Collecting vintage oriental screens

These exquisitely painted room dividers are finding new life in chic homes – whether paired with midcentury furniture or hung as wall art, says Ming Liu

One of a pair of 17th-century Japanese screens sold for £140,000 by Gregg Baker
One of a pair of 17th-century Japanese screens sold for £140,000 by Gregg Baker | Image: Gregg Baker Asian Art

Stepping into Gabrielle Chanel’s Paris apartment on Rue Cambon – an opulent, richly decorated space left unchanged since her death in 1971 – is like entering a different world. It’s an almost mystical hideaway, an effect created by the gilt mirrors, crystal chandeliers, intriguing objets d’art and, most strikingly, the 17th- and 18th-century Coromandel screens that adorn every room. These extravagant lacquer pieces are not only a source of inspiration for the maison – the floral, feminine motifs finding their way into Chanel’s fashion, accessories, watches and boutiques – they are also typical of a genre that is highly sought-after by collectors. Indeed, prices for oriental screens have nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

c1820 Chinese screen, £85,000, from Mackinnon Fine Furniture
c1820 Chinese screen, £85,000, from Mackinnon Fine Furniture | Image: Mackinnon Fine Furniture

“Screens are wonderful objects,” says dealer Charlie Mackinnon. “They work with contemporary interiors and can stand out as a work of art.” He has a black and gold Chinese lacquer 12-panel design for £85,000. Unusually, it’s painted on both sides – with a battle scene on one, an imperial garden on the other. “It’s both masculine and feminine.”

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Chinese screens were originally used as room dividers in the high-ceilinged spaces of the imperial court. A wooden frame has panels (either 12 or, more commonly, six) of varying materials, such as carved cinnabar lacquer, enamelled porcelain or textiles, often painted in gold and inlaid with precious stones and shells. They fall into two categories: those for domestic use in China, and those for export, also known as Coromandel screens after the Indian port from where they were shipped to Europe. The former, given that few survived or left China, are the rarest. Covetable examples hail from the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi period (1662-1722) and fetch £1m upwards. Examples occasionally come up for sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, and a magnificent one recently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, where high fashion through the eras was juxtaposed with Chinese traditional dress, ceramics, paintings and other artworks.

c1970 Japanese screen, £3,360, from Guinevere Antiques
c1970 Japanese screen, £3,360, from Guinevere Antiques | Image: Nat Davies

Coromandel screens were heavily influenced by fashion, surging in popularity in the 18th century when Chinoiserie was the rage. Many made their way to big country estates in Europe, which makes them easier to find today, says Marco Almeida, director of Chinese works of art at Christie’s, which auctions one or two screens a year. Again, those from the Kangxi period are the most desirable, such as a 12-panel of landscape scenes, taotie (zoomorphic mask) motifs and shou characters (the symbol of longevity) that fetched £397,250 at Christie’s in 2011. Gibson Antiques has an 18th-century Qing dynasty six-fold (£22,000) boasting a noteworthy provenance: it hails from the London home of financier Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. For more moderately priced Coromandel designs, 1stdibs has a 19th-century six-fold court scene, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, for £6,606; and Kevin Page Oriental Art has several unusual 1850s porcelain-set screens, ranging from £16,000-£60,000.

19th-century Chinese screen, £6,606, at 1stdibs
19th-century Chinese screen, £6,606, at 1stdibs | Image: 1stdibs

Whereas Chinese screens were the dernier cri for the top levels of society, Japanese screens were found in every household. “These folding screens were pieces of art yet also completely utilitarian,” says dealer Gregg Baker. The frame is overlaid with more than 10 sheets of paper, the top one painted with gold or silver leaf and mineral pigments, such as blue lapis and green malachite. Families would own entire collections and interchange them, whether to impress guests or keep out draughts and prying eyes. “They even took them on picnics and on boats – to separate the oarsmen.” Among Baker’s recent sales was a pair of stunning 17th-century gold and silver six-folds (£140,000) of scattered fans set on a mountain vista with a raised moriage decoration; and currently for sale he has a 20th-century geometric screen (£5,200) in oxidised silver leaf that is coolly contemporary.

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Juliana Moustakas, co-founder of Flat Three, a Japanese-cum-Scandinavian restaurant in Holland Park, bought three 20th-century screens from Baker earlier this year: a gold and silver tea-ceremony paper screen and a pair of bamboo-decorated silk two-folds all for £6,000. “Their clean lines and symmetry are fantastic,” says Moustakas, who has paired them with midcentury furniture. “They echo the motif in our Hans Wegner cigar chair, for example, or Børge Mogensen cabinet.”

Interior designer Olivia Outred recently used a Japanese screen in a client’s home, placing the bamboo scene above the headboard of an ultra-modern four-poster bed. “The colours are very calming – lots of greens and yellows. It looks quite dreamy, bohemian and whimsical.” Similar pieces can be found at Guinevere Antiques such as a c1880s six-fold (£3,195) of rolling waves and a splendid gold-set blossom and duck scene (£3,360), c1970.

The subject matter ranks top for collectors, says Baker. The most common bamboo, chrysanthemum and crane scenes can be as low as £2,000 but typically cost £15,000-£20,000; the most unusual ones can fetch millions. These include an Uji bridge with weeping willows, and the iconic tagasode depicting kimonos hanging from a rack. “I’ve had three in 30 years, all of which sold for close to £1m,” says Baker. “The tagasode is a beautiful piece – if you can find it.”

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