Furniture from Tibet has always been quite rare. Except for the wealthy,
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.
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
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"
they are brand new, entirely repainted, or radically "enhanced" to make them
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
found on Tibetan furniture in our collection so you can make comparisons
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
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.
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:
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.
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
Tibetan cabinets are invariably mortise and tenon construction with the top
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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:
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
, 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.