Why you should invest in Chinese Art of the 20th Century

Lazarus Halstead, Head of Asian Art at Chiswick Auctions, writes about the sometimes misunderstood value of Chinese art of the 20th Century.


A jade vase and cover, 3rd quarter of 20th Century. To be offered by Chiswick Auctions, 14 November 2016, estimate: £200-300.

With the boom in the Chinese art market in recent years leading to many pieces returning to China, both dealers and auction houses have complained about the difficulty in sourcing good quality fresh-to-market pieces to sell.

One result of this has undoubtedly been a diversification into new areas of collecting. A key emerging collecting area is the pieces which were made in the first three quarters of the 20th Century.

On first look it might seem counter-intuitive to laud Chinese works of art of the 20th Century as being worthy of collection. After all, the market place is rife with mass-produced items, or cheap knockoffs of genuine Chinese antiques which are sometimes unscrupulously touted as being more important than they really are. However, a number of factors mean that we should not simply write off every work of art less than a hundred years in age.

First of all, for nearly the whole length of the 20th Century, China was torn apart by war and political upheaval. The Imperial system was overthrown in 1912 and the Republican government superseded by the Communist government in 1949. There was a devastating war with Japan and revolutions continued through the Communist era, notably the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. These events had a dramatic effect on artistic production, consumption and the survival of art works within China.


Lot 227, 3 November 2015. An example of a Republican era (1912-1949) vase. This piece sold for £1,440.

One area which has received attention for some time is Republican-era Chinese porcelain dating between 1915 and 1949. The reduction of output from the kilns meant that relatively few items survived leading to new stylistic innovations coming into play such as the fine painting of vases in enamels by significant painters.

In fact, innovations occurred in a range of artistic categories. One of which was a renaissance in Chinese woodblock print technology at the Rong Bao Zhai studio in Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s. Lot 190 (seen below) was a copy of the four volume woodblock printed book ’TEN BAMBOO STUDIO CATALOGUE OF LETTER PAPER’ [SHIZHUZHAI JIANPU]. Published in 1952 the book which reproduces letterheads from the Ming Dynasty was hailed by hailed by Jan Tschichold in 1970 as “an incomparably perfect facsimile; the best book of modern times anywhere”. The four volumes sold for £2,040.


Lot 190 sold in 16 May 2015, four volumes of woodblock prints, 1952, £2,040


Carving also experienced innovation through the 20th Century. An ivory, illustrated below (estimated £800-1,200) is completely new in its aesthetic compared with examples from late Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1912. This lot will be offered by Chiswick Auctions in their Asian Art Sale on the 14th of November. Its intricately carved landscape scene emerging from between two attenuated clamshells is finely carved and lavish in its details. The piece, dating to the Republican era (1912-1949) was acquired in China in 1946 by the present owner.

An ivory landscape carving, 2nd quarter of 20th Century, before 1946. To be offered by Chiswick Auctions, 14 November 2016, estimate: £800-1,200.


In jade and hardstone carvings there was a shift towards deeply and ornately carved art works. A jade vase and cover also to be offered by Chiswick Auctions on the 14 November 2016, exemplifies this trend and dates to the third quarter of the 20th Century. It was acquired in Hong Kong by the present owner in 1978. Interestingly, the vase can be stylistically dated fairly precisely to this date as the features of the face reflect the Soviet Realist style which greatly influenced China in the early Communist era.

No doubt interest in Chinese 20th Century works of art will increase in the coming years and with every year that goes by these pieces acquire more of the lustre of the antique. For the present, they may prove a canny investment.

View Chiswick Auctions’ current catalogues.

For enquires or consignments please contact:

Lazarus Halstead, lazarus@chiswickauctions.co.uk, 020 8992 4442 or visit our Asian Art page to find out more.

Next sale: 14 November 2016, deadline: 15 September 2016.