TIBETAN FURNITURE - A BRIEF DESCRIPTION

stupa

If you are looking for Tibetan furniture for sale you won't find it here. Look on either our Showroom pages or in the Featured section. This page is restricted to a description of Tibetan furniture and some pointers on how to avoid being taken in by the widespread practice of repainting old furniture with new designs.

We have included enlarged photos of each panel of a single Tibetan cabinet to illustrate the detail with which many of these cabinets were painted.

painted cabinet

One favorite subject of the newly painted furniture coming out of China is animals. This seems designed to appeal to Westerner taste, although animal paintings are fairly rare in on genuine Tibetan furniture. We have gathered together some examples of Animal Paintings on genuinely old Tibetan furniture and panels with original paint so that you can compare them with the repainted pieces. The differences are obvious.

Here is a article from the Wall Street Journal describing a visit to one of the Chinese centers of fake Tibetan furniture.  It might add to your understanding of how serious a problem this has become and how much it has undermined people's understanding of genuine Tibetan antique furniture.
 

About Tibetan Furniture
Tibetan cabinets in a monastery setting Furniture from Tibet has always been quite rare. Except for the wealthy, Tibetans used very little furniture in their homes, and the population of Tibet has always been so small that not much was ever made. Most of it was probably always found in the monasteries, and of course most of these monasteries were destroyed by the Chinese during the "Cultural Revolution" along with huge amounts of furniture. Made primarily from pine and other Himalayan soft woods, it is noted more for its sometimes lavishly painted surface and/or carved decoration than for its joinery.

CAUTION

As the supply of original, untouched pieces from Tibet is drying up, "recreated" furniture is coming on the market in larger and larger numbers. The biggest issue is the repainting of furniture. This can run from a minor retouching of a worn paint surface to the repainting of the entire piece with new decoration. This year we saw more pieces which were repainted than pieces with original paint, and it was unusual to find a piece which was not touched in any way. Besides the problem of repainted furniture, the reworking of Tibetan furniture includes creating new pieces from what can be salvaged from the old: refitting a cabinet with doors which may have been salvaged from another cabinet, cutting down a damaged large piece to make a smaller one; marrying parts of a damaged pair to make a single, and other equally creative measures.

The antique value of these pieces is only a fraction of that of the original pieces, and these reworked pieces should be so labeled. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. With this in mind, we look each piece over carefully, seeking out pieces in "original" condition. If we have doubts about a piece we will make them known to our customers, and we will price the piece accordingly.

Recently this situation has only grown even worse. In the last few months numerous people have brought pieces to our attention which were being represented as "all original" or only "retouched" when they are brand new, entirely repainted, or radically "enhanced" to make them more sellable. We've seen this with cabinets, tables, storage boxes, and shrine cabinets. Be especially cautious if contemplating the purchase of a piece at an on-line auction or directly from a Chinese warehouse. Most of these pieces that we've seen are repainted, and they should be so described although usually they are not. We've even seen "no retouched" applied to a cabinet that was sporting a brand new decoration unlike that of any Tibetan cabinet we've ever seen. Since the paint was brand new, one could suppose that the claim of no retouching was accurate...so far as it went.

If you are looking to purchase a piece of authentic Tibetan furniture, there are a few things to look for. Be suspicious of any piece which has a decorated top. Of the hundreds of cabinets and storage boxes that we have seen and handled, only a handful of boxes had painted tops, and cabinet tops if painted at all were only painted with a color, usually red. Only occasional table tops were painted and one could expect great wear and abrasion in all but the rarest example. As to painted sides, a few cabinets had one or both sides painted. Because so many cabinets originated in monasteries where they were ranged side-by-side, there was little necessity for painted sides, as we point out later. Boxes from the seventeen century and earlier were more likely to have painted sides, but these pieces are very expensive because of their beauty and rarity and so far we've seen no signs of their being faked.

If the paint looks too good to be true, it probably is. Most Tibetan furniture has gone through nearly as hard a time as its owners, and its decoration shows it. Be mindful that many of these repainted pieces are actually old, so scrapes and dings and hand chamfering and the like are to be expected. You have to look at the paint surface carefully to be sure that it's not been repainted. It also helps to keep in mind the decorative motifs of original pieces. The fanciful animals found on many of the on-line pieces have little resemblance to animals as rendered by Tibetan artists. We have added a gallery page of legitimately old animal paintings found on Tibetan furniture in our collection so you can make comparisons yourself. One of the surest give aways of the newly painted furniture is in the simple painting style which displays little care or attention to detail with almost a paint-by-numbers quality.

Most of these fakes are coming out of China. Not content with the wholesale destruction of Tibetan artifacts during the Cultural Revolution, these Chinese factories have devised a more insidious form of cultural destruction. Creating a new piece or stripping old pieces and redecorating them with a Chinese version of "Tibetan" decoration threatens to undermine the integrity of all genuinely old and original Tibetan furniture and gives a bad name to this uniquely Tibetan form of decorative art.
Tibetan cabinets in a monastery setting
This photograph and the one at the top of the page were taken in different buildings at the Dreprung monastery just outside Lhasa, Tibet. Much if not most Tibetan furniture was held in monasteries. The amount of Tibetan furniture was always very limited and there is very little of this furniture left in Tibet except in the surviving monasteries.

The way the cabinets are arrayed side by side at the back of this room explains why the sides of these pieces were seldom painted.



