Chinese carved items trays, boxes and more retain popularity

Several generations ago carved Chinese cinnabar objects were an expensive and trendy antique. Do today’s’ beginning collectors even know what it is? Are they even interested?

For centuries it was fashioned into trays, boxes, snuff boxes and even furniture. Americans became acquainted with cinnabar at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Chicago. It was imported in great quantity.

It was rediscovered by collectors back in the 1960s. There were still discoveries to be made. I found a late 19th century box at a garage sale and paid $3.00. I later sold it for $150. These days it could fetch $400 at auction.

It wasn’t long before fakes began to appear on the market.

Historically, Cinnabar was being made as early as the fifteenth century in China. The name “cinnabar” refers to the color. However the lacquered pieces were also made in brown, black, plum and green as well as color combinations. Other colors are considered as carved lacquer, cinnabar style.

What makes such pieces so special is the involved process with sometimes fifty or more coats, applied on a thin wood or metal base. The layers must be thick enough to do carving of from 1/8” to ¼” depth. Often several different color lacquers were used in layers. When carved, colors would be cut to show different layers such as green for leaves. The effect is similar to overlay glass, cutting from one color through to another.

For royalty and the wealthy carved red cinnabar lacquered doors were created to open revealing entire rooms of cinnabar furniture.

CLUES: If it looks like red cinnabar that doesn’t mean it is.

The first type of fake cinnabar was made of a material like putty. Many of these pieces come to market showing damage that stems from being heat sensitive and sticking to another object. They don’t look right either with an often pale tone and coarse design.

In the 1970s another fake was made of plaster from old carved molds. If you see a white chip where the paint has come off you know it is one of these. Remember, Chinese cinnabar carvers were masters of the craft. Good examples from the late 19th century to early 20th will have finely carved and interesting designs. Look at the backgrounds. They should have complex, diapered brocade designs.

Don’t pass up a single tea cup or saucer. They could be part of an 18th century tea set handed down in the family. Check the bottom of boxes and trays for a stamp saying “made in China.” They would have been made in the 1940s.

Do you have an antique item and need more information?

For a personnel reply send a photo, along with history, size and any signatures with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and $25 to Anne Gilbert, 1811 Renaissance Cmns. Blvd, #2319, Boynton Beach, Florida 33426.