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5 Expert Insights: Quality Materials

No one will argue that quality matters in buying and selling antiques and art objects. The trouble is, the characteristics that make one piece high quality and another piece mediocre are often subtle.

Skinner experts and appraisers are hoping to make quality a little easier to recognize by offering insights that stem from years of experience. In a previous post, we looked at quality workmanship. Now, let’s take a look at quality materials, and how to recognize them in jade, wine, Native American art, furniture, and metal sculpture.

White Jade Double-gourd Vases

Two Large White Jade Double-gourd Vases Sale 2512 Lot 1062 Auctioned for $578,000 and Lot 1063 for $501,000

1. Jade: White and Yellow Beat Green

For nephrite jade, white and yellow have a higher market value. For jadeite, the ones with brighter color and higher translucency are most treasured. Good quality jade means good carving, good condition, and a unique shape. Generosity of the material is also important; we want to see something that shows that the maker was not being stingy with the material. That implies that the client who was receiving the material had an important status in history.
– Tianyue Jiang, Specialist, Asian Works of Art

2. Wine: Viticulture, Vinification, and the Glass

To do justice to defining quality in wine, it’s tempting to contort language to simultaneously cover such vast subjects as history, terroir, geneology, culture, and  philosophy… but I won’t! What quality wine comes down to in the end is a three-part process including  growing fabulous grapes in the appropriate region, finesse in the wine-making process, and finally the performance of the wine in your glass.
– Marie Keep, Director of Fine Wine

Central Plains Beaded and Quilled Hide Pipebag

Central Plains Beaded and Quilled Hide Pipebag, Auctioned for $20,145

3. Native American Art: Look for Pre-Reservation Material

Especially with Plains Indian artifacts, period makes a difference. Pre-reservation items are often made from buffalo hide, buckskin, or antelope skin. After the buffalo were all killed off, they started using cowhide, which tends to get stiff. It’s not as soft and velvety as the old antelope and buffalo hide. Beading makes a difference, too.  Serious collectors know which beads were from which period. If you see a classic, early style pipe bag, for example, with buffalo hide and a pre-reservation bead design, you know that’s a quality piece that was actually used out on the plains.
– Douglas Deihl, Director of American Indian & Ethnographic Art

4. Furniture: Identify the Wood

Mahogany, walnut and oak often indicate high quality. Finer, earlier crafted pieces of furniture were made from single planks of wood. As wood became rarer and more expensive, smaller planks would be assembled together to create bigger planks. More recent pieces from the last 100 years may be made from low-quality materials like plywood or from less expensive woods.
– Stuart Slavid, Director of European Furniture & Decorative Arts

Chinese furniture made from huanghuali and zitan wood is always in demand because these woods are difficult to grow. It takes hundreds of years for the trees to form the kind of textures and patterns that are suitable for use in furniture.
– Tianyue Jiang, Specialist, Asian Works of Art

5. Sculpture: Metal Matters

In 19th century and later sculpture, look for bronze and not other metal alloys. Terms such as “spelter” or “white metal” denote a zinc alloy that was used to create inexpensive cast articles. Affordable and popular at the time, sculptures made from zinc alloy are likely to fetch just a fraction of the amount for a quality bronze of the same subject. Hint: if you scrape a sculpture made from zinc alloy in an unobtrusive place, the metal shavings will seem pale or white. – Kerry Shrives, Vice President and Director of Discovery Auctions

What materials mean quality to you?

Help add to the discussion by contributing your own insights into quality materials in the comments below. In an upcoming post, we’ll look into extra details that increase the level of quality in different types of antiques.

4 thoughts on “5 Expert Insights: Quality Materials

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