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March 30, 2010

Peking Order

Collecting Mandarin badges affords a rare glimpse into the obsessively hierarchical world of the Chinese imperial court.

Like other experts in his field, James B. Godfrey, senior vice president and director of the Chinese Works of Art Department at Sotheby's New York, is surprised. "Considering that the Chinese culture has always fascinated the West, it's amazing that Chinese textiles have gained international interest from museums and dealers only in the last twenty years," he says.

But even more surprising, perhaps, are the extremely low prices of mandarin badges (puzi in Chinese), the rare, illustrated silk squares that graced the robes of Chinese civil and military officials from 1391 to 1911, and which indicated the officials' professional rank. "Generally speaking, Chinese art is sensibly priced," Godfrey says, "but this is especially true of rank badges. I mean, where else can you find a treasure for less than $10,000 that exhibits a high degree of technical achievement, rarity, astonishing beauty, and art-historical importance? To collect on the serious end in other fields you'd have to pay a lot more."

Carol Conover, former director of the Chinese Works of Art Department at Sotheby's and the person who introduced mandarin badges to the United States auction market in the 1970s (she is currently a specialist in Chinese art at Kaikodo, an upscale Asian antiques gallery in Manhattan), says that these badges are very undervalued and have always been, mainly because they are little known in the collecting world at large. "In the late seventies I had an incredible collection of mandarin badges," Conover recalls. "Most of them sold to people with somewhat old-fashioned taste. Then, in the 1990s, a number of early textiles from Tibet were put on the market, and they included some very early Chinese rank badges. As a result, the prices on the badges went up slightly. However, this is still a very good time to buy them."

The beauty of rank badges, along with their narrative quality and variety, makes them appealing to collectors. "Most of my clients find the historic content of badges is much more involved than it would be in jade or ceramics, because the embroidery and symbolism tell a story," says Linda Wrigglesworth, a London-based Chinese costume and textile dealer and one of the leading rank-badge dealers in the world.

Part of the appeal: the relatively low prices, which range from several hundred dollars for a 20th-century badge to not more than $15,000 for the rarest 16th-century example you will find. (Badges often go as a pair—which can drive the price for two up to as much as $40,000.) "Within Chinese art, textiles are unquestionably the cheapest art form in the marketplace," Wrigglesworth says. "But they have, and have had since I began twenty-two years ago, enormous growth potential. When you compare the prices of rank badges to the prices of jades and porcelains, you see that the badges are a dream to collect." (For instance, at a Sotheby's New York auction in March 1998, a group of six 18th- to 19th-century mandarin squares were estimated at $5,000­$7,000, whereas a single late-19th-century enameled dish was priced at $5,000­$8,000.)

Another reason to buy rank badges now is that you can still find them for sale—a fact which, according to experts, may not be true for long. Jon Eric Riis, another top rank-badge dealer, who currently has more than 230 badges in stock in his Atlanta studio, says that "rank badges are much harder to find now than they were twenty years ago, when I got started." But, he adds, "That's not to say it's a wild-goose chase. The badges are out there, if you know where to look for them." There's another advantage too: Competition among buyers isn't great. According to Athena Zonars, vice president of Christie's New York and head of the Chinese Works of Art Department, "there are fewer than ten serious rank-badge collectors in the United States, and only a handful in Hong Kong."

One such collector is Thomas "Booty" Long, an Atlanta entrepreneur and antiques collector, who began buying rank badges through Riis seven years ago. "It just took seeing them once in person to get hooked," Long says. "By the time I got my first one home and looked at it again, I found it so breathtaking I was back on the phone telling Jon that I wanted to buy more."

Dress Code

The limited number of rank badges on the market is due mainly to the fact that so few have survived the vagaries of Chinese political and social history. When the badges were first introduced, in 1391, two decades after the leaders of the Ming dynasty wrested control from the Mongols, they were a crucial detail in a strict system of dress regulated by the court. Ming badges, which are approximately 15 inches square, were sewn onto the front and back of outer robes worn by mandarins, the empire's civil and military officials, so that the official's professional status could be identified instantly. Ranks were granted to men by the emperor after they had graduated from the Imperial Academy and passed a series of difficult examinations. When an official received a promotion, he needed a new badge and would commission a weaver or embroiderer to create it. Male members of the imperial family wore round badges (called roundels) decorated with dragons, while high-ranking noblemen wore square badges with dragons. In 1644, when the Manchus rose to power and founded the Qing (or Ch'ing—pronounced "ching") dynasty, a new dress code was enforced. However, by 1652 the Manchus had adopted the Ming custom of requiring rank badges, and they were reintroduced with a few minor changes. By the late 18th century the Qing government had begun selling degrees and ranks as a way to generate revenue. It was not until the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, and the Republic of China was born the following year, that the badges began to disappear.

