Ivory fans

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 October, 2005, 12:00am

I had a bad experience trying to restore an antique ivory fan bought in China. Would you recommend an expert who can save the piece for me, and explain the process?


Josephine Chan of the Tibetan Gallery has been restoring items from around Asia, including Chinese ivory, for more than 15 years. 'Most of the pieces are from the Qing dynasty [1644 to 1911], when a lot of ivory was made for export,' she says. These include everything from fans to carved boxes. 'Most are extremely fragile.'


'First, I'll see if it's been restored before. Then, I'll check if all the pieces are there, and follow the design or pattern to put them in the correct order.' It sounds simple, but Chan says she often finds that fans have been reassembled incorrectly.

To start, she cleans the entire piece with a mild soap or sparing doses of alcohol. 'You have to work quickly so the ivory doesn't absorb too much.' To be safe, she always tests a small, unexposed patch to see how the ivory reacts to the cleaning agent. If a piece is missing, Chan looks for a replacement from her cache of antique ivory pieces. For larger pieces, she often uses bone, even though it has a different grain - bone has vertical lines, genuine ivory has curved cross-hatching. 'The most important thing is the colour,' Chan says. 'After a period, ivory becomes more yellowish, so you have to match that before making the repair.' She uses natural stains such as saffron for yellow tones, and pomegranates or berries to mimic the red stain used on ivory chests.

The new piece is cut to size and shape, especially where it will be attached. The original breakage point is hardly touched. 'It's easy to do more damage.'

Chan usually uses epoxy adhesive to affix the piece. The hardware store staple can also be mixed with a lime powder to fill in gaps. It's then left to dry. 'After restoration, the edges are rough, so you have to polish it with the finest sandpaper,' says Chan. 'You can also use rough fresh leaves.' Depending on the results, she might finish the job with a final stain.


There are a few common restoring mistakes to avoid. In the past, broken parts were repaired with metal pins. Apart from the visual disruption, it can force further breakage. And too much glue can damage the piece. 'Because it's not cheap to restore ivory, I rarely recommend restoring new pieces,' Chan says. 'It's not worth it.' For example, it took one week and cost about $5,000 to repair and re-ribbon the damaged sticks of a carved Qing dynasty fan. Larger jobs could cost $30,000.

To minimise yellowing over time, Chan advises regularly cleaning away dust and oils from handling with a damp cloth.


Books (Amazon.com): Chinese Fans: Artistry and Aesthetics (Arts of China) by Gonglin Qian ($101); Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing by William Watson($234).

Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2721 0116

Josephine Chan, the Tibetan Gallery: 55 Wyndham Street, Central. Inquiries: 2530 4863

Please send questions about collectables to sofiasuarez@yahoo.com