Crafted from precious materials like jade and ivory or created out of common terracotta clay or fine porcelain, antique oriental figurines bring a unique and exotic beauty to any collection. Although identifying and appraising the value of these works of art can be a challenge, with a little research, you can find out whether you have a true treasure or simply a beautiful decorative piece. Either way, collecting this type of cultural artwork makes a fun hobby.
Types of Antique Oriental Figurines
Typically depicting a human figure or animal form, oriental figurines offer modern collectors a chance to connect with the past. Materials and motifs vary according to the era and location where the art was created, but the following are some of the most popular.
Precious Natural Materials
Many lovely oriental figurines are crafted from jade, ivory, tiger's eye, coral, and other precious or semi-precious materials. Typically, these figurines were carved by hand, and color may or may not have been added to enhance the design.
Soapstone was a popular material for Asian figural art. Carvings feature human figures and animals and come from a number of locations and eras.
Ivory, although now banned in new pieces, was a popular medium for Oriental figurines. If authentic, these pieces can be extremely valuable. Antiques Roadshow has pictures of some of these beautiful pieces, as well as the prices these items fetched at auction.
Porcelain and Ceramic
Asian craftspeople have been making ceramic, clay, or porcelain figurines for hundreds and even thousands of years. These figurines were typically cast in the desired shape and then refined with hand carving. Often, layers of glazes enhance their beauty. These are a few of the most notably varieties:
- The Japanese clay figurines, known as dogu, date from 10,000 BCE to 300 BCE, and depict people and animals in a variety of occupations. Many archeologists consider these figurines to be talismans against misfortune. Ancient people may have used them during childbirth or other dangerous health situations. Some people believe that if the person's wish was fulfilled, he or she would break the dogu. It is rare to find dogu intact.
- During the Tang dynasty, which ruled China from 681 to 907 CE, artists created burial figurines out of clay. These often took the shape of horses or camels and sometimes featured beautiful glazes. They were designed to accompany a body into the tomb. In the Qianling Mausoleum, archaeologists have found figurines in the form of soldiers, musicians, horsemen, and guards.
- During the Chinese Han dynasty, which ruled China from 206 BCE to 220 CE, artisans crafted figurines in a variety of female forms, including a mother figure breastfeeding an infant, a woman making dough, and a woman looking in a mirror. These figurines were also an important part of the burial ceremony.
- Guanyin figurines, which often depict female or male forms holding bottles or vessels, were an important part of Chinese art between 100 BCE and 600 CE. These figures symbolize compassion and were an important part of the Buddhist religion in China.
Where to Buy Oriental Artwork and Figurines
You can purchase antique Asian figurines from local antique stores and galleries, as well as from online retailers. There are several reputable galleries that specialize in these treasures:
- Etsy - This site has an extensive collection of Japanese and Chinese figurines and pottery. You'll find beautiful pieces from a variety of eras.
- 1stDibs - This site offers a number of beautiful vintage and antique Chinese figurines.
- RubyLane - This online antique mall has a great selection of Oriental figures, ranging from ancient treasures to vintage pieces from the 1960s.
- The Zentner Collection - This retailer offers a great selection of beautiful Asian antique pieces, including figurines.
Identifying, Dating, and Valuing Your Figurine
If you're just starting your collection or would like to identify a piece you've had for some time, getting an accurate sense of your figurine's history and authenticity can take some time. Fake antique figurines abound on eBay and even in antique shops, and it often takes a professional appraisal to tell the difference.
Is It Authentic?
Getting an official appraisal of your piece is the only way to tell if it is truly authentic. However, these are a couple tips to help you spot a fake.
- Stone figurines should bear the marks of chisels and other tools. These marks should be slightly irregular, showing the hand of the craftsperson.
- Test the patina of a piece. Signs of age should not wipe off with a damp cloth. Your piece should be aged in a way that fits with its use. For instance, if it's meant to be outdoors, it should show signs of weather exposure.
How Much Is It Worth?
Although your piece may have sentimental or artistic value aside from its monetary worth, you may be interested in finding out if you got a good deal or if you're sitting on a valuable treasure. Some figurines may be worth tens of thousands of dollars, while others, especially modern fakes, are worth almost nothing. According to Figurines-Sculptures.com, one of the most important steps to determining a figurine's value is finding out if it has any markings to identify it. These may be found on the base of piece. Typically, they will be figures or symbols. Not all pieces have marks, but these can be helpful. Gotheborg.com has an extensive library of marks you can use to look up your piece.
An appraisal is the only way to really know the value of your piece, and it's an important step to take if you want to insure your art against loss.
Learning More About Your Figurine
Serious collectors typically amass a library of books about antique Asian figurines. Some of the popular titles include the following:
- Sha'ar Hagolan I: Neolithic Art in Context by Yosef Garfinkel and Michelle Miller
- Baked Clay Figurines and Votive Beds from Medinet Habu by Emily Teeter
- Netsuke Japanese Life and Legend in Miniature by Edwin C. Symmes Jr.
- Chinese Tomb Figurines (Images of Asia) by Ann Paludan
Oriental Art History
From the primitive dogu figurines depicting female forms to the burial figures of the Tang dynasty, Asian art is captivating and collectible. Do your research and talk to a certified appraiser before making an investment, however. It's important to be sure you're getting a true piece or Oriental art history.