"Those were very dangerous times, when the Qing dynasty collapsed," Wrigglesworth states. "They began rounding up anybody of authority or status from the old empire and imprisoning them, often sentencing them to death. People were burning their badges or burying them, especially members of the military, or giving them as gifts to Western people who were leaving the country. And then in 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, there was another wave of similar behavior. If you were aristocratic, or had aristocratic inheritance, your books were burned, your textiles destroyed, your porcelains smashed—anything to do with art as an art form."

Those events explain why so many of the rank badges that are now emerging on the market come from foreign (particularly American), rather than Chinese, attics. "Americans went off to China as missionaries and diplomats in the 19th and early 20th centuries and brought the badges and other textiles back with them," says Godfrey. Wrigglesworth buys her badges "all over the world except China, because you cannot find them there," and remarks that the majority of the private collectors with whom she does business are American. "I don't believe that the badges exist in China anymore, other than in museum collections," she explains. "And that in itself will only lead to an increase in their market value over time."

Quality Control

Building a collection of fine rank badges requires developing an eye for textile design and condition. "Because people wore them," says Conover, "generally the older the badges are, the worse their condition will be. Any kind of damage—such as pulled threads—will keep the value of the badge lower. If you have it restored very well it can boost the value. But it won't ever be what it would have been if it were perfect." Among the most important indicators of quality is the condition of the weave. Riis recently received a box that had a rank badge from around 1850 affixed to its top cover. "They wanted about two hundred dollars for it," he says, "but it was just too gone. The weave was missing in some places and you could see the bare wood underneath. And the badge was glued down, so no collector would touch it."

Another prime factor to consider is workmanship. "Look at the badge carefully," Godfrey advises. "You can see the elements that reflect the degree of technical skill required to produce it." Two of those elements are textile techniques that were used to make badges: embroidery, done using an embroidery frame on a silk background, and tapestry weaving, which was done in silk using a loom. "If you look at two badges of the same rank from the same period, the organization of the design should be somewhat similar, but one may be embroidered and the other woven," according to Zonars. In the embroidery category, one of the most highly prized details is the "Peking knot," nicknamed "the forbidden knot" because it was so small that it supposedly caused some embroiderers to go blind.

Age plays a role as well. "If you have a 19th-century tapestry-woven badge and a 17th-century embroidered badge in the same, good condition," Zonars points out, "the 17th-century badge is rarer and therefore worth more."Whatever the case, most people are more naturally drawn to embroidery. "Visually, embroidery is where everybody starts," elaborates Wrigglesworth, "because it looks iridescent, reflects light. Yet tapestry weaves are much more complex, and probably took ten times as long to make. You tend to find that, as your eye develops, you begin to look at woven badges more favorably."

The technique used is also a way to judge authenticity. "It should either be all woven or all embroidered, not a mixture of the two," says Riis. "And if there's metallic thread, say, in the bird but not in the water below it, it may be that the bird was applied later."

Then there is color. In the 1870s, the Chinese began to import artificial aniline dyes from Germany. Compared to vegetable dyes, used exclusively until then, aniline dyes provided harsher, less natural-looking colors; yet they became instantly popular, even for the highest-ranking imperial badges. "Aniline dyes are brighter and more vivid," says Zonars. "They're also less subtle—can even be garish." (They're one reason why the later badges are considered less valuable today.) But even with vegetable dyes, when judging color you have to look at condition. "The crispness of color is important," says Godfrey. "For example, has it faded? If so, it will decrease the badge's worth." (The first rule of taking care of a badge is keeping it out of direct sunlight so colors don't fade.)

Finally, there's the beauty of the design and decoration. "You have to remember that the designs for rank badges were dictated by a book of laws," Wrigglesworth points out, "so the embroiderer or weaver didn't have a lot of artistic freedom."

Conover concurs. "They were trapped by their time," she says. "The way you did the clouds was a style that was imposed on you. For instance, in the 18th century, in the Qianlong period, they were required to use five specific colors. And as with most decorative arts, you can tell 18th-century Chinese pieces by the way designs were done. The shape of the dragons' faces, the birds, the colors—everything is consistent in the decorative arts, and you see the same thing in Ming and Qing porcelain."

