Exotic objects from India have fascinated collectors since they were exported by many countries in the 19th and early 20th century. This included England, Portugal, Holland and many others. The work of many of these Indian artisans was of high quality. Prices have gone up since they were trendy in the 1960s. Back then, brass trays on small folding tables were reasonably priced, as were textiles. Men bought Nehru-style jackets and women wore silk saris.
Currently, quality American furniture companies are reproducing early India-style pieces. Prices can be several thousand dollars.
When the British were in power in India, artists trained at the Indian royal courts sought employment at British commercial centers such as Calcutta and Madras. Using their skills and native materials, they fashioned furniture on commission. In today’s market, old and new pieces can sell for thousands of dollars.
At the same time, the port city of Vizagapatam became known as the furniture capital of India. European ships and settlers hired local artisans to make Western-style furniture. They also made decorative boxes for various purposes. The specialty of the region was ivory inlay. The designs were engraved and highlighted with black lac. Other motifs were scrolling borders, human figures and architectural scenes.
Rosewood was the favored wood due to its resistance to insects and mildew. Teak and ebony were also used.
The many religions of India also influenced furniture designs. Among them are Hinduisim, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism and tribal religions.
Among the other types of objects commissioned were miniature paintings on ivory and furniture. Depending on the country that the commissioner was from, the furniture reflected the popular design of the time. A good example would be an English commission of furniture that would have Chippendale-style ball and claw feet.
CLUES: Although many Indian craftsmen received personal recognition, for the most part they are unknown. Unlike the art of other countries, Indian art is rarely signed. Even if it is, the artist is not usually identifiable. It is up to dealers and collectors to rely on their own good taste to judge the value and merits of Indian antiques.
Indian paintings were not only done on ivory but also on mats, cloth, boards and paper. The permanent mineral colors were bonded by glue and lime. Back in the 1960s, the big chain of stores called Pier One sold reproductions of many early Indian objects.
Rarities can turn up anywhere. In the 1980s, I discovered an 18th-century Vizagapatam sewing box in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, antiques shop. The dealer had no idea what it was. The price was $50. Fortunately, I had recently done research, since Indian objects were popular. It is worth several thousand dollars.