But if you're looking to buy antiques it's important to know your stuff.
Start by visiting antique stores, shows, auction houses, and museum exhibits while bearing in mind that gaining the necessary knowledge and insights could take years.
Some say ceramics may be a relatively easy field to start as there’s so much research on them and the many examples in recent auctions can serve as reference.
Acquiring something you fancy at an auction hosted by such notable houses as Christie’s or Sotheby’s is a good option as you’d be buying at fair market prices with the guarantee of authenticity through a transparent process regulated by international standards. Among the myriad of dealers in Asia, Tomlinson is one of the leading antique chains with over 20 branches. In Singapore, they’re represented under the name of Renaissance.
And investors in antiques should keep these tips in mind:
Don’t Stretch Your Dollar
Buy the best that you can afford. Don’t opt for a number of lesser quality pieces. If you find something that you like, check if it’s a rare item with outstanding workmanship and see if there’s any document to trace its history from when and where it was originally acquired.
Also, examine the item carefully and try to obtain a condition report from the seller. If possible, seek the advice of an independent expert or restorer.
"A barely-visible hairline crack on a dish can affect the value of a piece by as much as 70 percent,” according to Chi-fan Tsang, vice president and senior specialist of Chinese ceramics & works of art department at Christie’s Hong Kong.
Beware of Fakes
A certificate of authenticity isn’t always a guarantee unless it’s from the reputable houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Given the number of sophisticated copies on the market, seasoned collectors warn newbie buyers to be extra cautious when purchasing Buddha figures while traveling in Asia.
One veteran collector in Seoul quipped that there probably wouldn’t be a single Buddha left with its head intact at the World Heritage Site of the Angkor Watt in Cambodia if all the pieces you see on the market are genuine as they claim to be. Experts say the authenticity of stone figures such as a Buddha is harder to detect than wooden pieces as the latter tend to show their age when you examine the interiors of a chest, chair, or table.
Always seek an expert opinion when in doubt. And insure your antiques separate from a general home insurance policy if you want to retrieve their full value should the worst occur.
Standing the Test of Time
In Chinese furniture, Huanghuali (Yellow Flowering Pear Wood) and Zitan (Purple Sandal Wood) are widely considered stalwart investments that are likely to see steady, long-term appreciation.
They have always enjoyed this premium status due to their longstanding fame as Chinese Imperial furniture and their sheer rarity. Huanghuali comes from two regions -- Hainan Island and Yenan in Vietnam -- but the rare investment quality usually refers to antique furniture from 19th, 18th, 17th centuries and up.
Nearly two years ago, the Chinese and Vietnamese governments banned commercial logging of such wood, which pushed up prices of newer and antique Huanghuali furniture. Old Zitan furniture comes from India and China, the most valuable ones from India. Like Huanghuali, the older the Zidan furniture, the higher the value.
While the antique market does have some correlation to the financial market, the top collectibles bear less of this link.
A quality antique cabinet that would have cost $10,000 ten years ago could command $100,000 today. A pair of Huanghuali chairs still costs about $20,000. Recent auctions of Christie’s and Sotheby’s show that while buyers are becoming more cautious and selective for mid- and low-range pieces, they compete heavily at the top.
Case in point, an early Ming under glaze copper-red masterpiece vase, “Yuhuchunping, Hongwu Period (1368 ~ 1398)” was first sold in 1984 for £421,000 ($367,500) -- a record auction price at the time for a Far Eastern work of art at Christie’s.
It was resold four years later in Hong Kong for $2.2 million, and then for $2.85 million in 1997 before it fetched HK$78,520,000/$10,207,600 in 2006 -- a world record price for a Ming porcelain. The winning buyer: Steve Wynn, CEO of Wynn Resorts .
While such high returns are rare, Christie’s Hong Kong says it continues to see fierce bidding for rare, fresh-to-market pieces with good provenance. This comes after a record year in 2008 when it sold close to $140 million worth of Chinese ceramics and works of art. Part of the surging demand is attributed to the rising numbers of more affluent mainland Chinese who are buying back their heritage.
Antiques are ultimately a lifestyle investment with the potential to provide impressive returns for those who understand the ins and outs of the market.
In the meantime, investors get to enjoy a more beautified environment and if their item later sells for a profit, it’s an added bonus.
Remember, just as your house is an investment, so too can be your household furnishings.