Chinese figurines are a symbol of finesse art and craftsmanship. These delicate clay and porcelain statues date back to the 1900s, 1800s, and even earlier than that. In fact, scientists recently discovered a Chinese songbird figurine that is 13,500 years old!
These invaluable pieces offer us a great insight into Chinese culture, an art form, and styles. Antique collectors and enthusiasts spend their entire lives studying these gems. Meanwhile, museums adorn them as trophies of the past.
So, in case you’ve inherited a bunch of Chinese figurines from your ancestors or wish to collect them, you’re in luck!
Today’s article will go through the topic in detail. From history to value, we’ll discuss everything about antique Chinese figurines. Let’s dive in!
What is the History of Antique Chinese Figurines?
Since the antique Chinese figurines have been here for so long, pointing out their elaborate history is a bit difficult. There’s much to explore and discover in it. Here are some highlights of their history:
Burial figurines were quite popular in the Tang Dynasty. These clay statues were usually shaped into horses and camels. Archaeologists have also found horsemen, soldiers, and other guarding human figures.
The fundamental purpose of these figurines was to accompany the dead one in the tomb. So, only a few had beautiful and smooth glazes.
During this period, it was typical for Chinese artists to produce female figurines. You will come across statues of women doing chores like making the dough or feeding an infant.
These figurines held great detail and beauty. Although they were used for decor and gifting purposes, their main use was in the burial process.
Rise of Guan Yin Figurines
Buddhism was a significant religion during 202BCE and 600CE in China. The Gua Yin figures were a prominent art form in this period because they symbolized compassion and mercy.
These statues showed humans (both male and female) holding traditional-style bottles and vessels. Some also had several hands and animals beside them.
Ming & Qing Dynasties
The Ming & Qing dynasties are the longest ruling periods in Chinese history. Both successive dynasties saw a great evolution in figurine art. Some popular styles of those times include:
The Huishan figurines are short and round human models. They were made from a special black clay extracted from the northeast side of the Huishan mountains. Hence, the name hui shan figurines.
There are two distinct types of Huishan figurines that you’ll come across; coarse and delicate. The coarse ones have an unbalanced body proportion with overly large heads. Meanwhile, the delicate figurines have the right proportions and amazing details.
A common characteristic of the Huishan clay figurines is that they’re brightly colored.
Unlike Huishan, the Dehua figurines were made from fine porcelain available in the Fujian province. It is a very popular type of material, also called Blanc de Chine or white China.
This porcelain is the reason why Dehua figurines are so unique in appearance. They have a beautiful smooth look with a faint glow. After their initial production in China, these figurines became famous in the European world too.
The Mudmen figurines were the highest-quality art pieces back in time. They were made using a long process and lots of villagers. Often, people depended on the sales of these figurines once the harvest season was over.
These figurines showed well-dressed men carrying different items like pots, scrolls, and flutes. Large Mudmen statues were created with the help of molds, whereas small ones were thoroughly hand-crafted. After molding, the figures were baked, painted, and glazed.
Chinese figurines are also made today. However, they are very different from the ones from the past. You’ll find them in plastic, resin, and other modern materials.
Plus, their purpose is solely to be a decor or gift item. The traditional practice of burying them with the dead is now uncommon.
Types of Antique Chinese Figurines
Classification of antique Chinese figurines is typically based on the material. Throughout history, people have used various types of materials to make these art pieces. These include:
The most common type is clay figurines. Since the material has always been widely available, craftsmen found it cheap and easy to use. They would take advantage of the flexible clay nature to create intricate statues and figures.
Clay is also the base material for the production of ceramic and porcelain, which further contributed to its popularity back in time. If you have noticed, clay was the most recurring type in the figurine history discussed above too.
In comparison, figurines made from precious natural resources like ivory and jade are the rarest. Ivory – now a banned material – was considered very valuable back then because of the difficult extraction methods.
So, you may not find antique ivory Chinese figurines easily. However, the few ones that you might come across will be very expensive and beautiful. Chinese craftsmen typically used ivory to craft the figures of their emperors and nobles.
How to Identify Chinese Figurines?
Over time, replicated and fake Chinese figurines have filled the market. Reproduction artists indeed recreate these figurines for the love of antiques. But, many sellers use these duplicates to scam others.
It’s important to learn the identification of these antiques. Even if you don’t plan to buy and sell, this knowledge can help you identify any valuable gem lying in your pass-down collection of figurines. Read more!
1. Manufacturer’s Mark
There were no companies that produced Chinese figurines. All antique ones that exist today are purely the work of individual artists and craftsmen. So, you cannot expect to see a logo, seal, or something.
However, what we do count as the manufacturer’s marks are imperfections. A few examples include finger marks, scratches left by chisels, and other hand tools.
Since nobody can replicate these accidental marks, a Chinese figurine with them is said to be authentic.
We’ve already discussed the types of materials used in the making of antique Chinese figurines. None of them are in use today, except for clay, ceramic, and porcelain.
Even these materials are not the ones used in the past. The present-day clay, ceramic, and porcelain are much different. They’re fine, strong, and wear-resistant.
