How can this information be useful to appraisers?

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Year of the Tiger and What It Means for Appraisers

Year of the Tiger and What It Means for Appraisers

Tuesday, January 25, 2022 in Business Tips

The Asian lunar calendar cycles every sixty years. At its heart is the sequence of twelve zodiac animals*, each of which dominates once every twelve years.

The upcoming lunar new year, the Year of the Tiger, begins on February 1, 2022.  It succeeds the Year of the Ox, 2021.  Two more different personalities cannot be imagined! Whereas the ox is considered dependable, methodical, honest, conservative, and calm, the tiger is independent, emotional, valiant, strong-willed, aristocratic, and powerful, the king of beasts, a protector of children who traditionally in China wear tiger-image hats sporting the character for “king”.

To celebrate the beginning of the Year of the Tiger, tigers appear everywhere in both popular culture and the fine arts, from fireworks’ packages to elegant scrolls, as here. Some of the images are spoofs, making the tigers look foolish, but most are intended to convey the power and energy associated with the beast. Accorded respect in their own right, tigers are also the ideal, worthy, opponents of men. Korean screens with hunting scenes illustrate mounted hunters chasing and killing tigers, a sure sign of the prowess of the hunters.  Japanese prints show tigers engaged in mortal combat with strong men who inevitably win the almost equal match, thus illustrating the man’s ultimate superiority. Tiger skins traditionally are awarded by hunters to their masters, who proceed to drape their official chairs with the skins. As illustrated in many Chinese portraits of officials, paws, claws and skins are draped along the chair arms and along the chair railing. In other words, tigers are not only beautiful and ferocious animals in their own right, they also confer status on those who have killed them or those awarded the skins.

How can this information be useful to appraisers? First, it is important to note that apart from when their particular year in the twelve-year cycle begins**, many zodiac animals seldom appear in art. Snakes, pigs (boars) and rats, for example, are rarely depicted apart from their rotation in the cycle. Dogs and even rabbits, in spite of being cute and snuggly, also are mostly associated with designs celebrating their own year. Therefore, if an appraiser can identify a general era – for instance, late 19th century – when an art work depicting a snake (for instance) might have been created, and then if the appraiser can find when the animal appeared in the cycle of twelve years within that era, it could be possible to assign a date for that work’s creation. This is useful for many Asian art works, from netsuke through paintings. Furthermore, if you know the artist’s dates, then the appearance of a generally unpopular subject within the artist’s work, say a grumpy boar, can help assign a date of creation within the artist’s lifetime, since the animal is only going to appear a finite number of times within those dates.  

Another point which may arise itself when conducting an appraisal for a married couple of east Asian heritage and that is, you may find on display two zodiac animals which are not in the normal zodiac order but rather reflect the owners’ personal animal association. Traditionally one’s own birth sign including zodiac animal is thought to reveal one’s character, even destiny. This is not an individual’s choice; it is a matter of birth date. That is, if you are a rat, you cannot just decide that instead you are a horse because you like horses and find their associated zodiac qualities appealing!  A couple thinking (or their parents thinking) of their becoming bride and groom will go to a respected horoscope consultant who compares their dates (down to the hour of birth) including the character of their personal animals, and predicts whether or not it will be a happy or suitable union. If not, it is believed that the union will be inadvisable. Again, if you look up the Chinese zodiac cycle (even on Chinese restaurant placemats!), you will see that for each animal there are several other animals which have happy (suitable)-marriage potential and there will be several which one should never consider as a marriage partner! Even if the two animals on display in such a household make no sense in terms of their place in the zodiac, they may reflect the couple’s personal animal association. One could ask. In this instance, the two would not be considered a broken set, but complete within the parameters of that couples’ appraiser. Explain your rationale in your report.

One more point which can affect the valuation of certain Asian objects: preface: appraisers often encounter Chinese small sculptures depicting individual, free-standing, horses posed in different positions, often crafted from a hardstone or ivory or ceramics.  There absolutely have to be eight in number of these mini-sculptures to be considered a complete set, not six or seven; if you do not see the full set of the Eight Horses of Mu Wang, then you have a broken set. One, maybe, in its own right as just an “object” is acceptable, but five-seven is “not right”!

 So too, if in a client’s collection you encounter a number of Asian zodiac animal objects, and if they form a complete zodiac set, value can be added for the suite. If you have only one, that can be acceptable as just an animal in its own right. If you have confronting tigers and dragons, a standard equally-weighted pair which rule over different kingdoms, seasons and directions, that is acceptable. A random eleven or nine (etc.), however, is not. It would be considered a broken set and must be valued that way. Sometimes in estate settlements, one heir will take some, another heir others. If an appraiser finds six animals that are part of the twelve-animal zodiac cycle, the appraiser might ask (given of course the degree of friendship or animosity between heirs) if the other heir and your client might have divided up an original set of twelve. It is still a now-separated set but one could say “from an extant original set of twelve”. In terms of assigning value, this is a less disastrous circumstance than a set beyond recall.

A final note - cats are not part of the zodiac. They just aren’t…

By Daphne Lange Rosenzwig, Ph.D., ISA CAPP

*zodiac animals in order: rat, ox, tiger, hare (rabbit), dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, boar (pig)

**there are many easily-accessible sources of information about the Asian zodiac cycle


The illustration is of an autumnal tiger in a bamboo grove courtesy of an anonymous collector.

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