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Cloisonne: the new appeal of an ancient art

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Andy Kahane, Oriental specialist at Christie's auction gallery, says he is expecting to see some good 19th-century pieces of cloisonne going in the $600-$ 800 range in their March 23-24 Oriental sales.

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Donald Wineman, a Sands Point, N.Y., Orientalist and dealer, says cloisonne collectors are divided into two camps: those few serious collectors willing to spend from $20,000 to $50,000 for top pieces and that much larger group willing to pay prices up to $2,000 and $3,000, which he terms the ''popular-price market.''

Mr. Wineman contends that cloisonne collecting is good right now because it is not a ''hot'' collecting area; the field is wide open, and many pieces are undervalued. He thinks interest will grow, as interest in all the arts of the Orient expands, and values will appreciate because there are fewer and fewer good pieces available.

To beginners Mr. Wineman says, ''Start by buying things at reasonable prices because they are your learning tools. Once you put up your money and then begin to handle and compare and study, you will learn fast. My best tip to beginners buying old cloisonne is to examine with your fingertips as well as your eyes. You can feel damage, and repairs, and missing parts with your fingertips that your eye could miss.'' He sees as a problem the fact that so few real experts exist to give guidance.

Probably one of the finest collections of cloisonne in the U.S. has been put together by Robert and Marian Clague, an Arizona couple who in the early 1960's studied metalworking and enameling on silver in Taxco, Mexico, and then began their collection of cloisonne.

''I was fascinated with this art form that involved the unlikely marriage of enamel, a form of metal, and glass,'' Mr. Clague recalls. ''Because I had a mechanical background that included chemistry, I quickly recognized some of the challenges involved in making a perfect piece of cloisonne and knew it was a feat. I knew that metal and glass do not always expand and shrink at the same rate under heating and cooling. Glass can pull away from the bronze cloisons and shatter, or the bronze can trap gases which cause pits and bubbles in the enamel as it cools.''

The Clagues collected modern and old examples made in both China and Japan. ''In the beginning,'' he says, ''I could not distinguish Chinese and Japanese cloisonne and could not date the pieces. Later, on the advice of Sir Harry Garner, author of 'Chinese and Japanese Cloisonne Enamels,' we refined and edited our collection down to those antique Chinese pieces of museum quality. We eliminated all 20th-century pieces, deciding they were too perfect and too precise.''

Their collection was first given museum exhibition space in 1973, when it was displayed by the Milwaukee Public Museum. In 1980 it was exhibited by The Phoenix Art Museum. The Clague Collection of 100 pieces of cloisonne, dating from 1600 to 1900 and considered to be one of the broadest in the world, is currently traveling to other museums, as well. It will be exhibited next at the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis, Tenn., from May 15 to June 27.

Later in the year it will be shown at the Fine Arts Museum of the South in Mobile, Ala., (Oct. 1-Nov. 7) and at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, (Dec. 4-Jan. 16, 1983). It will then return to the Phoenix Art Museum.