Jadeite and Nephrite (although different both are referred to as jade) have been highly valued for thousands of years, especially by the Chinese. But for so many years it has mostly been the Western world that took over this fascination of collecting antique jade carvings. Here in Europe and the USA much has been published and there have been many dedicated collectors and antique jade experts that created and influenced the market values.
But recently the wealthy Chinese have become very interested in jade again, because they are investing so heavily, prices have been going through the roof! But as a collector it is apparent that non-Chinese collectors have very different views about what to value most. Carvings that make clever use of natural flaws in the stone, or that use coloured inclusions so brilliantly are not highly valued by these Chinese buyers, not nearly as much as carvings in pure white jade!
So far these Chinese are mainly regarding jade as an alternative investment commodity. As most of the usual forms of investment, currencies and property have all proved so precarious, perhaps these successful millionaires are being very shrewd!
I do not know if they have been influenced by the huge increase in the raw material prices. The finest pieces of the Hetian Nephrite have only been found about 4,500 meters above sea level in the North of the Kunlun Mountain, Xinjiang, even though it is a very difficult climb, little oxygen and bitterly cold, reports now indicate that there is not much more to be found. There are other sources of Jade; the next best in quality mainly comes from Burma. But thinking of jade as an investment over the last ten years, whilst gold has increased by about 3 times, the best Hetian jade raw material has increased in price by 100 times!
The pebbles, (sometimes referred to as Hetian pebble, or seed jade) are only found in the riverbed. These are highly valued because they originate from the jade seams in the Kunlun mountain, broken out by the glacier, then after years of natural weathering in the fast flowing river, these jade rocks are gradually ground smooth into pebbles, any weaknesses within these stones are smashed in this process, so that the remaining Hetian pebbles are only of the finest quality.
For antique collectors there are many aspects to be aware of, apart from the quality of the carving and the period of the piece, when buying jade, there is another consideration that can add value, that being the colour of the stone. Many people do not realise how many colours of jade there are. Antique jade carvings can be found in white, mutton-fat, various shades of green, yellow and lilac, black, even in red, and these can be a factor in the price. Also if there is a seal (so many wonderful pieces have no signature) but if the seal is genuine (many were inscribed later) then this too adds to the value. So for a very long period these were the main criteria that influenced the price.
Gradually antique jade of quality, has become more and more valuable. But this caused the Chinese to cash in by making lots of new copies of earlier jade pieces and they carved various others in less valuable stones, but called them jade too! So many have flooded the market. They have also discovered ways of adding colour to jade. However, very few experienced collectors found any difficulty in recognising these, as nothing more than the cheap fakes, or modern copies that they are. To be sure that the colour has not been added requires strong magnification, so it is not that easy to check. I believe that over time the dyed stones revert back to the original colour, so to pay extra for bright lavender, yellow or green jade could prove most painful!
Subsequently some of these modern fakes are so much better (the carving has improved) and there are now a number of more difficult to identify fakes. So there has become another important factor that affects the value and this is the question of ‘Provenance’. Every jade is now regarded with suspicion, unless it can be established as having been in a well known collection, or auction that dates back to the time when these fakes were easy to spot, or better still, to an even earlier period.
But now values are changing dramatically in a way that is hard for collectors like myself to understand! These Chinese investors are buying back their heritage, but more as an investment than as collectors. They have decided that 18th Century pieces of a pure colour with no flaws and certainly not mottled are their preference, they particularly prize pure bright white jade, or pure green, as well as the bright emerald green that is often used in jewellery. Also any of these jade carvings that happen to have a good seal mark (even if this seal is not genuine) now command a much higher value.
Talking of a much higher value, this is where we older collectors are now really confounded. Because if we consider a well carved, good quality pure white 18th century jade carving, that would normally have sold for our expected highest value, in any auction these days, this same piece will now probably sell for anything from 4 to 8 times that figure, to a Chinese investor! Is it possible that in time these buyers will eventually also value the wonderful craftsmanship that most of us collectors appreciate and love?
The author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping to create ‘The Cohen collection’.