Month: January 2013

Ancient wax paintings


Ancient Greek encaustic painting on wood of woman

Encaustic painting is a ancient wax-based painting technique that has been revived in recent years.

Using hot bees wax as the material to hold the color pigments, an encaustic painting is easy to identify at a museum or gallery because it has a distinct waxy appearance. It was used by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and is found in the famous Egyptian tombs. It was rarely used for hundreds of years after due to the universal popularity of oil paints. However, the technique was revived in the 20th century and you can likely find a local beginner’s class on how to make your own encaustic paintings.

Chinese antiques export laws

In order to protect its national cultural heritage, it is illegal in China since 2009 to export any Pre-1900 Chinese antiques. Assume any vase, work of art or other artifact sold directly from China is from after 1900. It is, however, legal to export from China Chinese items from 1900 and after and these items sometime come with red export seals. The seal is not authentication of the item, just marking that a government inspector deemed the item not to be Pre-20th century and it was exported legally . . . Any items legally exported before 2009, including antiquities, can be legally bought and sold.  And there is much Pre-1900 Chinese artifacts that were exported from China before 2009.

Identifying jade


To the Ancient Chinese, jade was more valuable than gold and called the stone of heaven. They considered jade to have special powers and symbolic meaning.

Though commonly thought of as green, jade can be found in different colors including white and red, and can be transparent to opaque. Jade is be one of two minerals, nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is the jade the Chinese used, is more common and a touch softer than jadeite. Jadeite is more valuable.

The best way to determine if an item advertised as genuine jade is genuine jade is to take it to a knowledgeable gemnologist or geologist. However, the following are some simple tips that will help separate the real from crystal, glass and other faked jade.

** Jade is cold to the touch. Hold it to your face or in your hand It’s noticeably colder than glass. Plastic is typically warm.

** Jade is dense and heavy. It has heft in your hand.

** If there are air bubbles in the stone, it is not jade but glass.

** Jade can’t be scratched by steel.

** Jade gives a chime-like sound when it’s hit by anther stone. Many other stones give a dead thunk. The Chinese made flutes and other instruments from jade.

** Jade often has a shiny, greasy looking surface.

** Jade is usually super smooth. If it feels bumpy when you run your fingernail across is, it’s likely not jade.


Purchase a copy of Identifying Common Materials in Antiques: A Pocket Guide

Jet black jet

Jet is a black fossilized material prized for its gem-like use in jewelry, including necklaces, brooches, pins and earrings. The term jet black, meaning as black as black can get, comes from jet. When Prince Albert died in 1861, his wife Queen Victoria famously wore jet mourning jewelry and jet was popularly used in general for Victorian era mourning jewelry.

Primarily originating from underneath Whitbey England, jet is fossilized wood, often well over one hundred thousand years old. Though not particularly attractive when it’s mined from the ground, it is easily carved and polished to a gem-like black. You can sometimes see patterns from the original tree.

Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise wearing jet beads

Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, a wearing jet bead necklace

Identifying Genuine Jet. Jet and black glass are sometimes mistaken for each other, but glass is cold to the touch while jet is warm. Jet is light and floats or sinks slowly in water. If you rub jet on unglazed pottery or a sidewalk is will leave a brown/black streak.

Miscroscopy in prints authentication

A microscope is often used by an authentication expert to date the kind of printing used to make both photographs and ink-and-printing-press prints. Modern reprints and counterfeits are often identified because the microscope shows the printing is too modern. An 1870 print couldn’t have been made with a printing technology invented in 1985.

For an example, the picture below what ‘elecrostatic’ printing looks like under the 100X zoom power of a microsope. Electrostatic printing is the modern technology used to make Xeroxes, photocopies and on standard home computer laser printers. Large numbers of reproductions of antique prints and photos have been made using this type of printing.

Under the microscope, the modern elecrostatic prints are easily identified by the unique and quirky pattern of the pigment (ink). In this printing process the lines are made up of many tiny dust-like grains of pigment that have been fused (melted) to the paper. When you handle ink jet cartridges you will notice the pigment/ink is dusty and dry, and can get all over the place if you are not careful. In the printing process not all the grains of pigment make it to the intended area before being fused, so the print is identified by the many stragglers outside the lines. It looks like it needs a dusting.  

If an ‘1880 lithograph’ or ‘Renoir etching’ looks like this under the microscope, it is clear the print is a modern reprint.

home computer laser printing at 100x magnification

home computer laser printing at 100x magnification

A common misperception about limited edition prints

Some prints, photographs and other types of art and collectibles are limited edition numbered: say, 1/50 (1 of 50 made), 2/50, 3/50 …. 50/50. Some collectors feel that the first print or photograph or figurine ‘off the presses,’ is the most valuable, and, as one might expect, pick one that is numbered 1/50. The thing they don’t realize is that the works are rarely numbered is the order of printing. The numbering and signing was often done well after the printing or manufacture. For example, Marc Chagall would go through the stack of prints, picking out which ones he liked and sign and hand numbering the ones that met his approval. He wasn’t trying to keep things in order of printing. Thus, the print numbered 1/50 may or may not have been first one off the printing press. Print # 12/50 or 6/50 may have been the first. And there’s no way to know for sure.