Collecting Ancient Asia’s Tiny Treasures

Asian art offers many options for collecting little bits of beauty
September 16, 2013 2:58 pm Last Updated: September 16, 2013 2:58 pm

If well-selected, a collection of small items can be worth more than the sum of its parts. Ancient Asia’s many small artworks are worth investigating.

Avery Brundage’s extensive collection of Chinese jades is renowned not for the size of the objects, but for its comprehensiveness, the care that went into its creation, and its contribution to scholarly inquiry. It was his collection, which began in a shoebox, that led to the creation of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

If well-selected, a collection of small items can be worth more than the sum of its parts. If displayed well, it can stop someone in their tracks as quickly as a life-sized sculpture. There are plenty of beautiful and valuable items in the world of Asian antiques that lend themselves well to small spaces.

A West Coast collector who specializes in small Buddhist bronzes said he likes to collect smaller antiques because they are “tactile,” afford him anonymity, and can be easily stored and transported. An added bonus is that they don’t become part of the furniture like larger artworks tend to do.

On the value front, smaller works often get overlooked by buyers. But as long as the condition, craftsmanship, and provenance are good, its value will hold over time.

“Dealers recognize that often bigger [artworks] means more money, at least in the short term,” the collector said over the phone, wishing to remain anonymous. “However, in the long term, small but wonderful pieces often appreciate significantly.”

Here we have brief introductions to some of ancient Asia’s many tiny beauties.

Japanese Netsuke

Netsuke are possibly one of the most addictive items in collecting. They come in a wide variety of shapes, depicting historical and common figures, beasts both real and mythical, and all manner of objects. They are carved from all types of wood, ivory, and even nuts. Most fit inside an adult’s palm.

Netsuke were invented in the 17th century to solve a practical problem. Because kimono are not sewn with pockets, hanging containers became necessary to carry personal items. These pouches, baskets, or flask-shaped containers were hung from the wearer’s waistband via a cord. The netsuke was attached to the end of the cord and slipped through the waistband to keep the pouch from slipping away.

In true Japanese fashion, the netsuke transcended its utilitarian origin to become a widely beloved art form. The International Netsuke Society formed in 1975, dedicated to the study and appreciation of netsuke.

Lacquer

Lacquer, the sap of a tree—colloquially known as the Chinese Lacquer Tree—must be applied to objects in thin layers, and it can take up to three days for a single layer to dry, according to Meher McArthur in his book “The Arts of Asia: Materials, Techniques, Styles.” Carved lacquer objects may require 300 coats of lacquer. Therefore, the deeper the carving, the more time-consuming the work.

Besides carving, inlaying precious materials and painting on top of the lacquer are also common techniques.

Inro, or the flask-shaped containers worn by ancient Japanese, are usually lacquered and decorated, as are a variety of small Chinese, Japanese, and Korean boxes and decorative vessels.

Coins

Coins are obvious objects to collect.

One can argue that coin collecting doesn’t fall into art but numismatics, but their cultural and artistic merits are undeniable. Each culture has its currency, and there are so many ways one could develop a collection: by era, by culture, by dynasty.

If you want to go way back, look into knife-shaped bronze currency used by the early Chinese, before the first emperor standardized currency and did away with that form.

The Primal Trek website has a detailed overview of Chinese and Korean coins and their evolution.

Fans

Folding fans bridge the divide between works on paper and art objects. They open and close for display and storage. They are usually worked on both sides (giving two display options) and, if they bear fine and notable calligraphy, also have a literary value.

Because painting and calligraphy are vast categories on their own, collecting fans can be trickier than collecting vases or other art objects. Study up on these arts to improve your judgment, and reach out to experts.

Japanese Miniatures on Paper

Kaikodo Asian Art has two miniature Japanese works of art that were recently acquired from an American collection.

The first is a small handscroll by Fujimoto Tesseki (1817–1863) of the “Sixteen Rakan,” measuring 3 7/8 inches by 3 3/8 inches, and the other is a small album by 19th century artist Ryuto—12 leaves of landscapes at 1 5/8 inches by 3 inches.

“The latter, a very tiny album complete with a brocade cover, blue cotton album covering and inscribed wooden box, is a wonderful example of the extreme care in presentation that characterizes Japanese art,” said Carol Conover, director of Kaikodo.

Chinese Snuff Bottles

These are made from carved lacquer, porcelain, jade, glass—in snuff bottles you can find in miniature all the forms of Chinese craft. Some have entire landscapes painted on the inside of the translucent bottle, an example of an unbelievable level of craftsmanship. Others are even carved from precious gems. In March, a rare imperial pink-and-green tourmaline snuff bottle realized $171,750 at Christie’s, far above its estimate of $40,000–$60,000.

Snuff bottles come from the old custom of trading snuff, or tobacco, upon meeting. In some remote parts of Asia, this tradition lives on.

Miniature Vases

Miniature vases come in as many styles as full-sized vases and many use the same techniques.

Small Jades

In this category there are objects modeled after utilitarian things like belt hooks, archers’ rings, and bowls. Other forms, like plaques and discs, are used as personal ornaments. Sculptural jades done in miniature are also common. These include figures, animals—real and mythical, and entire landscapes. Indian and Mughal jade sword hilts are also fascinating and lavishly ornamented.

In judging jades, the integrity of the stone and the quality of the workmanship are most important. Beware of fakes, though—a lot of different stones could pass as jade, and an unnaturally high shine may indicate an object polished with modern tools.

Identity Seals

Seals are carved in all sorts of stone, but jade is most prized.

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artists and literati owned and used seals to put their names to artworks and documents. These individuals usually had artistic names and nicknames that they used at various stages of their careers, any number of which may have been used on seals.

Seals range in size from chopstick-thin to fist-sized ones befitting an emperor.

The quality of the carvings on the seals is of primary importance. This includes the carving of the signature and of the ornamental portions, which often depict dragons, birds, and other creatures.

Knowledge of history is a must when looking at the seals that once belonged to notable individuals.

Miniature Himalayan Paintings

Predominantly from Tibet and Mongolia, tsakli are miniature paintings, done on card, that tended to be crafted in sets. They are used ritualistically in Buddhist initiation ceremonies. It’s rare to find a full set nowaday, according to Walter Arader, a New York-based dealer of Himalayan art, but they are traditionally done in decks of several dozen.

“The subjects depicted in tsakli cover a vast range from main deities and protectors to their various power attributes and appropriate offerings,” wrote Juan Li for AsianArts.com. “While thangka paintings often depict these subjects in rich detail, tsakli are unique in that they generally focus on just one item at a time.” 

Indian and Himalayan Sculptures

Typically cast in bronze or copper and oftentimes gilded, sculptures in this region most often depict deities of Buddhism, Hinduism, and native religions.

“With Chinese and Tibetan bronze casting, usually the smaller it gets, the less fine it gets,” said Arader. “It’s rare to find a small piece that’s well done.”

A 17th century Green Tara figure in gunmetal silver in Arader’s collection is an exception. Only 3 inches tall, it carries incredible detail and precision in rendering.

Many Tibetan Buddhist sculptures are made small so adherents can carry them in their hands for daily worship, according to Arader.