Dear Helaine and Joe:
I recently read your article entitled “Treasures, porcelain figures look old, valuable, but looks are deceiving,” in our newspaper. I would love to know about a jade statue/figurine that I received from my in-laws. Would you give me some feedback?
M. L. W.
Dear M. L. W.:
It is highly ironic that the titled quoted ended with the thought that “Looks can be deceiving,” because that is very true in this case.
Traditionally, the term “jade” is used to describe two different minerals — Jadeite and Nephrite. Both of these materials have been used since prehistoric times for hardstone carving with jadeite having about the same hardness as quartz and nephrite being a bit softer but tougher and more resistant to breakage.
Nephrite can be found in shades of green, but it can be found also in creamy white (sometimes called “Mutton Fat”), gray, near-black, and yellowish to brownish colors. Jadeite, on the other hand can be found in highly prized and translucent emerald green, blue, red, black, dark green, lavender, and white. Items carved from jade have been treasured around the world — especially in Asia, Latin America and New Zealand.
Unfortunately, the piece in today’s question was not made from jade. Instead, it was carved from a material that is not considered to be a gemstone and one that is softer than either jadeite or nephrite and far easier to carve. It is generally called “soapstone” or less commonly among collectors “steatite.”
Soapstone has a high talc content that can range from about 30 percent to as much as 80 percent. The softer grades of soapstone can feel a bit like a bar of soap when touched — thus the name. The carving belonging to M. L. W. appears to be very typical of soapstone carvings made in China at the turn of the 20th century or slightly before.
This one appears to be a grouping of small vases surrounded by a profusion of chrysanthemum blossoms and leaves. This was meant to be a mantel or table ornament and was not designed to serve a utilitarian purpose — such as holding an actual flower arrangement or long matches for a fireplace.
This appears to be a very nice example of Chinese soapstone carving but vast quantities were exported to the United States and elsewhere and are commonly found. Many are rather simplistic and crudely carved, but this one appears to be nicely done and some of the individual chrysanthemum blossoms appear to be detailed and very well executed.
Unfortunately, M. L. W. failed to tell us the size of her piece and this will prevent us from offering a firm estimation of its value. If the piece is relatively small say four or five inches, the insurance value might be less than $125, but it if is significantly larger, that value could triple. Also, the condition must be pristine or very nearly so in order for this soapstone piece to be of value to collectors.