FORMS OF TIBETAN FURNITURE

There are only a limited number of forms of Tibetan furniture:


TIBETAN CABINETS

The most common pieces in our inventory are are the rectangular cabinets of various dimensions. These were used for the storage of anything from foodstuffs to religious objects. Probably the most useful form of Tibetan furniture for Western homes, most Tibetan cabinets approximate the dimensions and function of a Western chest of drawers. It is only the occasional cabinet however which has drawers, most having double sets of doors instead. Rather than swing on attached hinges the doors pivot on round pegs. Usually there is a shelf located where the upper and lower doors meet, dividing the cabinet into two compartments.


typical Tibetan cabinet

The cabinet pictured on the left is of a typical construction. The four larger panels in the center are the swinging doors; all other panels are fixed in place. By simply opening a door wide and sliding its bottom peg toward the center, the door can be easily removed. The bottom of the cabinet aligns not with the bottom door but with the bottom of the three narrow panels below the door, thus creating a larger space below than above the shelf which divides the two. Like this one, many cabinets have a removable skirt to fill the void between the lowest panels and the floor.

Tibetan cabinets are invariably mortise and tenon construction with the top pegged in place. They are glued and thus are held together normally without benefit of nails or screws. It is common for the cabinets to be decoratively painted only on the front. Occasionally the sides may have simple designs, or sometimes even, only one side may be decorated. This eccentricity may indicate its original placement in a room, or more likely, that this chest was originally part of a pair. Cabinets were often built and decorated as pairs placed side-by-side. In that case the left side of one cabinet and the right side of the other might be painted while the opposite sides of the two, never to be seen, remained unfinished.


Tibetan cabinet with glass doors

The cabinet on the right is similar in most regards to the one above. In keeping with the wider availability of manufactured products later in the nineteenth century, glass has been substituted for the wood panels in the top doors. This has necessitated a further modification: the top doors are each the equivalent of two panels in width so they encompass the full width of the chest. The wooden doors below remain only one panel wide. This modification allowed the maximum strength for the pegs on which the top doors swing as well as the widest possible viewing space for whatever its owner might have wished to display.



TIBETAN TABLES

carved wood Tibetan table

A wide variety of forms and shapes of tables were used, both in monasteries and in the houses of the more affluent Tibetans. Some Tibetan tables were used simply for serving food or tea while others had ceremonial uses and were used to hold ritual objects. Some tables fold into a flat unit and were meant to be transported from place to place, either by monks or by government officials.

It is also with tables that Tibetan wood carvers got to show off their greatest skills. Many tables are elaborately carved. Dragons and other fanciful animals, foliage, vines, and bamboo are all common motifs. More often than not the carving is then painted as well.

There is a great deal of variation in the forms of tables, more than in any other type of Tibetan furniture. Some tables were constructed in exactly the same way as cabinets and only their low height distinguishes them from cabinets. Others are light and airy with pierce-carved sides and backs. Some have cabriole legs while others are anchored to the floor as solidly as any cabinet. Some tables have swinging doors concealing a compartment just as with cabinets; some have full length drawers which open from the side; still others are open in the back, a few without so much as a shelf. Folding tables necessarily fall into this last category since their construction precludes a fourth side. As substantial as it may seem under its load of bronze wine pots, the table pictured above is just such a folding table.



TIBETAN STORAGE BOXES

Along with some tables, the covered storage boxes are among the earliest examples of surviving Tibetan furniture. Many date from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the nineteenth century they were being supplanted by the cabinet, which provided much easier access to its contents. These storage boxes compare in shape and dimensions to the six-board chest of the West. (To avoid confusion between storage boxes and cabinets, we have tried to avoid using the word chest for either). Some of these boxes were painted directly on the raw wood. Others were covered with cloth before being painted, and a few were covered with leather before paint was applied. Often gesso was used to produce raised decorations. Other boxes were finished with natural or dyed leather, sometimes with decorative panels of brocade or colorful fur. In most cases arrow-tipped iron or brass corner and side brackets were nailed to the box, both to reinforce the sides and to provide an additional decorative element. The tops were usually secured with iron ring hinges.


Tibetan storage box or trunk

The variety of decorative motifs is not nearly as great with the storage boxes as it is with either tables or cabinets. Generally, but not always, there is a central medallion containing one, two, or three dragons holding a tray of gems. The rest of the field will be filled with a floral or textile inspired pattern, strictly symmetrical, with an outside border and corner scrollwork.


OTHER TYPES OF TIBETAN FURNITURE


Into this category go containers for statues, shrine boxes or gaus, large tanka frames, standing prayer wheel boxes, and other furniture which does not fit into one of the above categories. Many pieces were made for specific purposes or locations and therefore may be a hybrid form, such as a table which incorporates many of the attributes of a cabinet, or a cabinet built to serve as a shrine. Cabinet-like boxes of proportions different from cabinets were made to house prayer wheels, and so on.

There are two specific types of furniture which also belong in this category: the pegum and the thorgum .

thorgum with tantric designs of vultures and flayed skins A pegum is a high table or a low cabinet with the variation that it has a scalloped backboard or apron. Its specific function is as a place to read the pages of a book and as such has an important place in both the monastery and the family shrine room. Thorgums are cabinets, generally with only one or two doors, used to store thorma , ceremonial offerings made from butter and tsampa, or other offerings to propitiate the wrathful deities. The doors are generally painted with tantric illustrations, a much looser form of decoration than is found on any other type of Tibetan furniture, and are only opened once a year.

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All photographs are the property of Paul Morse and may not be used without permission.

Last updated: Saturday, August 28, 2010
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