Q Why are jade carvings from the Qianlong period so valuable?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
Audrey Wang, a specialist in Christie's Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department says: 'Emperor Qianlong had a deep interest in the arts, and during his long reign [1736-1795], some of the best artworks were produced. In the area of jade carving, the best wares from this period are characterised by intricate workmanship and highly translucent and evenly coloured jade.
'During the Qianlong period, there was unprecedented prosperity and economic stability. Bountiful supplies of nephrite jade, which had previously been the province of the imperial court, were made available to the public, essentially transforming the model of ownership,' she says.
The emperor's interest in technology and ideology inspired not only new themes in the arts but also an acceptance of non-Chinese styles. For example, he admired Mughal jades. 'The Chinese jade lapidaries working for the court were influenced by this style, and as early as 1764 were specifically ordered by Qianlong to copy certain of these foreign jades, or to produce Chinese objects in Mughal style.'
At the same time, the Qing emperor preserved old Chinese tradition. 'In 1743, he ordered that copies of the Kaogu Tu (Illustrated Catalogue of Antiquities) should be given to those responsible for imperial jade carving to enable them to follow the ancient designs.'
WHAT IS JADE?
'When one speaks of jade, it is usually 'nephrite',' says Wang. 'Jadeite has also been generically termed as jade, although this gemstone has a different mineral composition to nephrite.' Both nephrite and jadeite occur in a variety of colours. In its purest form, nephrite is the colour of lychee flesh - sometimes called 'mutton-fat white' - but it mainly occurs in a range of green tones; it can also be yellow, brown or black.
Jadeite has a wider range of hues that can achieve greater intensity of colour. It has the additional hues of pink, lavender and that brilliant kingfisher green associated with jade jewellery. Jadeite was mined only after the 18th century, whereas nephrite has a much longer history.
Jade is so hard that it is not actually carved, but shaped by abrasion, says Wang. Powdered abrasives are rubbed against the jade with an agitating tool.
Despite its hardness, jade was shaped into countless objects, including weapon fittings, scholar's objects, personal adornments and decorative objects.
'Each piece would have a different meaning to the owner,' says Wang. 'Personal adornments may give clues to the rank of an official or the wealth of an individual. Certain vessels may be used in rituals.'
Jade was used as far back as the Neolithic period for burials. 'Recent excavations have revealed that jade artefacts were carved in greater numbers and in much greater sophistication than thought,' she says.
'Jade has long held an elevated position of importance in Chinese culture. In a passage from the Book of Rites, Confucius compares the qualities of jade to the five human virtues - kindness, wisdom, integrity, courage and purity. For more than 2,400 years, the Chinese have admired its hardness, density, tactile and aural qualities, and most of all, its subtle optical properties.'
NEW COLLECTOR TIPS:
'Jade objects from all periods are favoured by modern collectors, but recent market trends indicate a preference for top quality vessels and scholar's items,' Wang says. 'Fine quality is not the only deciding factor. Provenance is also an important consideration.' Wang says that authenticating antique jade requires experience with real and fake pieces. 'A specialist will look at the quality and type of stone, the style of the carving, the polish and finish. Modern jadeite jewellery can be tested under laboratory settings.'
Prices range significantly and depend on age, size, intricacy, colour and translucency, and market demand for that specific type of jade. 'At [the Christie's] auction this spring, one can expect to pay as little as $8,000, and as much as more than $8,000,000,' she says.
'To familiarise oneself with jade, it's important to handle the pieces. The tactile and visual qualities of the stone can hardly be explained in a book or from looking at photographs.'
Antique jade art can be seen at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Hong Kong University Museum in Pokfulam. Good books include Jessica Rawson's Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, British Museum Press (1995); Roger Keverne's Jade (1991); and Robert Kleiner's Chinese Jade from the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman (1996).
Christie's 'Important Jade Carvings from a Private Collection' exhibition, Apr 23-25, 10.30am-6.30pm. The auction is Apr 26, 2pm. J.W. Marriott Hotel, Admiralty. Inquiries: 2521 5396