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Collecting Antique Chinese Porcelain - an introduction

 

Two major groups - "Chinese taste" and "Export wares"

When looking at "Chinese Porcelain" as a whole, I feel it helps to first of all consider that most of it easily could be divided into two major groups - "1. Chinese market porcelain" and "2. Chinese export porcelain".

1. Chinese taste

This is generally speaking all porcelain made primarily for the Asian market. This could be divided into:

Both of these groups very often carry base marks. Antique export porcelain on the other hand, very seldom carry base marks. So, you could have the mark as a sorting factor such as; if the piece is antique and carry a mark at all, it is very likely to have been made for the Asian market. Most antique western export Chinese porcelain do NOT have marks.

Imperial kiln/ware - Guan yao

With this we mean "porcelain specifically made for the Chinese Emperor and the Imperial household". If we forget the really old stuff and focus on the white bodied stoneware we in the west call porcelain the first specifically "Imperial" kiln was set up in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 ). From then on, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, "Imperial porcelain" was ordered from and made by this separate Imperial kiln - located at Zhushan (Pearl Hill) in the city of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, where still today a thriving porcelain industry is fully functioning.

When talking about "Ming porcelain" as something very fine and expensive we are all having this Imperial Ming porcelain - Ming Guan yao - in the back of our minds. Here is also where most collectors go astray since there is a lot of porcelain which dates to the Ming dynasty without being "Imperial". As a basic rule; if you have paid less than US $10,000 for something you think is a real Imperial Ming, prepare yourself for the fact that you might just have become the owner of a really expensive flowerpot.

Peoples ware - Min yao

Most of the Chinese porcelain we see today are "Min yao - min=peoples yao=ware", mostly bowls and all kinds of pieces connected to the Asian way of life. This kind of porcelain have not changed very much over the years and might therefore be hard to date properly.

There is actually very little that differs between a provincial rice bowl made in the 12th century from one made in the 19th century. The prices are mostly somewhere in-between US $20 and $250 anyway. In this area your personal taste makes all the difference.

2. Chinese Export Porcelain

Chinese Export porcelain are any porcelain made and exported for use outside China. Chinese export porcelain could be divided into porcelain made for:

Interestingly enough the Chinese themselves are today hardly aware of ever having made the porcelain pieces that was made and exported to the west and does not immediately even recognize them as Chinese!

The difference between antique pieces made for different markets is found both in their shapes, which depends on their intended use, and their decoration. Remember that flat plates is a western requirement as is handles on tea cups. Most pieces you can sort up easily by comparing with textiles from the area. This might sound odd but fashion is fashion and that is what decides the decoration on porcelain too. The Chinese potters just made what was ordered and what could be sold.

The western 17th to 19th century shapes are typically flat and deep plates with condiment flanges, chargers, tea and coffee cups with or without handles, dishes, soup tureens, jugs, pitchers and the like. The Chinese common folks themselves mostly settled for soup bowls of medium size and jars for storage of different size according to what were to go in them. Small jars and boxes for condiments and this and that are the most common of the Asian market shapes.

Western market export porcelain are easy to recognize thanks to their specific shape contrasting with their mystic and oriental flavoured decoration and are in many ways the safest pieces to start with for a western collector. They are easy to recognize, easy to date, quite affordable and are available in a wide assortment of different qualities and prices, which is what makes collecting interesting.

With Oriental pieces I am really thinking mostly about extra huge food platters and high water ewers intended for Turkey, Persia and the Islamic markets in general. The huge food and water storage jars called "Martabans" might fit in here too.

The most interesting Chinese porcelain which were made for the Japanese market I feel are those connected to the Japanese tea ceremony. Typical pieces are small food dishes (intentionally made to look warped). They generally date from the late Ming and a few decades into the Qing dynasty and are often found in the west at quite affordable prices. I have no idea why they are so common in the west but they are and you can just enjoy it while it lasts.

The South East Asia has been a huge market for the Chinese traders during at least the last 1000 years and all kinds of heavy bowls, small boxes and small jars are found there. Song and Yuan Dynasty pieces are quite common and the trade as such has by way of its geographical closeness continued into modern times.

