The month of July, most of my time was devoted to an insurance claim appraisal for contemporary Chinese Peking Opera Costumes destroyed by water after the firefighting effort. I was a novice to this genre of textile. This is often the case. I had seen still photos only of Chinese Opera and thought the costumes colorful with long wavy sleeves with a variety of patterns put together.

My first step was to contact a familiar scholar of Qing (1836-1912) dynasty textiles for any reference. As I repeat often, the strength of an appraiser is their network. I think mine is the best, and the first step can save time. Through his reference to a colleague at the University of Oregon I was sent to University of Hawaii, Textile and Theatre Department, Manao. They had over 100 Chinese Peking Opera costumes, purchased within last twenty years, and with great detail, discussed the differences in the quality characteristics between the clients and my found comparable. The comparable I could find were machine sewn with synthetic material. The costumes I was appraising were handsewn and embroidered, using fine quality silk. These costumes new, handsewn in Shanghai, cost between $5,000-$10,000 each. This included shoes and scarves and elaborate headdress too.

As I continued my research for the specific costumes such as pink qipao with clouds, red qipao, and Meipai style palace princess costume, the website I choose for comparable had a large diversity of costumes although of inferior quality to the clients and thus to their listed values. Some costumes listed on the inventory list mentioned 8 examples or more. I realized the same costume was worn by the chorus, often with long wavy sleeves, while main actors had individual costumes with accessories like a headdress and shoes.

Even after examining over 30 costumes, I had no feeling for the
characters. Then I decided to watch some Chinese opera on YouTube. Brilliant idea. Seeing the characters move, noting what large supportive casts, all with long flowing sleeves that displayed emotions effectively, helped me appreciate the costumes and accessories. Think of the Italian opera Aida, by Verdi in 1886, set in Egypt with elephants and hundreds of performers. The overwhelming cast and scene were similar to watching a portion of the Chinese Plum Blossom Opera. I found there were over 1000 Chinese operas known. The history in China of singing, in costume, for entertainment goes back hundreds of years. Today’s Chinese Peking Opera began in early 1900’s and the costumes I looked at were from this style of theater.

The performers beards fit over the mouth, just below the nose. One cannot see the mouth of the singer. The headdresses don’t seem particularly heavy, but balance is needed.

Through my correspondence with two experts, I determined the claim was actually low for the replacement value of the costumes. This is not a common occurrence, and the claim is not settled.