Riis, however, has a slightly different perspective on the matter. "I think the style varies from artisan to artisan, and that you can see it in the badges," he says. "I'm coming from a different background than the others who are strictly dealers in antiques because I am also a weaver. It's true that as the Qing dynasty started to fall, they began to make these things without personality, and it became mass production. For example, they created pattern books in the 1850s. But before that, the artisans' creative energies went into them in different ways. You can see it. The details, the sensibility to color was just more appealing."

The beauty of rank badges, of course, is a subjective assessment. "You don't have to be an expert in textiles to be impressed by them," Godfrey says, "but you do need some level of connoisseurship to understand the quality. You should look at books and go to museums where these badges are to get a sense of the differences." (Some of the finest museum collections of mandarin badges can be found at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Cooper Union Museum of Arts & Decoration and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.)

One of the most convenient things about rank badges is that the dynastic pecking orders provide an easy framework around which to form a collection. "Badges are fun to collect," says Zonars, "because there are set guidelines based on the ranks." The plethora of choices, however, can prove challenging. "It's an area in which it's important to have some focus," states Godfrey, "since the rank badges cover a period of more than five hundred years." As for narrowing your focus, here are several tips from the experts.

First, Decide Between Ming and Qing

In an ideal world, some collectors would limit their collections to Ming badges, most of which were made using the tapestry-weaving technique. (The Ming dynasty ruled from 1368 to 1644, and the Qing dynasty ruled from 1644 to 1911.) "It was a period of astonishing freedom and less rigid, more creative design," reports Godfrey. "You'll find flowing dragons and loose cloud scrolls. Yet each design adheres to the traditional official decorative requirements." Qing badges, on the other hand, "tend to be far less free in design and seem to follow more strictly the official dictates," Godfrey says. "With the Qing it is all very symmetrical." Qing badges are sometimes more cluttered, depending on the period. "The Ming badges are larger, about sixteen inches square, while Qing are about one foot square," Conover says. "On Ming badges the animals or birds take up most of the space. On the Qing badges the animal or bird becomes smaller on the picture plane, which then starts to fill up with symbols."

Wrigglesworth, however, prefers Qing badges. "In comparison, the Ming badges seem bigger, gutsier," she says, "but they aren't necessarily more beautiful. I think the 18th-century ones are the greatest. The work on them—whether embroidered or woven—is really fantastic." And then, Qing badges have a major advantage over Ming: There are many more around. "As a dealer, you're lucky if you have one Ming badge in stock," notes Wrigglesworth. "I happen to have three at present, so I'm quite excited. But I have over fifty Qing badges."

Of the desirable Qing badges, the most readily available are from the late 18th and early-to-mid-19th centuries. "You will find maybe one 18th-century badge to a hundred 19th-century badges," comments Wrigglesworth, "and a single 17th-century badge to one hundred 18th-century badges." Godfrey concurs. "The ones we see tend to be from the late Qing period, with late-18th- and 19th-century badges being the most common," he says. One of the best Qing periods is the Jiaqing (1796­1820, from the middle of the dynasty), according to Riis: "Stylistically it is more abstract. You can see it in the clouds and the waves."

For Christie's, however, Zonars focuses primarily on badges from the 18th century or earlier—partly, she says, "because the minimum lot value is $4,000, and 19th-century badges generally fall below that." It is also a matter of preference. "I like earlier Qing badges," she says. "The designs are more lively. I especially like the ones from the Kangxi period in the 17th to 18th century, which often use a lot of gold in the background. In the 19th century the design gets a bit static, a bit formalized." Wrigglesworth's preferred era is the Qianlong period (1736­95), when the emperor, she says, "was a great patron of the arts. It definitely shows in the pieces. There is a beautiful flow of design, they have a wonderful energy about them." However, she adds, "if you could locate rank badges from the Yongzheng period, that would be my dream. But that was a short period, so they're extremely rare." (The period lasted only 12 years, from 1723 to 1735.)

The badges to avoid are those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "In the 19th century the quality of the decorative arts in China diminished," Godfrey explains. "There was a breakdown in the country's infrastructure, which led to civil conflict. The imperial household became more concerned with preserving its throne than with patronizing the arts." In particular, stay away from badges made during the Reform period, in the years around the turn of the 20th century. "The designs hark back to an earlier period," notes Riis, "but the workmanship and colors aren't as good." Says Wrigglesworth: "They're not to my taste, and I have tended to stay away from them. The Reform period has also been the slowest investment because there are a lot more badges available and, I think, they are not as creative. They're very stiff—the birds and animals were applied, not embroidered—and have lost their essence."

As long as badges are in good condition, their prices increase as you go back in time. Nineteenth-century Qing badges can sell for as little as $750 to $5,000; 18th-century badges can't be found for less than $3,000 and go up to $10,000. Ming dynasty badges, says Wrigglesworth, can go from $15,000 up to $50,000, "depending on how early and exceptional they are."

