Japanese motifs influenced Victorian objects


by Anne Gilbert

Many beginning collectors can be confused by antique furniture and decorative accessories that look Asian in origin. In actuality, they are probably Victorian art furniture introduced at the Japanese Bazaar during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The style became known as "Japonica." Soon the "look" was adapted by American cabinet makers and spilled over to silver and decorative accessories.

Tiffany silver Japonica inkwell (photo courtesy 'Antiques Roadshow')

It all began when the Japanese started trading with America and Europe in the 1850s. In 1862, when Japanese pieces were exhibited at the London International Exhibition, they were an instant hit with the Brits. They named the style "Japanese Art Furniture."

In America, bamboo furniture was first considered fashionable for country homes and originally imported from Japan. However, this was shortly replaced by lathe-turned, light maple and named "faux bamboo." Bird's-eye maple was used for cabinet pieces. Many people commissioned special pieces adding their own design touches. This accounts for differing motifs on chairs or in a bedroom suite.

Several American companies specialized in making Japonica. Among New York makers included George Hunzinger, Kilian Brothers, C.A. Aimone and R.J. Horner. When pieces can be attributed to those manufacturers prices go up. Auction descriptions often refer to Japonica items as "Aesthetic Movement Faux Bamboo."

English, c. 1890s , small faux-bamboo table. (photo courtesy 1ST Dibs)

A hall tree attributed to R. J. Horner could fetch as much as $1,200. A bamboo and bird's-eye maple pier mirror might sell for $4,000 or more with a Horner attribution, as could a bird's-eye maple, faux bamboo dressing table. A small faux bamboo c. 1890s item can sell for more than $600 these days.

If you like the look and can afford it, in silver Tiffany and Co., set the trend for the Japanese look. The mixed metal technique, using copper with  silver followed the Japanese metal techniques. Recently on 'Antiques Roadshow', a Tiffany silver inkwell with raised "Japonica" motifs was appraised at $8,000, retail.

Anne Gilbert has been self-syndicating the ANTIQUE DETECTIVE to such papers as the Chicago Sun Times and the Miami Herald since 1983. She has authored nine books on antiques, collectibles and art and appeared on national TV. She has done appraisals for museums and private individuals.