So, one way to tell antiques apart from contemporary replicas is to judge the material. The traditional versions weren’t that durable. Antiques made from them will be scratched, cracked, and very delicate.
Hallmark refers to a specific marking used to indicate the origins of the article. It’s usually present at the bottom of the item. So, look for these hallmarks on the Chinese figurine.
Please note that all the pieces don’t need to have a hallmark. Mostly, only porcelain antiques have it.
A lot of information can be revealed through Chinese hallmarks. You’ll need to decipher them first. Don’t worry because we’ll help you get started.
Traditionally, there are 6-figures in the configuration of the hallmark that is read from top to bottom and right to left. The first 2-characters represent the reign. Meanwhile, the next 2-characters are for the emperor.
The remaining pair of characters are direct placement. In case you come across a 4-figure hallmark, know that the reign marks are not present.
Patina is the outside layer or surface of something. It should be old and worn out in original antiques. There should be chipped parts and cracks.
Comparatively, a replica will have a smooth and new surface. One can easily tell it apart from the antique. However, some people apply faux fake patina to confuse buyers.
Here’s what to do in that case. Take a damp or slightly well cloth and rub it against the patina. Fake ones will be immediately rubbed off.
How to Identify Antique Porcelain Figurines?
One question that haunts many new collectors is the identification of porcelain figurines from ceramics. Both materials are very similar and can be confused easily.
Here are a few tips to make the identification of porcelain figurines simple:
- Porcelain has a unique, mirror-like appearance. If you look at the unglazed parts, the surface would look somewhat translucent and delicate.
- Most porcelain figurines are lighter than others. But, they’re equally strong in durability.
- Tapping on porcelain creates a kind of melodic sound, while earthenware and other materials do not.
In case you’re unsure about the authenticity and identity of your Chinese figurine, do not worry. Professional appraisers are available to do the job. Some examples include Mr. Expert, AntiqueAppraiserAuctioneers, and Dr. Lori.
Antique Chinese Figurines Valuation Guide
Knowing the worth of your antique Chinese figurines is highly important. It will help you do trading at the right prices. Regardless of whether you’re buying, selling, or putting it up for auction.
Factors Affecting the Antique Chinese Figurines Value
All antique Chinese figurines are valuable. However, there exists a difference in value between each unit. There are certain factors responsible for this, as discussed below.
Having cracks and scratches is a common feature of antiques. It tells us that the items are original and aged. But, too much distortion can lower its value.
It’s because the antique no longer remains a historic masterpiece. It cannot be studied, admired, or replicated. It can only be kept as a record of the past.
This limited usage due to the presence of broken parts and heavily scratched surfaces makes the antique of no value. People might still buy and sell them, but at cheaper rates.
Many people do not consider the dimensions of the figurines. It’s a common misconception that if the figurine is visually-pleasing, it will sell for a higher value. That’s not true!
In fact, considering the size can help increase the selling price further. Most antique figurines above $1000 are large. Meanwhile, the ones with a $10,000+ value are massive.
The only two most important dimensions are height and width. If the antique exceeds the average in any one of these, it can be sold for higher prices. For your reference, 16” in height and width is large.
Old is Gold
Perhaps, we have all heard the saying – old is gold. It’s indeed true!
An antique is something that is 100 years old. The value goes up if the item is even older. Since Chinese figurines have a long history, you can even find antiques that are 1000s of years old.
Do you remember the 13,500-year-old songbird figurine mentioned at the beginning? The piece is so rare and valuable that it’s kept in the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in China.
Rare antique Chinese figurines are highly sought-after by collectors and museums. These include all the uncommon, hard-to-find pieces.
Now, the unique element of the antique can be anything. It can be style, material, age, history, or something else. Typically, antique collectors look for rare figurines in terms of material.
Clay, porcelain, and ceramic figurines are very common. However, the ones made from precious natural materials aren’t. It’s especially true for ivory.
Since production from ivory is banned today, finding antiques made from it are highly valuable. Buyers are willing to pay hundreds for the smallest of pieces. Don’t believe us? Read the pricing section below!
Are Chinese Figurines Worth Anything?
Yes, Chinese figurines can be worth a lot of money. Typically, a well-maintained antique is priced anywhere between $200 to $1000.
Human Chinese figurines are more detailed and larger. You can easily sell antiques in average condition for $500 and above. For example, the 16″ antique Chinese porcelain Guan Yin figure with a few chips and cracks was sold for $539.45.
But, items in good condition can range way above $1000. A few examples include:
- Antique Chinese Shao Lao Buddha Figurine Statue– $3,000
- Antique Chinese Porcelain Woman Figure with Mark– $5,000
- Antique Chinese Asian Porcelain Statue Figure Figurine– $7,000
However, it’s observed that small animal figurines are sold for under $100. For example, the Antique Chinese Porcelain Phoenix Bird figurine sold for $40.60. Meanwhile, the Antique Chinese Foo Animal Small Figurine sold for $99.
