By Anne Gilbert

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, November, 2003 

Surprisingly one of the most affordable art categories is Chinese paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Even in antique shops prices can range from a few hundred dollars to under $3,000. They have never lost their appeal to American collectors since they were first introduced to our shores by China traders in the early 18th century.

The subjects were as varied as the materials used.

By the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, as more Americans traveled to China, they brought back what they

Portrait of the six Prince Yi (1816-1861) c.1905. Hanging Scroll, ink and color on silk.   PHOTO CREDIT: Sackler Gallery, purchase Smithsonian Collections

thought were old paintings. Especially popular were the ancestral portraits. Lesser known these days, but showing up at auctions more often, were the so-called “rice paper” paintings. Throughout the last part of the 19th century, they were exported in huge quantities and sold in America. In the 1950s brushwork paintings, old and new, as well as copies, were fashionable decorator items. One of the most common subjects were the black and white horses, copied from early art. Another form of art combined calligraphy with small paintings to tell a story. It is still popular with interior designers. There are also pages taken from calligraphy books and framed. Other examples are strictly religious and combined dieties with Chinese calligraphy.

During the Boxer Rebellion (1900), when homes were looted, these religious books, (Siutras) were brought back to America by servicemen. Elaborate examples with gold ink illustrations of dieties can sell for thousands of dollars.

CLUES: Paintings from the early Chinese dynasties are in museums and private collections. However, there are still plenty of ancestor portraits still around. These were often done by commercial artists, using photos of the deceased, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before photography, the artists keep a supply of facial features on hand.
The client would work out a composite and the artist would dress the “ancestor” in a Mandarin costume. However, as they became popular in America, artists created their own versions for export. Prints also flood the market, with details accented with hand painting. The largest can sell for $3,000 or more in a gallery. They weren’t signed.  

“Rice paper” paintings were originally made into albums, with four or more paintings on a page. The albums were in different sizes; 7”x 5” to 8” x 12”. They used water colors and gouache on pitch paper, made from the papyrus plant. Since it was quite fragile, examples may not be in good condition. However, the paintings have retained their vibrant colors. The earliest examples depicted member of the Imperial Court, using much gold, silver and pearl dust in their costumes. By the late 19th century subjects included festivals, landscapes, birds, animals and flowers. The albums were painted in a series and often named. A complete album can sell at auction for $600 or more. Originally they sold for a few dollars to tourists.

Rice paper paintings aren’t signed. However, some have the shop labels or signatures of well-known Chinese painters. They were, after all, studio productions with several artists working each painting. The album covers themselves were works of art, covered in brocade. Gold pheasants, flowers and fruit were depicted. The pictures were often framed in colored ribbons. Other times the pictures were sold separately.

Another category is religious paintings in scroll or banner form. Generally they were done on paper or brocade. At auction they can sell for as little as $200.00

Things to consider are age, condition and subject appeal. Are the paintings really prints?  Are they painted on quality paper or textiles? If you are serious get help from experts. Carefully examine any you see at the next antique show.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at

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