and Buying Values - Asian
view by John Neville Cohen
(Written for publication in 1995)
As rather specialised collectors over a number of years, we have
managed to form collections of netsuke, inro, lacquer boxes,
snuff bottles, Chinese pendants, jade and hard stone carvings.
I am very lucky to have a wife who shares my interest!
Most people will not have any idea what these things are.
We like to think that on the odd rare occasion when we might
have some of these antiques at home, if the average burglar were
to break, in and find them, the chances are that it would be the
video machine or the TV that is more likely to be taken.
Should a burglar try to sell such antiques, especially the finer
examples, he would not find it easy. Not only are all
pieces well documented but also both dealers, collectors and
auction houses all belong to an International Collecting Society
and word would soon be out. Such important pieces are
bound to be recognised eventually, and could provide the police
with a valuable lead back to the culprit.
To quote current prices would be quite meaningless, not only is
each piece a unique work of art, but there are so many other
factors that will influence the value. The quality and
condition have to be considered, as does the importance of the
artist, or provenance. So how can I possibly write about
buying values? What I think is interesting and what I hope
will prove more useful, is the question of comparative values.
I have thought of relating the price of a good netsuke to the
cost of a first home. This was not far out when I first
wrote this article, or to so many times the annual wages of an
average secretary, perhaps well known cars could be used, such
as the price of a mini or Rolls Royce. No, this is not
really what I had in mind!
A comparative value as applied
to skills of craftsmanship is something I do find of use.
There are some limitations however. For example one could
not value paintings this way, otherwise a few lines by Picasso
would never justify being worth so much more than pictures with
more intricate applications of paint. So artistic merit
has to be another factor.
One must also appreciate that
all prices are dictated only by the market place. If
demand is great prices go up, if not, they go down. This
applies to antiques in just the same way as to all other
commodities. However having had many years' experience as
a collector I have hardly ever seen prices fall in our fields of
interest particularly with the finer quality pieces. What
has happened on the few occasions when I thought that prices had
reached the highest point possible, was that the following year
even higher records were broken. The larger jade carvings
have not proved as successful, this is the only area that has
been affected by less demand, and really what seems to have
happened is that prices have remained static for far too long.
There is an element of fashion in collecting, and at the moment,
as has been the case for quite a long time now, small is
beautiful! So the smaller items like most of the antiques
we collect are in very big demand. There is more to it
than that however; all the antiques we collect represent such
amazing craftsmanship, the like of which is certainly never
likely to be produced again. With so many keen collectors,
now established all over the world, searching for the very
limited supply of fine pieces, I am convinced that this is no
longer likely to be subject to any change of fashion.
Although the larger jade pieces do not sell so easily, there are
certain exceptions: very valuable pieces that appeal to the
Chinese taste do sell well in the Hong Kong sales, but the
European market is very poor. This is something that could
suddenly change, and I believe it will, particularly as the
larger carvings appear better and better value for money.
At certain times in the past we have changed direction
concentrating our collecting in quite different areas of
oriental antiques, why? The real reason has been due to
what I am calling comparative values. These are where I
constantly evaluate and try to compare the craftsmanship
involved, to relative value.
To explain what I mean, we
once stopped buying snuff bottles for a while. This was
partly because the prices had suddenly escalated at such an
incredible rate that it was very hard to accept paying so much
more for just the same quality. There was also another
reason, for about this time I had discovered and become aware of
very fine Chinese pendants. The same artists who had made
the bottles made these.
The first one we bought was an
exceptional piece and had a lot of appeal, especially as the
price was less than half the cost of a similar quality bottle!
That is how collecting pendants started and I was soon to
realise that really fine pendants are surprisingly much rarer
than top quality bottles. The search was on and whenever I
found one the price was still much lower than an equivalent
bottle. The photograph shows a bright emerald green jade
pendant of lotus with bamboo on the reverse.
