Settling an Estate Collection of Chinese Porcelain | Boston

Are you, Settling an Estate Collection of Chinese Porcelain? 


  • Bronzes
  • Silks
  • Scrolls
  • Carved Jade
  • Chinese Furniture
  • Bamboo

When settling an Estate today containing Chinese Antiques, be extremely careful even the
Estate Collection of Chinese Porcelain
Handling and Settling an Estate
oddest appearing items regardless of size can be terribly valuable. 

Having worked as a dealer of Chinese and Asian art for 30 years and a live auctioneer for nearly 20 of them, my perspective on handling estates is a bit different than most people who are merely charged with the task of executor or executrix.  To me, objects are exactly the same as money. All to often executors view objects as things needing to be disposed of after selling the house to get the estate "Settled."  This is often a costly mistake.

  • Did you know?: When Henry Clay Frick, the Pennsylvania steel magnate, died a century ago, 50% of his estate's net worth was his art collection. It was then valued at $50,000,000 dollars. Which is today still a significant fortune, back in 1919 it was equal to over a billion dollars today. 

Obligations of an Executor Regarding Art and Collections , NY Bar Association

Asian-Chinese Antiques Estate Appraisals"Depending on the nature and value of the property, this may be a routine activity, but you may need the services of a specialist appraiser if, for example, the decedent had rare unusual items or was a serious collector."

If you are handling an estate with Chinese porcelains or almost any type of Asian art in it, you need a specialist.
A few years ago we bought a small Imperial Chinese Fan at a local estate auction for under $1,000 which we promptly sold for $195,000. In another case we bought a small celadon vase for a few hundred at well known local auction house that we sent to a new home for $140,000.   
It's not that these antique auctioneers are dishonest, it's simply that they did not know what they had. In both cases the executors should and could have hired us.
Selecting an Appraiser-Dealer-Auctioneer, THE PROBLEM

Often executors and attorneys when in the process of settling an estate comprised of some or a large amount asian art are unaware at how much the values of these objects has risen in the last 20 years. This lack of awareness holds true for many heirs as well.

Some executors may simply opt for an appraisal and advice from a large local auction house simply because "everyone uses them". It happens all the time, even though the results they get are very often sub par.

Settling an Estate Collection of Chinese Porcelain
Large Late Ming Jar, circa 1600,
This jar was bought in Nantucket in 1994
 fitted as a table lamp. 
While attorneys themselves often argue and rightfully so; Large law firms do not necessarily provide the best representation, they often fail to contemplate the same is also true for other specialties.

In today's art world, hiring a non-Asian Art specialist for appraisals and to handle the disposition of items no longer makes economic sense.

Chinese white porcelain incense burner
Fine Rare Yongzheng Period White Porcelain Incense Burner
De-accessioned carelessly by an Institution
and sold by a rural Auctioneer, for peanuts

When you get into the area of esoteric estate property i.e. Asian art, the problem of selecting the right dealer or auction venue is much more difficult.

Settling an Estate Collection of Chinese Porcelain
Set of Four Qianlong Period Nephrite Jades, Circa 1760
Bought at a southern Maine estate auction, they were stuffed into a
box lot and were later sold on Ebay for $23,500.00

So, before you pick an auctioneer to handle a collection of Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Southeast Asian material, do some serious homework.

Search out someone to help you, advise you as a guide. It will make a huge difference and will serve to protect the asset you're trying to maximize a return on. Settling an estate collection of Chinese porcelain to get the most takes a professional, so hire one.

How To Handle an Estate

Kangxi famille verte statue
Kangxi Period Famille Verte Figure, Circa 1700, a rare form,
originally sold by Chait Galleries, NY. .
The Estate sold through a nearby auctioneer in Maine
for under  $1,300. 
What to Look For in an estate with much inherited property going back generations, after all these are the ones most likely to be laden with rare items.

In cases where the person was a lifelong collector with a good amount of knowledge; most collections are well documented, inventoried and the heirs are already aware of the collection's importance.

