Treasures: Seals Can Hold Many Meanings

This Chinese seal is remarkable for its large size.

This Chinese seal is remarkable for its large size.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I believe this Chinese seal could be soapstone, but it is more likely to be the mineral serpentine. The translation of the seal (or so I have been told) is “lasting rejuvenation.” It is 10 inches tall by 3 inches square. Any information about age and value would be appreciated.

Sincerely,

S.J.M.

Dear S.J.M.:

East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) seals can be a bit more complicated than the casual American observer might think. There are, for example, name seals that are used for signing letters or documents, or even books and paintings.

There are also studio seals, which may be the name of a company or a society, or it may be the name used by an artist on his work, or even the inscription of a poem or proverb that expresses something special about the seal’s owner. There is another type of seal that we have seen referred to as a free seal.

These so-called free seals may indicate a person’s philosophy, or an expression of the owner’s character. It might also be a protective charm to protect against demons or to ensure the missive reaches its intended recipient safely.

The seals most collectors see are fairly small (normally less than an inch to the side and less than 5 inches tall) and easily held in the hand. However, on occasion, a seal may be much larger — not unlike the example in today’s question — or a seal might just be a large square or rectangular stamp with little or no decoration used by officials to sign papers and documents.

Many seals are made from soapstone, which is also called steatite or soaprock, and is a talc schist that has a greasy feel. The talc content of the rock determines how hard it is. The soapstone used for a countertop might be just 30 percent talc, while a variety used for carving seals might be as much as 80 percent talc (the more talc, the soapier the feeling to the surface).

Serpentine, on the other hand, is hydrated magnesium silicate. It is a group of greenish, brownish or spotted minerals that is sometimes carved to make various kinds of objects, including seals. Serpentine is harder than soapstone, and this seal could be from that material. Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure from just one photograph.

We briefly considered the seal might have been made from a variety of Shoushan or Tianhuang stone, but dismissed the possibility because the material is just not fine enough. The best of these stones — Tianhuang — is said to be worth three times its weight in gold. Shoushan is a kind of alabaster that is compared favorably to jade and comes in a variety of colors including amber/brown.

As for the age of the piece, we feel sure it is 20th century because the carving is not as subtle or as graceful as an earlier piece might be. We think it is mid to late Republic Period (1912-1949) and was probably not made for use but was intended to be used as decoration. More photographs would have been very helpful, and the value cannot be determined without them, but it is probably less than $500.

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