Luckily my feelings about comparative values have proved
justified as pendants are now beginning to catch up with the
prices of bottles. Meanwhile, we have probably created the
largest collection anywhere, as very few other people have
concentrated on collecting them.
netsuke are superb little carvings made out of ivory and wood,
as handling pieces or toggles. They are often only about
an inch high, yet some are very powerfully carved and full of
character, each one has a couple of linked holes for a cord to
be attached so that they could be used as a toggle. They
were most often attached to an inro. The photograph of the
wood netsuke of a mouse is signed Tomakazu and the inro is by
the master lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin depicting rats stealing
So what is an inro? These are finely decorated lacquer
containers consisting of a number of interlocking compartments
held together on a cord. They were used for carrying such
small personal items as seals and pills and became fashionable
with the kimono.
They had no pockets so the inro would
be worn hanging from the sash; the netsuke was pushed up under
the sash and thus held the inro in place.
lacquer has to be seen to be believed, as it is a very difficult
medium to work with and a time consuming process. Not only
does it involve building up a very large number of layers before
any decorative work can be introduced, but there are several
different very fine skills required in completing the
decoration. Techniques involve coloured lacquer, shell
inlay, metal work and amazing applications of gold.
comparing netsuke with inro prices relative to craftsmanship,
one would have to say the amount of work in the creation of a
netsuke, is so much less than the time, effort and skills
devoted to the creation of an inro. Yet fine quality
netsuke command more than double the price of fine inro.
This being the case I would continue to buy Japanese lacquer.
One is not comparing exactly the same type of skills and
craftsmanship, but netsuke do belong with inro and many
collectors of netsuke are also buyers of inro.
more in forming our own collection we realised some years ago,
that small lacquer Kogo or boxes were not costing anything like
as much as inro yet the same craftsmanship was involved.
The same artists just as beautifully made them, so as I expect
you guessed, we stopped buying inro for a while and bought
lacquer boxes instead. We have no regrets about that
decision. Photographed below is a lacquer box in the form
of two boxes, one carved red lacquer as a crayfish the other
with gold shells each gold flake forming the background has been
When considering jade, little snuff bottles and pendants are
relatively far more expensive than the larger jade carvings, for
the amount of work and stone one acquires, although the quality
might be equally high. Years ago this was not the case,
but now you can buy fine large carvings for not much more than
you have to pay for the best little handling pieces.
These carvings are to be found in numerous forms such as animal
sculptures, figures, bowls, boxes, screens and boulder carvings.
There are some remarkable vases with lids attached by a chain,
that can consist of a large number of links, all carved out of
the one piece of rock. This is quite amazing when one
appreciates how hard and difficult jade is to carve. The
celadon jade chained vase and cover pictured, has a phoenix
amongst flowers and foliage carved from the natural russet
colour found in the stone. Two fine stone snuff bottles
are included to show the comparative size.
Some fine pieces are of a good colour and flawless material,
others make good use of natural colours and markings found in
the stone. The quality of the carving in the 18th century
of jade was really superb and even some of the early 19th
century pieces are very fine, and in my view there are some good
We have formed collections in all of these areas. Our
first interest was in the Japanese lacquer inro and later we
turned to lacquer Boxes. I recall attending an auction
having been collecting lacquer for some years. I came away
without buying any of the works I was after feeling staggered at
the prices and wondering what we could hope to collect in the
On the one hand I was pleased to think about
what we already owned, but at the same time I felt that these
prices meant we could no longer afford to buy anymore. For
a collector a very depressing prospect!
frustrated I decided to look around various antique shops to see
if anything else would catch my eye and it did. I came
across Chinese snuff bottles, and the stone bottles particularly
intrigued me. The snuff bottle pictured is a well-hollowed
mutton fat jade bottle carved with a continuous design of
archaic symbols 1736 - 1795.
