Collecting Chinese Silk
Chinese Silk The Most Sought Textile Art Form in History | Chinese Art
Chinese Silk a Little History
Collecting Chinese silk goes back to it's origin when the first silk worms were cultivated over 5,000 years ago. Some historians believe silk's origins went back as far as 8,000 years after discovering tombs bearing carved Ivory cocoons. Beginning as a cottage industry silk farms rapidly grew into a major industry driven by intense demand. Illustrating silk's early importance can be found in the tombs of the Shang Dynasty (1750-1100 BC). Within them, archeologists discovered cast gilt bronze cocoons, sewing needles made from bone and other silk production implements.
During the early days, silk was only produced for the royal families and the highest of court officials. Gradually it's popularity quickly spread across China and beyond as an ultimate symbol of wealth and one's influence. Silk then rapidly became the most sought of all fabrics and is to this day the finest luxury textile on earth.
Silk as a Currency
To stimulate trade during the Chin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC) silk became a standardized form of currency. Currency exchange standardization was crucial in permitting the newly unified China under their first Emporer to stimulate trade and growth. A bolt was deemed worth roughly a bushel of grain or 1,000 half ounce bronze coins. Throughout Silk's 5,000 year history, it's been coveted, bought-sold and collected by Kings and Emperors across the globe once seen and appreciated.
The First Monopoly (Chinese porcelain was the 2nd one)
For nearly 30 centuries China held an exclusive monopoly on the production of silk. Edicts and laws were passed and strictly enforced by the Imperial court prohibiting anyone from divulging how silk was made to foreigners. The death penalty was required for anyone attempting to take Mulberry silk Moth cocoons out of the country. It was strictly enforced as is evidenced by the length of time China remained silk's only producer.
Silk was first produced outside of China during the Byzantine Empire in 550 CE. The first silkworms were smuggled from China by Nestorian monks for emperor Justinian in Constantinople. According to legend, the monks secreted the cocoons in hollow bamboo canes. They then began production and consequently had their own monopoly in the west. The secret of silk manufacturing was controlled by Constantinople's court, lasting for centuries. Over the next five hundred years, the methods of cultivating the cocoons and harvesting the thread spread across Europe. The days of China's first monopoly had ended, where it all began will always be part of China's early innovative history that helped change the world. Collecting Chinese silk and preserving these fine examples of textile art is a continuum of a 5,000 year tradition.
Antique Chinese Silk on eBay
While not may people realize it, at any given time there are more examples of good collectible antique Chinese silk on eBay than any other site.
If you collect and want to find fine examples for you own collection, get to know the eBay sellers who can help you.
Buying and Collecting Chinese Silk
Collecting Chinese Silk
The end products made from Chinese silk , despite it's fragility, have been insinuated into every aspect of China's cultural life. Silk's uses go far beyond robes and skirts, including anything imaginable where special elegance and beauty is needed. Despite being very susceptible to damage from staining, water and light, large quantities of superb examples have survived.
Before getting to far along it should be pointed out silks have been exhumed from tombs dating back to the Han dynasty (206BC- 220 AD). The likelihood of coming across an example of these is pretty slim to none as most are Chinese government museums. You can buy find and buy fine examples of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and on occasion examples from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The quality during these periods was outstanding in particular examples pre-dating 1850, though many fine examples continued to be made until 1900.
Learning About Types of Woven Chinese Silk
Building a great collection of fine and interesting Chinese silk requires homework and study. Learning to differentiate between robes made in the 1920's and finer examples from the early 19th C. takes time. They are very different from many standpoints, not the least of which is the quality. Quality not only in the needlework but the art itself, following study and observation recognizing the differences are self-evident.
A few Thoughts on How To Date Chinese Silk
Dating Chinese silks can be done through a variety of sources. Museum collections, good books on the topic, the better auction houses do a very good job with them. In particular, among them are Christie's, Sothebys and Bonhams. The added advantage of the auction house catalogs are, of course, they provide pre-sale estimates and post auction results. Taking advantage of all these resources you'll rapidly be able to make wise decisions in building your own collection. Collecting Chinese silk requires patience and developing a good eye, so take your time.
The differences based on age are stylistically very obvious, fortunately, they also verifiable by examining datable Chinese paintings. When examining paintings to date textiles, be careful not to rely on posthumous works as they often incorporate elements of later periods. That said, some are extremely accurate, so always double check unless the painting as been vetted by a known expert in the field. The portrait of Yinxiang, the First Prince Yi (1686-1730) provides a treasure trove of datable robe ornamentation. The image is historically accurate and can be relied on for accurate dating purposes.
What You're Likely To Find (and not find)
During both the Ming and Qing Dynasties the court designated with specificity the rules of dress based on rank and position. Covering everything including colors, patterns, and cut of the garments. On today's market are plenty of Qing robes and furnishings, they turn up in the most interesting places. Buying an authentic Ming robe is extremely rare so don't hold your breath. Smaller late Ming examples do appear occasionally, quite often misdated as late Mid to late Qing.
With luck and effort, you'll build a nice collection to your taste and have hours of fun doing it.
Collecting Chinese Silk Requires a Reference Library (An Absolutely MUST, MUST Have Set!)
Collecting and learning about art requires books, a lot of books. When it comes to collecting Chinese silk regardless of age or period, book knowledge and hands-on experience is king. Getting hands on experiences is up you, when it comes to books we can help. If you're not prepared to build a good library, you'll never build a great collection. Not a MASSIVE pile of books, but just really good ones. Like collecting objects, it's always about quality, not quantity.
