Dear Helaine and Joe:
These are photographs of an antique winged lion and winged elephant. I purchased these terracotta animals from an antiques dealer in North Carolina who had traveled in Asia. The animals are in pristine condition. I paid $1,000 each for them and was told at the time they were 2,000 years old. Can you provide me with information about my pieces and their value?
It is impossible to evaluate these from a photograph, but examining the images closely we have serious doubts about both the age of these pieces and their monetary value.
If these pieces are 2,000 years old, they would be grave goods. This means they would have been buried for approximately two millennia. On the surface (and yes that is a pun), the patination appears to be too even and consistent to have been caused by exposure to ground water and minerals.
The patination, which appears to be greenish in the photos, is too pat. And that the two survived in completely undamaged condition for 2,000 years is a bit hard to swallow. Yes, it happens, but the upraised trunk on the scaly hybrid elephant/fish/dragon mythical creature of undefined origin is too elevated and vulnerable not to have been damaged over the centuries.
OK, we are suspicious of the surface on these two pieces. But we are also bothered by the bases being almost identical. These are not really a pair. One is 32 inches high and the other 28. That would mean they would look fairly odd standing together. But it is obvious they were made in the same factory.
To be 2,000 years old, these would almost have to be Han dynasty Chinese. Collectors do sometimes find thin green glazes on buff-colored bodies from this period, and animal figures were made. But to the best of our knowledge, they were not like these. We also looked at the scales — particularly those incised on the elephant — and these just look too fresh to our eyes and not of the period.
Our guess and our gut feeling is the figures were made somewhere in Southeast Asia (Thailand?) sometime in the recent past and sold as antiques. However, to be sure, S.H.S. would have to have them scientifically tested, and this can be something of a pain in the neck and wallet.
This test is called thermoluminescence or “TL” for short and was pioneered at Oxford University in England. In the United States, we understand that a Connecticut firm called Daybreak Nuclear, in Branford, does this sort of testing. But there may be other facilities closer to Raleigh, North Carolina.
We understand that the test costs about $500. It determines the last time the piece of ceramic was fired. It will not provide an exact date; just whether or not the object is old or relatively new. S.H.S. might also consult with Raleigh appraiser David Lindquist.