Not only have they formed beautiful bottles that are incredibly
well hollowed through a tiny hole in the neck, but also they
managed to create pictures on some of these bottles from natural
markings or inclusions found within the stone. So here was
a new area that needed a lot of study, which was worthwhile as I
was fascinated and the prices were more within my reach.
We also grew very fond of jade and occasionally bought a
larger piece that seemed very good value when compared with
Later as already mentioned we collected Chinese
pendants, but I still have been tempted to buy the occasional
lacquer inro or box! Each time we concentrated on a new
area did not mean that we ignored our earlier interests.
There are other considerations that influence values. Any
antiques are greatly enhanced if published and illustrated,
especially if they also have some provenance. The fact
that a well-known collector once owned a piece certainly puts
the price up!
buying, on attending auctions I always allow enough time to
visit and explore the main dealers' stock, both before and after
the sales. This way it is possible to assess what quality
items are available and the prices being asked.
sale one can sometimes find that a dealer might have a similar
quality piece or even a better one for much less than has just
been paid! A note of caution here, sometimes a really
silly price is paid in the auction room simply because two
determined people badly wanted a piece. In such a case of
course, that value has to be discounted to a certain extent.
Strange things do happen at auctions! I have noticed
that if there is only one spectacular piece amongst some fairly
good items, there is a good chance of picking up a bargain both
just before and just after the really super piece. Before,
the main buyers are often holding back hoping they can be in
with a chance with their maximum bid, so they tend to stop
bidding as high as they might have done in normal circumstances.
After, because everyone is discussing what has just been paid,
especially if a record price was reached, all this can be going
on whilst another piece is sold.
There are also items
known as 'sleepers' and often these are pieces that slip through
at bargain prices, just because no one present required it or
for some reason it was overlooked.
Attending a poor
auction, that is one with hardly a good piece in it, can be
advantageous if there is a fine example to be had. This
does not happen much now.
Sometimes too, but not often,
a piece is wrongly described. Then one can really find a
bargain. We were lucky once and now have a jade bottle
that is so remarkably well hollowed and such a flawless piece of
stone, that it was in fact sold and catalogued as glass!
collectors begin with the view that they will only buy if they
are satisfied that they have found a 'bargain'. Whilst
this was possible many years ago when believe it or not, netsuke
and snuff bottles were sold in lots, that consisted of six or
more at a time, these days it is far more difficult.
Looking back with the advantage of hindsight over the years of
collecting I have come to realise that surprisingly, our very
best bargains were more often than not, our most expensive
purchases. These were the outstanding pieces that we just
had to have, even though at the time the prices often seemed
I worried about having paid too much
on several occasions. They were very rare, superb
examples, but still I worried. These are now the treasures
that have proved to be the most wonderful bargains of all!
advice for anyone tempted to collect would be to study the
subject first, attend auctions, meet the dealers, handle as many
pieces as possible and be prepared to commission a specialist to
bid for you. You would have to expect to pay 10% of the
bid for this service.
Unfortunately it takes years to
acquire the necessary expertise, without which very costly
mistakes can be made.
there is one comparative value that I have not mentioned and I
feel right in keeping it back till last, as it is impossible to
measure. The value of the pleasure one enjoys from such a
fascinating hobby is hard to describe.
You meet such
interesting people from all over the world for there is an
immediate bond amongst fellow collectors, except when we meet at
the beginning of an auction!
Then there is the intrigue
of the hunt and the excitement at every new addition that only
another collector can fully appreciate. Life is so
enriched, I do believe that hobbies are vital, and so many
hundreds of people who have hardly any outside interests beyond
their world of work, have no idea of just how much fun they
John Neville Cohen: An International award winning photographer
who also became a well known Asian antiques collector and an
enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars. Other interests are
skiing and Salsa dancing. The
author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping
to create ‘The Cohen Collection’. Please have a look
at: - https://www.jncohen.com
To see other articles,
with photographs, please use the following link: https://www.jncohen.com/Articles/articles.htm