Jadeite and Nephrite (both referred to as jade) have been highly valued for thousands of years, especially by the Chinese. But for so many years it has mostly been the Western world that took over this fascination of collecting antique jade carvings. Here in Europe and the USA much has been published and there have been many dedicated collectors and antique jade experts that created and influenced the market values.
But recently the wealthy Chinese have become very interested in jade again, but so far they mainly regard jade as an investment commodity. As most of the usual forms of investment, currencies and property have all proved so precarious, perhaps these successful millionaires are being very shrewd! This is why prices have now changed beyond belief!
The European and American collectors have highly valued the craftsmanship of antique jade pieces, some 19th Century, but particularly from the 18th Century and earlier; much has been studied and published for the benefit of other collectors.
Apart from the quality of the carving and the period of the piece, when considering jade, there is another consideration that can add value, that being the colour of the stone. Many people do not realise how many colours of jade there are. Antique jade carvings can be found in white, mutton-fat, various shades of green, yellow and lilac, black, even in red, and these can be a factor in the price. Also if there is a seal (so many wonderful pieces have no signature) but if the seal is genuine (many were inscribed later) then this too adds to the value. So for a very long period these were the main criteria that influenced the price.
Gradually antique jade of quality, has become more and more valuable. This caused the Chinese to cash in by making lots of new copies of earlier jade pieces and they carved various others in less valuable stones, but called them jade too! So many have flooded the market. They have also discovered ways of adding colour to jade. However, very few collectors found any difficulty in recognising these, as nothing more than the cheap fakes, or modern copies that they are. To be sure that the colour has not been added requires strong magnification, so it is not that easy to check. I believe that over time the dyed stones revert back to the original colour, so to pay extra for bright lavender, yellow or green jade could prove most painful!
Subsequently some of these modern fakes are so much better (the carving has improved) and there are now a number of more difficult to identify fakes. So there has become another important factor that affects the value and this is the question of ‘Provenance’. Every jade is now regarded with suspicion, unless it can be established as having been in a well known collection, or auction that dates back to the time when these fakes were easy to spot, or better still, to an even earlier period.
So this has been the way of things, for quite a number of years, whilst I was collecting. But now values are changing dramatically in a way that is hard for the collectors like myself to understand! These Chinese investors are buying back their heritage, but more as an investment than as collectors. They have decided that 18th Century pieces of a pure colour with no flaws and certainly not mottled are their preference, they particularly prize pure bright white jade, or pure green, as well as the bright emerald green that is often used in jewellery. Also any of these jade carvings that happen to have a good seal mark (even if this seal is not genuine) now command a much higher value.
Talking of a much higher value, this is where the older collectors are now really confounded. Because if we consider a well carved, good quality pure white 18th century jade carving, that would normally have sold for our expected highest value, in any auction these days, this same piece will probably sell for anything from 4 to 8 times that figure, to a Chinese investor! But a similar in quality piece, that includes a flaw in the stone (often these were brilliantly carved making clever use of any flaws) and valued just as highly by past collectors, or a similarly valued piece, but in a mottled colour, today will certainly not appeal to these Chinese investors and so will not sell for such a huge sum, making our sense of values hard for us to reconcile.
The hope is that in time the Chinese will recognise the same values, as us older collectors, also that they will become collectors rather than investors, but who knows?
The author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping to create ‘The Cohen collection’.