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Antiques Considered - July 20, 2011

This week we have two pieces of soapstone that belong to a Northumberland County family.  One is an ornately carved lidded box and the other is one of a pair of bookends.  The two are in excellent condition and indicate intricate detail from the carver.   They were inherited and the present owners are not aware of their origin.

These pieces are Chinese, and reflect the prevailing interest in that country in making items for the Western

market.  The bookends date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and the box is later, being from the 1920s.  In those days China was using its labor force to produce decorative items that would be popular in Europe and America, thereby generating income through foreign trade.

As soapstone is a form of marble, it chips easily.  Fortunately, these pieces are not damaged, as many others from the period are.  I have seen many great works of carving, that have large chips and cracks from wear and tear over the years.  Such items are depleted significantly in value.

The box is worth $65, and the pair of bookends, assuming the other is also in good condition, is worth $100.  Typically, both pieces show the artist’s use of sections of soapstone with variegated colors in the raw material, out of which the carver made highlights by emphasizing the veins in the stone.

At a higher level, such carvers graduated to working with jade, the most precious of Chinese stone.   Whereas jade can be polished to a brilliant finish, soapstone does not polish to as strong a shine.  Soapstone in good condition remains a good investment.  A generation ago these pieces would have been worth less than half of what they are today.

Lastly, soapstone can be washed in warm water with a mild soap and cleaned with a soft toothbrush.  Its popularity remains undiminished among both collectors and novices alike.

Happy antiquing!

Lisa and Henry Hull operate Commonwealth Antiques and Appraisals, Inc. at 5150 Jessie DuPont Hwy., 22570 (P. O. Box 35). Wicomico Church, Va. 22570. Write to them or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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