Next, Stay Civil or Go Ballistic

If you want to find badges with any ease, seek out civil and not military ones. "The ratio of military to civil badges in existence is probably one to one hundred," Wrigglesworth says. In terms of design, they differ mainly in that civil badges display one of nine birds, each denoting a different rank (birds are said to have represented literary refinement, and their ability to fly to heaven indicated their superiority to earthbound military officials); each military badge has one of nine animals or mythical beasts, which symbolized courage.

Thomas Long prefers military badges so much that he bought six pairs of them. His first was a pair of third-rank badges from around 1810. "I loved them because of the silver and gold work and the leopards," he states. "I'm not as entranced by birds. Then again, I was in the American military in Vietnam." After that, he did buy a pair of first-rank civil badges and some roundels worn by grand dukes. But today, he says, "I've learned a lot about the subject: about rarity, workmanship, and the appeal of subdued colors. Now I only buy pairs of military badges, and only if they are museum-quality."

Finally, study the details

The age of a rank badge is very important in judging its value, so it is wise to become familiar with the many design details that serve as clues, such as the ones listed below.

· If it's a civil badge, how many birds are on it? At the inception of the Ming dynasty two identical birds in midflight were usually shown on a badge. By the middle of the dynasty (1506) one bird was shown perched on a rock while the other was depicted flying down from above, and both were surrounded by flowering plants. (See Ming vs. Qing.) Toward the end of the dynasty (the mid-1600s) only one perched bird remained, flanked by symbols designed to bring good fortune to the wearer. This remained the case into the Qing dynasty, when a single bird was normally shown perched on a boulder in the sea, surrounded by waves and symbols.

· If there's water at the bottom, is it depicted as a series of diagonal lines? "Diagonal lines indicating water came into being in the 1860s," says Riis. Before that, water was represented with curling, wavelike forms.

· If it's a pair of matching badges, are the animals or birds facing in the same direction? Identical badges were placed on the front and back of outer coats, the front badge often bisected to accommodate the coat's seam. In both the Ming and Qing dynasties a man's rank extended to his wife and unmarried children, so wives wore badges that matched their husband's. Starting in the mid-18th century, the bird or animal on the wife's badge faced in the opposite direction from the one on her husband's. That way, when she sat beside him—always on his left—the two animals or birds would be facing each other.

· How much gold thread has been used? If there's a lot of it couched onto the background—laid on the fabric and anchored down with embroidery—chances are it was made during the Qing dynasty. "Some gold thread was used for embroidery at the end of the Ming dynasty," says Riis, "but mainly it was used in the Qing." If the gold has a softer, less metallic look, the badge could date anywhere from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) to the 1870s. "I sold a Kangxi badge, and the entire ground was couched gold except for the waves—that was typical of that period," says Conover.

· Have peacock feathers been incorporated into the design? During the late Ming and early-to-mid-Qing periods, individual peacock feathers were couched onto the design to add definition, usually to the border or the boulder on which birds were perched in civil badges. "Sometimes very thin filaments of peacock feather were wrapped around thicker threads that were laid on the silk and stitched down," says Zonars. "It's an unusual and interesting technique." Peacock feathers are also, says Riis, a sign of high-quality workmanship. "I'm a weaver, and I've woven these feathers into a tapestry," he says. "It's very difficult." By 1870, however, this technique had been largely abandoned.

· Is there a border, and if so, how wide is it? If there's no border, it is almost definitely a Ming badge. In the early Qing dynasty there was a border approximately one-half inch wide, often bearing a pair of gold scrolls during the Kangxi period. "They look like little meandering snakelike shapes," says Riis. By the Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95) periods, the borders were narrower (about one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch wide) and had no images on them. "They were just pairs of gold silk bands going around the badge," says Riis.

· Is there a lot of hand-painting on the badge? It's a sign that it was made later in the Qing dynasty. Says Conover: "Some painting was done on silk tapestry badges in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Instead of weaving in, say, the five required colors, they would hand-paint them. It was a cost-saving method, a shortcut. Generally it doesn't look as beautiful. But sometimes it's cleverly done."

· Has the bird or animal been attached to the surface of the badge after it was made? "This was done during the Guangxu period, from 1875 to 1908," explains Riis. "The animal or bird was made of a separate piece of fabric and stitched on, so you could change the image if you rose in rank without changing the entire badge. It's not considered lower quality, but it makes it harder to be certain the image is the original one." Says Conover: "It's not very attractive."

