Dear Helaine and Joe:
My parents bought this coffee table in the early 1950s. It appears to be mahogany and is sturdy, but it does have some dings. The ceramic tiles, however, are perfect, and the painting on them is pristine. I have looked for similar tables to get an idea of value and origin with no success. My children have no fond memories of the table and do not want it. I would like to sell it and the local auction gave me an estimate of $25 to $250 in their sale. I would like your thoughts on what a fair value would be as I am clueless.
D.C., Newark, New York
What a refreshing letter, and yes, we do have some thoughts that might help.
We want to begin by discussing the concept of a coffee table, which was designed to be a low table placed in front or beside a sofa or upholstered chair to support such things as coffee cups — thus the name — books, magazines and small decorative objects.
In Britain, it is said that the coffee table originated in late Victorian times and was based on the low table being used in the Ottoman Empire tea gardens and in Japan. But in the United States, coffee tables are household furnishings associated with the post-World War I lifestyle. They were designed to enhance conversation in the living room, and they became ubiquitous during the age of television.
The coffee table in today’s question is in the Chinese style with the shape of the table’s legs being in a traditional design. Inlaid tops are not unusual with Chinese tables created mainly for export, but finding an example with 20 hand-painted tiles is a tad unusual.
The style of the tiles is one associated with the so-called Republic period, which began in 1912 China after the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing. This movement toward constitutional government was turbulent and marked by the struggle between the Kuomintang (Chinese National Party), the Chinese Communist party (founded in 1921), various regional warlords and the Empire of Japan.
The Republic period ended in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the rise of Mao Zedong. The Republic period was chaotic, but there is a market in the United States for items produced during that turbulent period. We think the piece may have been produced during the so-called Nanjing decade between 1928 and 1937 and should be appealing to some collectors who are interested in items from this time period.
Good quality Republic period Chinese painting on tiles can bring prices above $1,000, and this pleasant garden scene with a mandarin in a pavilion observing young women (one apparently doing calligraphy) is charming.
But D.C. has two major problems. One is the unsightly scuffed condition of the wood, and the other is getting this to an appropriate marketplace where a higher price may be realized. And that can be prohibitively expensive.
Our advice is to speak with a well-qualified local antiques appraiser and ask how he or she would maximize the return when selling the table in your area.