First, among the MUST have books, is "Imperial Silks" published by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Pub: 2000
- A large oversize two volume cased set. With more than 570 images and 1182 pages, it's the king of books on Chinese silks. Most images are a full page and of very high quality. The two volumes each have extensive introductions, loads of historical information and is frankly an amazingly good set. Is it expensive? Nope, it's a bargain at just under $200. For a set of books with this much great information, high-quality printing and superb images its a steal. I've owned mine since being published in 2000 and have used it more than any other book I have on the subject. Down the road, this will become an unbuyable set of books. Great art reference books are usually not reprinted and most runs are generally small.
Once you have the above, you can browse a variety of other volumes on which to build your library. For a look at a few we use visit our Amazon bookstore . It will be under "Books Silk" on the list.
Sources for Collecting Chinese Silk Robes-Rank Badges-Kesi Panels-Chair Backs-Needle Work Hangings
Dealers, Auction Houses and Online Auctions
Collecting Chinese silk, like collecting anything else, requires, (of course) a way to find them. Other than buying them directly from estates and old collectors you have a few options. Specialist Dealers, Chinese Art Dealers, Auctions and on eBay are your basic options. You can of course also go to Yard Sales and weekend Flea Markets which can be fun, but no often productive.
Below we've laid out the basic buying options, each have their own positives and negatives. All are useful depending on availability, access, and your budget.
Specialists Dealers in Chinese or Asian textiles
If you're lucky enough to have one in your area with whom you can buy and learn from, take advantage.
PROS: They generally have a good inventory of top quality offerings. They can share a wealth of information and offer excellent guidance in making selections. You will also find them very willing to reach out to you with offerings matching your interests and budget.
Happily textile dealers in general, tend to be particularly passionate about their specialty, it can be very infectious.
CONS: These dealers are few and far between. A few are in the United States, London, Paris and Hong Kong. (Do try and find them none the less.)
Established Chinese Art and Antiques Specialist Dealers
They usually handle a wide variety of Chinese art from porcelain to bronzes, as well as textiles. Established dealers should be in the trade for a minimum of 10 years and have a well-known reputation.
Pros: These dealers are by far more plentiful than a strictly Chinese Textile specialist. Additionally, long-term generalists in Chinese antiques are often on a par with information to textile specialists.
Cons: Typically they have a smaller selection and are not geared or focussed on textiles, with the exception of great rarities. So it can be more hit or miss.
Auction Houses Including "Live Auctioneers" (And the others)
Across the globe are thousands of auction houses specializing in antiques. Many handle fine quality Asian and Chinese art including textiles.
Pros; Some are very knowledgeable about Chinese textiles. In the United States the total in this category number around 6 of them. They are Christie's, Sothebys, Bonhams, Freeman's, Doyle NY and I.M. Chait. In the UK and EU the numbers leap exponentially to dozens. Auction houses with a true Asian art department are worth getting to know, they have a wealth of information to share.
Cons; Buying from auctioneers with Asian departments is great, however, be prepared to pay at the top of the market. 99% of all antiques and art auction houses know almost nothing about Chinese or Asian art in general. This is often despite claiming to have an Asian art Department full of experts. It is not true so be careful.
eBay Auctions and Sellers
Buying through eBay can be a great way to buy Chinese silks before moving up the "food chain" to high end auction houses and galleries. Many objects sold each year on sites like eBay, soon appear at Christie's and Sotheby's. It's surprising how many top dealers buy off this venue.
Pros; On eBay, listings are often fresh to the market right out of small local auctions, house calls, and yard sales. They are often mislabelled and dated in the buyer's favor. Everything can be returned no questions asked for a full refund including shipping.
Cons; YOU have to know what you're doing. Many sellers are shooting from the hip when it comes to describing and dating Chinese silks. Often the photos aren't very good. Modern fakes do appear, so caution must be adhered to.
Every single week we find examples of Chinese silk being offered by experienced eBay dealers we keep track of (over 300 of them). We also check through assorted search and filtering methods for terrific examples being sold by non-specialists who got really lucky and made a listing. (We love those! Don't you?)
We then put them in the Weekly Newsletter for our subscribers. Below are just a few of the examples we've found and the prices they realized, nearly all started at $5 or $20 with no reserves.
(All of the silks shown above were also previously featured in the Newsletter.)
Collecting Chinese Silk, How BidAmount Helps Thousands of Collectors Around the World
While mountains of Chinese silk can be found on the web including eBay, much of it should be avoided.
Our role in helping with this is the same as it is in how we help buyers find good porcelains, bronzes, jades etc. Collecting Chinese silk is a lot of fun, the art, history and tactile quality all contribute to the attraction felt by thousands of fans globally. Every single week we find examples of Chinese silk being offered by experienced eBay dealers we keep track of (over 300 of them). We also check through assorted search and filtering methods for terrific examples being sold by non-specialists who got really lucky and made a listing. (We love those! Don't you?)
A Few Closing Thoughts on Collecting Chinese Silk
Collecting can quickly become a lifelong passion and often leads to making new friends broadening your life wonderfully beyond the interest alone. Additionally, starting one collection can through natural evolutions lead to added interests which compliment the initial fascination. I know, as my own interests over the last decades has expanded into many areas which were previously un-explored.
So enjoy yourself!
If you have comments or suggestions for future posts or something you'd like to see on the site, please let me know.
Thank you, Peter Combs