· Are there symbols on the badge? Beginning in the 18th century, images of objects—pearls, flowers, and scrolls, for instance, as well as Buddhist and Taoist emblems—that symbolized things such as longevity and good health began to appear on badges. "They were used very sparingly to begin with, around the middle of the dynasty," says Riis. In the 19th century, however, they became excessive. "Because the Qing dynasty was starting to decline," says Conover, "they put more luck symbols on the badges, hoping that they'd counteract what was happening. The badges became very cluttered."

· Is there a sun disk? The image of the sun as a densely embroidered disk began to appear on rank badges at the end of the 17th century. "Sometimes tiny seed pearls were sewn onto the badge on the sun too," Zonars notes. In the middle of the 19th century artisans also began to cover the sun with coral beads. Regardless of the period, however, the sun was always placed in an upper corner of the badge, with the bird or animal looking up at it, to symbolize the official gazing up at the emperor—one of the many elements that make badges especially appealing to collectors like Thomas Long.

"I like the idea of owning something that was made with such great care and that someone actually wore two hundred years ago in the presence of a top dog," Long says. "I'm fascinated by that era and lifestyle. I'm not saying it was politically correct, but it's something that's now gone. And then, everyone and his brother collects antique plates, bowls, and teacups."

Ming vs. Qing

From an aesthetic standpoint, whether you opt for badges from the Ming or the Qing dynasty is really a matter of personal taste, as styles changed over the centuries. (From the standpoint of availability, Ming badges are much rarer.)

Civil Ranks

Civil badges feature different birds that identify each of the nine ranks. The top-ranking bird is the crane, a Chinese symbol of longevity. Before 1527 the distinctions between the badges were not as clear; in most cases more than one bird could be worn for a given rank. This allowed officials who had received an interim promotion to change their badge only once, thus saving money. But even when a rank is symbolized by only one bird, "trying to identify the birds can be very difficult," says Carol Conover, "especially the cloud goose."

Military Ranks

Military badges, which feature animals and mythical beasts, are much more difficult to find than civil ones because more of them were destroyed during the revolution that gave birth to the Republic of China in 1912. During the early Qing dynasty the qilin, which sported a dragon's head and a pair of horns on a stag's body covered in fish scales, and was believed emblematic of extreme wisdom, replaced the lion as the symbol of the first rank.

Censor Badges

The one civil position that was treated as a rank unto itself was that of the censor, whose job was to provide the emperor with reports on other people's honesty. Instead of a bird, the censor's badge bore the image of a xiezhi (or hsieh-chai), a monster with a white body, one horn, two whiskers, a green mane, and a tail. According to myth, the xiezhi could distinguish right from wrong. "Censor badges are extremely rare," says Athena Zonars of Christie's New York.

Symbolism

In the 18th century, rank badges started to feature symbols in the background that would bring good things to the wearer. Some depicted images such as books, for wisdom, or a pearl, for good fortune. One of the most popular symbols was the bat. "Until 1898 there were often bats on Qing badges," says Jon Eric Riis. "Sometimes you find two to five bats on a single badge." Five bats shown together stood for health, longevity, wealth, virtue, and the right to a natural death.

Festival Badges

Festival badges, which are also sought by some rank-badge collectors, were worn on special occasions, such as the Lunar New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival. (Such badges could be either square or round.) They often bore two symbols, so that they could be worn on two different occasions. "But you only find festival badges in the Ming period," says Linda Wrigglesworth. "They stopped making them after that." (They were especially common toward the end of the dynasty, particularly during the Wanli reign, from 1573 to 1619.) "Festival badges are something altogether different," comments Carol Conover. "They are very difficult to find. I just sold a fantastic one from the 16th century. It was a rare Rabbit Festival badge that was positively gorgeous. It had a big fat rabbit looking at you head-on."

Wrigglesworth currently has a Ming emperor's festival badge from the 17th century that was made for the Chrysanthemum Festival. "It's really quite beautiful," she says. "There's a dragon as well as chrysanthemum flowers on it. It was worn on the ninth day of the ninth moon."

Sources

Auction Houses

Christie's
New York,
212-636-2180; Fax 212-636-4922;
www.christies.com

Sotheby's
New York,
212-606-7332; Fax 212-606-7018;
www.sothebys.com

Dealers

Carol Conover
Kaikodo,
New York,
212-223-0121; Fax 212-223-0124

Jon Eric Riis
Atlanta,
404-881-9847; Fax 404-881-0322

Linda Wrigglesworth
London,
44-207-408-0177; FAX 44-207-491-9812.

Travis Neighbor wrote about Irish silver in the May/June issue.