the shop and its owner.  As I was walking around, I had noticed the buddhas which were substantial and very attractive.  The shopkeeper explained that the owner's father had owned an auction house and had been a great collector of Asian antiques.  Although none of these beautiful relics were for sale, they were a real treat for the eye.  There was also a nice navajo squashblossom necklace (well over a thousand dollars) and an amazing small ivory buddha ($500).

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright

In a shop run by a pair of very sweet, humorous and interesting sisters, I was shown a gorgeous coin silver ladle made by a local Washington silversmith in the 1850's.  Very nice, simple and elegant piece.  And, as we noted, it's always great to see old antiques made by craftsmen still lovingly kept in the community where they were produced.  Also in the store was a terrific plaster bust of Franklin Lloyd Wright.  This piece, as they explained was made in a series of busts of persons who were thought to be the "light of the world" at the time.  Since Wright brought us so many masterpieces of modern architecture, I have to agree with the sentiment.  I certainly enjoyed this shop.  And while I can't remember the names of each of the shops, if you go visit you really should see them all anyhow.

Orange Abstract
Fleur de Lis Pin
 The last shop with items I coveted was large and had some fantastic turquoise and silver jewelry.  I chatted with the friendly owner whose son had also gone to Tulane and now was in business in NY.  She had a great store and upstairs I saw two items I loved.  One was the dynamite fleur de lis pin and the second was the awesome giant orange abstract painting.  All said, it was a wonderful few hours in the shops at Kensington.  My last stop was the charity shop for the prevention of blindness which had two lovely volunteers.  There, I bought several knives, cufflinks, and so on and have added those to my shop.  To see those purchases, check out my shop at:


Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Box Project

About ten years ago, on a weekend trip to Staunton, VA, I was browsing around in an antique shop called The Jolly Roger Haggle Shop.  On a bottom shelf, way in the back, I thought I spotted something.  It was a very old looking box and was in terrible condition.  The entire box seemed to be covered in pine sap or some other sticky, grimy substance.  Inside, the box was lined in blue silk and had an oval mirror in the lid.  I licked my thumb and rubbed it across the lid.  The lid was inlaid with small squares, and once I wiped away some grime, I immediately recognized that the inlay I had cleaned was tortoise shell.  Although it was in terrible condition, I wanted it.  No price, of course.  So, I took it up to the front counter and inquired. 

"Where did you find that?"  The owner asked.

"It was over there on the shelf gathering dust.  What do you want on it?"  I replied.

The man said he would take $20.  I felt it was a good deal, so much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, I bit.  I got the box back to the hotel and began to clean it.  Immediately, it was becoming clear that I had found something special.  The box was not only inlaid with tortoise shell, but ebony, ivory, curled maple, and had sterling silver hinges and lock.  A nice, very old box, I thought.

I continued to clean it up a bit, but knew that it would require more cleaning and work to bring it back.  As I fiddled with the lid, the mirror busted through the old horse glue that affixed it to the top and it was now loose inside the lid...Great, just great I thought.  I played with the mirror a bit and it rocked.  I suddenly realized that there was something behind it.  What could it be?  Very carefully, I lifted apart the old nails of the lid and discovered that there was paper inside.  And, with a pair of tweezers, I very slowly removed it, hoping it was full of gold certificates or confederate cash.  But, it was just a newspaper.  I decided to see where it was from and when.  Would it help me to date the box?  As I pulled it out, I was stunned.  The newspaper was from Vallejo, CA and was dated from the 1850's.  Remarkable.  The owner of the box, some time after it was made, had wedged the newspaper into the lid to hold the mirror when the glue broke.  This dated the box in my estimate to somewhere between 1800 and 1830.  What a journey!  This box must have made quite a journey before it found me.  I put the newspaper back inside the lid.

Over the years, I have worked on the box on and off and replaced some of the missing inlays.  For the ivory, which is difficult if not impossible to acquire, I used 1850's piano keys.  Ebony veneer too, is impossible to find.  I used a false ebony.  It was also missing the escutcheon and the medallion on the top.  Replacing these was difficult.

These had to be hand made.  I purchased a 1 oz .999 silver coin to make them.  I melted down the coin and hammered it out into a large oval blank.  Then, I traced the shape of the medallion and cut a piece of paper to an exact fit.  I applied the piece of paper to the silver blank I had made and etched the shape into it.  Now I began the process of hand filling it into shape.  It took many hours of hammering and filing, but ultimately, I had a piece that was a fairly close fit.  This, I polished and applied to the box lid.  The escutcheon was made similarly and was a very difficult piece to make.  Getting an antique key was simply a matter of going to a locksmith.  They completed it in less than 24 hours and for under ten bucks.

The box is not complete.  There are still a number of small ivory pieces, ebony pieces and the seemingly impossible to fabricate and match pieces of trim on the lid yet to be made to complete it.  And, of course, there is the small matter of making sure that mirror stays put.  It may be that I shove a piece of newspaper in there.  That should hold it! 

After some searching, I hooked up with David at http:\\ to manufacture the trim pieces for the box.  It was a difficult project because he is in Ohio and I'm in MD.  I sent David the specs as best as I could from the sole remaining piece of trim on the lid.  To the right you can see the piece that David fabricated next to the original.  The color, shape and size are close to the original.  The new trim is a bit redder and a bit larger than the original, but with some minor modifications, it should be perfect.  David also kindly tucked some slivers of ebony into the package to complete the missing ebony veneer.

I finally had a chance to add the missing rails and ivory on the top.  I had to alter the color and finish to mimic the finish of an early 1800's wood.  So, now this decade long project is truly almost done.  Only four pieces of ebony remain to be replaced.