However, if this is not the case and its viewed as just "family stuff", a different approach is needed.

When it comes to most American and European decorative art, paintings, furniture, silver, jewelry etc. There are literally a couple dozen Appraiser-Auction Companies with more than enough skills to handle the disposition and evaluation of the property in the Boston area. That's the good news.

However when an estate is being settled containing Asian Art, in particular Chinese art and antiques in not only Boston but around the country the options for advice is limited.

Unlike paintings with signatures or easily researched pieces of American furniture, Asian art is a whole other realm.

Estate Collection Chinese Porcelain
Cracked 8 inch dish found in a basement by us, sold for over $20,000
A small seemingly insignificant carving of a recumbent cow or man can today be worth anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars if it's good variety of jade or even soapstone provided the carving is superior and has a pleasing color to a collector. A fine Chinese porcelain bowl even without a reign mark, but from the right period can range into the thousands, though at a first glance appears to be little more than an "old cup" or "that vase grandmother found in the 1950's".

Unlike things in the west, objects crafted in China over the last 3,000 years have values based on factors stemming from a confluence of that object's history, material used, evolution of form, social changes over time and many others.

Rare Items Hiding in an Estate, Find Them

Ming Xuande Perfumer
Extremely Rare Mark and Period Xuande Perfumer
Drilled and made into a lamp.
Sold in London for over $800,000
Scouring an estate for anything rare, but especially with Asian art you'll quickly learn, its not always on the mantle or in the curio cabinet or gently placed on a bookshelf in the living room.

Not infrequently the things can readily be found under the sink in the pantry, in the back of the cupboards where the china is stored or boxed away in a basement or attic. It may in fact never had been unpacked since the current owner inherited it from his or her family years ago. So a lot of careful digging is a must.

DO NOT Throw Anything Out unless you know that carved wooden "oriental looking" tooth pick holder isn't really a Rhino Horn Stem Cup worth $150,000. Its happened.

Over the years hundreds of estates have passed before me as an appraiser, advisor to the heirs, auctioneer and dealer. They have ranged from stunning collections of American and European furniture and decorative art handed down over many generations in massive old Yankee houses. Some have been waterfront houses in Manchester-By-The-Sea, horse farms in Hamilton, Mass or a Beacon Hill brownstone, many containing amazingly rare items despite houses having a very lived in and even dog eared look. On occasion they have also been modest low key houses in Ipswich or Salem packed to the walls with great things as well.

I can tell you, you never ever know what you will see in an estate until you get there and look very carefully. Don't call in a dumpster too soon, people have a tendency to want to fill them up.
Once I rescued a rare Japanese Cloisonne 3" tall jar from such a fate. The piece was made by Namikawa Yasuyuki.  In this case a family member was trying to be helpful by  "cleaning up" to make doing the appraisal easier, we later sold it for $18,000 on behalf of the estate. 

Just imagine how many pieces never get rescued and the value that's been lost over the years including rare Chinese Robes, Kesi Panels and Textiles.

Chinese sang de bouf ink well jade finial
Rare Chinese Langyao Brush Washer with 18th C.
Jade Dragon Head Cap.
Made into an Ink well by Yamanaka Co. in the 1930'
The best Asian works of art are hiding in plain sight around old estates.

Its not always carefully placed in a curio cabinet or on an elegant stand under special lighting like a museum. It might be in the den along side a sofa, or in a bedroom being used as a table lamp.

The bottom line is simply this I guess, if you have an estate or house you're involved with as a Trustee, Executor, Executrix or just trying to be a helpful family member or friend, reach out for help from someone when handling an estate or personal property containing things from the Far East. Get some experienced eyes to do what you simply cannot, unless you have 20 or 30 years beforehand to work with.

Feel free to email or call with any questions about your own Chinese porcelains or their values. we have been doing it for 35 years.

Thank you for visiting ~ Peter Combs
Gloucester, MA 978-283-3524

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