In a way the Straits Chinese Porcelain for the Straits Chinese in Penang, Malacca and Singapore belongs here too but as a culturally distinct group with its decoration related to Ming dynasty Swatow wares.

Collecting and fakes

Export pieces from the last two centuries are easily found. You can't stumble into anything completely blindfolded but, this said it is not very likely that you should need to worry too much about "fakes" within the area of standard 18th century export porcelain, other than regarding extraordinary expensive pieces such as figures - which are notoriously hard to date - and 18th century armorial pieces, which has been copied both at Samson in France and during the 20th century in China and Hong Kong, and don't touch anything with American eagles on it.

I once tried to order museum souvenir replicas of an 18th century Chinese Export Tea Caddy at a factory in Jingdezhen itself. The manager looked worried at me and explained that it might be very hard for them to copy such a piece, since this kind of porcelain had never been made in China before. That really surprised me, since at that minute we must have sat within walking distance of the site of the original 18th century kiln where it had been made 200 years ago. The outcome? You do not really want to know that. If you think I am too reluctant to accept anything as genuine, trust me, I am not. It was impossibly to see any difference. Even the small things I look for were there. The only good thing was that the cost of making the replica was about the same as the originals sell for anyway. We did - one - of these, and it is properly marked as such, so do not worry about that one. However, it is worth saying over and over again that you need to study the area of your choice and don't try to collect everything. You need to be very good at whatever you set out to do if it is not going to become a both expensive, pointless and disappointing experience.

What makes Chinese porcelain so exciting to collect is, I believe, the fact that it is so difficult. Thanks to all the fakes there are many genuine pieces around not properly identified as such. A flea market bargain could easily turn out to be the real thing.

Marks

Pieces made at the Imperial factory was by command marked with a period mark - a "nian hao" - drought up by the Emperor. The Imperial period mark seems to have been written on the porcelain by a small number of highly specialized painters who very well might have spent their entire life just painting the same mark. These marks also differs very little between pieces and the handwriting of a just a few different painters can be recognized. These marks were then - in my opinion - copied outside the Imperial kiln since day one, and the "non Imperial" marks heavily out numbers the genuine. One special case is when imperial pieces from an earlier period were actually ordered to be copied at the Imperial kiln, but the majority of "fake" marks are just the handiwork of private entrepreneurs wanting to raise the value of their merchandise and might be very hard to date properly.

Most of the antiques Chinese export porcelains does not have any marks at all. South East Asian market export pieces from 1860 to the 1920's often have smudged red, square "seal" marks. These marks could say anything, but the porcelain is still mostly from mid to late 19th century. We also seriously have to consider the tremendous output of fake pieces who could have any mark, from the 1970's up until today.

Spend "one tenth" on books

Strangely enough people who hesitates to spend $20 on a book on Chinese porcelain could happily spend $200 on a piece of porcelain that "just might be Ming". My personal rule of thumb is to spend at least one tenth on books, of whatever amount you intend to spend on porcelain. You will notice that your porcelain collection immediately will gain in value to yourself with whatever amount of money you spend on books about what you collect. It can also be nice to know that when you buy a book - it is not a fake.

Finding more information

As far as I know this site in itself is for the moment by far the largest information source available online on the subject of Antique Chinese Porcelain collecting. Any specific data about this site has a shelf life, but at the time of rewriting this article by the end of 2001 there were close to 1,000 pages of information on antique Chinese porcelain, on the history of China and on how porcelain were - and still are - made in China, on gotheborg.com.

Most major sections are available from the left column headlines. It is also possibly to make a "fast and dirty" search of this site for specific key words. The article on my visit to the Chinese Imperial Porcelain Factory area in Jingdezhen should also be interesting. The photos illustrating this and other articles are taken by me in 1991 and 1992 and are not published anywhere else.

Sincerely,
Jan-Erik Nilsson



All information found on the Gotheborg.com web pages are for entertainment or educational purposes only. All expressed opinions are my personal, based on photos and the owners submitted descriptions, and are not to be used for any financial or commercial decisions. Gotheborg.com expressly disclaims all warranties of any kind. Submitted material gratefully appears on this website due to the implied or expressed consent of the rights owners. Copyright © Jan-Erik Nilsson, Gothenburg, Sweden 2001-2017