The emperor's old clothes

Collect to Invest: Chinese Imperial robes have class and mysticism... and are now coveted as works of art. By John Windsor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ten years ago, few collectors looked twice at Chinese mandarins' brightly coloured surcoats with their finely woven dragons and birds. The Chinese porcelain and jade markets were long-established - but costume? It looked like a hangover from Gilbert and Sullivan.

But a yellow robe worn by an Emperor of the Qing dynasty (17th to 19th centuries) bought for pounds 15,000 a decade ago would be worth over pounds 40,000 today.

The market will never be as broad as the market for paintings, but, compared with such conventional artworks, Chinese court robes are undervalued - and prices continue to rise. Demand is being fuelled not only by the rehabilitation of textiles as collectables and by the new buying power of the Chinese but also by the West's discovery of Feng Shui, the semi-mystical ancient Chinese system of architectural and interior design.

Robes of the appropriate colour, strategically hung in plastic cases in Western interiors deficient in a vital element or two, can, it is said, correct imbalances. Yellow, the Emperors' colour, will bump up the earth element (Chinese Emperors were expected to be earthy); red brings the quality of fire; blue and green of wood.

The robes of court mandarins were strictly colour-coded according to rank. Orange, brown, green and blue - the lower the rank, the more they deviated from Imperial yellow. Today, prices for robes are ranked the same way. But that is not the boon to investors that it might seem - quality and condition are paramount.

You may whoop at the sight of a dark blue satin formal robe with nine dragons - signifying that it is from the Imperial court - but fail to note that it is cheap brocade, woven by a flying shuttle. It might have been worn by an18th-century provincial rice farmer, who had passed examinations in order to become an official at the Imperial court in Beijing, but who could not afford needle and thread embroidery to produce a complex tapestry.

A brocaded 18th-century formal court robe is estimated to fetch pounds 500- pounds 800 at Christie's South Kensington's bi-annual sale of Oriental Costume and Textiles on 10 June. South Ken launched dedicated Oriental costume sales only a year ago in response to rising demand from new collectors.

Lower range dragon robes such as the 18th-century brocade in Christie's sale have risen up to five times in value over the past decade, compared with middle and higher range garments that have risen up to 10 times. Finer quality embroidered robes, now being sold by dealers for pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000, would 10 years ago have commanded only pounds 350.

If you have an eye for textile quality and condition - which few people have without the help of a knowledgable auctioneer or dealer - you could pick garments in this range out of Christie's South Ken sale at estimates ranging from pounds 800-pounds 1,200 to pounds 1,500-pounds 1,800.

And at Olympia, 11-15 June, the first fair devoted to textiles, with 50 dealers from Europe, Asia and America, will give you a chance to pick the brains of dealers such as Linda Wrigglesworth, who established the London market in Imperial costume back in 1978, when she was 22. She and her researcher/ historian Gary Dickinson co-authored the definitive Imperial Wardrobe, published by Bamboo in 1991, now an out-of-print collectors' item.

Ms Wrigglesworth is refreshingly forthright about investing in Imperial robes: "You might pay two or three times the auction price buying from me, but I will take back anything you buy from me and sell it for you. It's like consulting a lawyer - you are paying for expertise acquired after years of study.

"We can do the legwork for company executives and help them to accumulate a fantastic collection that will appreciate in value. If people want to invest in my field, I want to make sure they're investing wisely. I've not seen this market do anything but rise and it is the higher quality, rarer robes that are easiest to re-sell."

She recommends a safe starting price of pounds 5,000-pounds 6,000 per garment. It's that magic pounds 5,000 again - the price at which so many other collectables reach an investment take-off point on the grounds of sheer quality.

For that money, she says, you would not get an Imperial robe (worn by the Emperor or his family) but you might just afford a finely woven court formal dress, and certainly a fine informal one.

"Condition is everything," she says. "When I say excellent, I mean perfect. If there are sweat marks under the armpits, splits on the shoulder line, even a single stain, I won't buy".

Ms Wrigglesworth is also an expert at spotting the subtle but crucially damaging alterations made by young flappers in the Twenties, who turned court robes brought back by missionaries into cocktail dresses and bath robes.

As an example of buy-back she instances the Canadian couple who, in 1982, bought from her informal court robes at pounds 500-pounds 600 and formal robes for pounds 1,000. She has re-sold them on commission - the informals for pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 and the formals for pounds 10,000.

Meanwhile, Mr Dickinson, who has schooled himself in Feng Shui, has hung a Chinese yellow tiger banner in his home, as much for protection as investment. His personal constitution is earth, he says, and, according to Feng Shui, the main living room in a home should be earth, too. But his living room faces south-east, giving it the quality of wood. Wood exhausts earth. But the yellow of his banner is an earth colour. And tigers are associated with the West and with metal - which destroys wood.

The Hali International Antique Carpet and Textile Art Fair, Olympia, 11-15 June, entry pounds 5 (0171-710 2135). Christie's South Kensington auction of Oriental Costumes and Textiles, Wednesday 10 June, 2pm. Enquiries: 0171-3213212.

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