Antiques are popular in China and many big cities host antique markets. Like U.S. markets, not everything is antique or even old. Markets here have parallels with the U.S. and may have components that American markets can benefit from.
On a recent trip, I was able to visit two markets and several shops including those in Xuzhou and Beijing. I am jealous of the fact everything is so concentrated, frequent and located close to the center city in an area filled with antique shops.
The market in Xuzhou is located in a complex built to resemble historic architecture. Filled mostly with storefront antiques, the market brings shoppers and vendors into the interior on weekends. While many vendors offer vintage merchandise and antiques, just as many offer new items such as scholar rocks, jades, reprints of midcentury political propaganda and beads.
Many of the older items had been set up outside of official shops, but several vendors did offer older electronics including telephones and radios. One vendor offered new wooden furniture.
About halfway through the market, we were introduced to Yu Xie, a friendly dealer in jade who a friend had called to look at a single foo dog offered for sale. It turned out this particular item was not jade, rather a stone that looks like jade. Perhaps for a collector of Chinese antiques that matters but I was more interested to learn if it was old. This dealer also had a book which I am guessing would be old enough to qualify as antique with jade tablets inscribed with Buddhist scripts inside (see photo below- item in upper right).
Yu Xie walked us around to see other jade items and took us into two shops offering pieces crafted by artisans. One was a closed up shop he owned and opened for us. It turns out you can have most any image cut into a jade stone.
The other item I noticed at the market was a blue and white porcelain plate which looked to have some age. As with the other items, we determined that a similar item in the US would cost less and so decided not to purchase.
As with the market in Xuzhou, we heard warnings the market in Beijing contained “a lot of fakes.” The market here is inside a walled area and includes several rows of shops contained in older storefronts, as well as at least 100 vendors. Perhaps there are fakes, but like Xuzhou, it seems most new items are not presented as old. As the contemporary market understands, if you look for quality and craftsmanship, in many cases age doesn’t matter as much.
Like Xuzhou, after walking through vendor booths and tiring of looking at beads and gourds, we decided to focus on the shops. Some focused on calligraphy and new artwork, but there were many dealers of older items including Buddhist statues, architectural remnants, clocks, cloisonne, and ceramics.
We know a collector in New York who looks for porcelain chards. Buying broken pieces of porcelain may seem odd, but we happened upon a dealer here who specializes in that, as well as complete ceramic items. Some of the lesser chards had been made into jewelry to a nice effect.
Stacks of cloisonne attracted me to enter a shop where I found a clock face which contained Roman numerals and dragons. I was attracted to the combination of eastern and western elements and sought a price. Unfortunately, after some negotiation, we realized we didn’t have a good way to purchase it. Most people in China pay for items by scanning a code which automatically deducts funds from a bank account. Without money in a Chinese bank, we had to come back later with more currency.
U.S. shops sometimes find the presence of street dealers threatening, but the shops concentrated in a particular area with weekly (or in the case of Beijing constant) markets creates a destination that benefits the whole system. U.S. shows and markets are also incorporating newer items in some cases, and from the markets in China, as long as those items are unique, not misrepresented and of good quality, to me that’s ok.
If you are in China and decide to visit antique markets, my advice would be to visit the shops first. I would imagine anything of value at a good price would have been already bought up from the vendors. You would also do well to bring cash. Most seem willing to accept Chinese or U.S. currency.
Look for quality and don’t worry so much about fakes. In many cases such as ceramics and stone, it is very difficult to tell new items from old. The only sure way to do that may be knowing the provenance, which seems like it would be as rare there as it is here.
Back at the hotel, I started looking through eBay at cloisonne and saw several of the items I noticed in the shop. Revisiting, we asked the dealer if he used eBay. He uses a similar Chinese platform, which I think either must show items on eBay or these items are not as unique as I think they are. The former seems to be most likely the case.
Finally, prices are often negotiable so don’t be afraid to ask. Enjoy.