That said, rare figurine shapes like dragons and chariots have higher values. Check out these eBay listings:
- Antique Vintage Chinese Bronze Dragon Cast Ming Dynasty– $785 (sold)
- 1890 Large Sculpture Horse Drawn Carriage– $9,950 (current)
Antique Chinese figurines made from rare materials like ivory and coral get sold for even higher prices. You should expect the value for these antiques to be above $5,000+.
7 Rarest Antique Chinese Figurines
The most valuable antique Chinese figurines are the rare ones. So, let’s have a look at the rarest, high-value antiques that have been sold or auctioned.
1. Chinese Light Green Stone Jade – $766
Jade is a precious natural material, which explains why this small figurine has such a high price point. The statue shows an old man with a beard who’s sitting down. He’s wearing a traditional-style gown.
There are details on the figurine but no paint. It has the original stone color, which is light green. As for the dimensions, the figurine is only 2 ⅜-inches tall. It is paired with a wooden stand that raises the height to 3 ⅛-inches.
2. Chinese Red Coral Kwan Yin Figurine – $999
Kwan Yin is the female Bodhisattva of compassion. She’s often regarded as the protector (women and children) and patron of sailors. The figurine’s significance, coupled with the use of red coral, makes it rare.
It is also hand carved from top to bottom. There are amazing details, especially on the large-sized head. You can see combed hair strands as well as the flowers adorned on it.
What’s surprising is that this expensive Chinese figurine is only 6-inches in height. Typically, the human figurines are taller, with 10-inches being the average.
3. Pair of Chinese Ivory Figurines – $4,725
As discussed, Chinese ivory figurines’ value is higher than ordinary antiques. The now-banned material is hard to find and trade unless it’s present in a collectible. You’ll usually find ivory-based antiques in museums and auction houses.
This particular pair of Chinese ivory figurines were also auctioned at Small & Whitfield Auctions and Valuations in 2011. It features a man and woman dressed in elegant oriental clothing. Black ink or paint is used to add details.
Overall, the condition of the figurines is very good. There’s no chipping, scratches, or broken pieces. The figurines are placed onto polished wooden stands.
4. Large Antique Chinese Yellow Jade – $5,011
The jade stone has several different naturally-occurring colors. These include white, lavender, red, orange, black, and even gray. These antique Chinese figurines are made from a unique yellow variant.
No paint, coloring, or other material has been mixed up. Also, the beautiful details on the statues are hand carved. These include everything from the face to the flowers.
The highlight of these imperial attendant figurines is that they were acquired in WW2 when a soldier visited Asia. The estimated age of these figurines dates back to the Qing dynasty period. Even the lotus display stands are from that time.
5. Antique Chinese Himalayan Bronze Buddha – $6,500
The details on this antique Chinese Himalayan bronze buddha are simply outstanding. It shows a fierce two-faced figurine with bared teeth and swords in its hands. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll notice that the figurine has also crushed some individuals under its feet.
Since the antique is from the 18th century, there is considerable wear and tear. There are scratches and rusted areas, though the damage is very minimal. Most of the statue is in good condition.
The dimensions of this antique Chinese Himalayan bronze buddha are large. Its height is 10-inches, which further increases with the wooden pedestal.
6. Rare Antique Chinese Master Carved Soapstone – $8,500
Soapstone is another rare and expensive natural stone used in the past. This complete statue is carved from original, high-quality soapstone. Even the stand underneath is hand-crafted.
It features a group of human and animal figurines. There’s an adult female carrying things and talking to the child who has two babies. A bull is sitting on one side, whereas two birds are on the other.
The 9 ¼” height, 14” length, and 4” width make the statue very huge. Another thing that adds value to the antique is the manufacturer’s mark on the bottom.
7. Pair of Carved Ivory Dogs of Fo – $10,687
One of the most expensive antique Chinese figurines is this pair of carved dogs of Fo.
Perhaps, it’s easy to see why the antiques have a value surpassing the $10,000 mark. The Dogs of Fo, also called the Lion of Buddha, have great significance in Chinese culture. They were considered to have a guardian present in the Buddhist temples.
On top of that, the usage of ivory and its excellent condition make them priceless gems. They were sold at the Small & Whitfield Auctions and Valuations Adelaide in the year 2015.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Know If My Figurines are Valuable?
Knowing the worth of your figurine is only a matter of good evaluation. A well-maintained figurine that classifies into antique or vintage is valuable. You can expect to sell it for higher prices if it’s rare or in demand.
Please give the valuation section a read to learn about antique Chinese figurines’ worth!
How Do You Read Chinese Markings?
Chinese markings can be difficult to read, especially if you aren’t fluent in the language. Here’s an informative video to help you out!
How to Sell Antique Chinese Figurines?
If you have an original antique figurine, you can sell it easily on platforms like eBay and Etsy. But, it’s highly recommended that you get a professional appraisal first.
The expert will analyze your antique piece and let you know the exact value.
Summing it up, the antique Chinese figurines are precious, high-value collectibles. Enthusiasts from all over the world are on a constant hunt to find the best ones. So, if you’ve got an antique, know that it can be a treasure!
We hope this detailed guide has helped you identify and evaluate the worth of your antique Chinese figurine. In case you still have some queries, don’t hesitate, and drop them down in the comments. We’ll love to hear and solve them!