Posted on: April 20, 2020
Beginner’s Guide: Collecting Chinese Ceramics
In this week’s Beginner’s Guide, we will be demystifying the world of Chinese porcelain, and giving you a few tips on buying at auction. The allure of the east has fascinated Europeans for centuries and continues to do so even today. The sale of Chinese porcelain has witnessed a major ‘boom’ in the last decade and this has resulted in a surge of new collectors. There are many reasons Chinese porcelains, on the whole, are sought after; they offer an insight into one of the oldest and most compelling cultures in history, they are a testament to human ingenuity and creativity, and have a timeless quality and beauty that has endured hundreds, even thousands, of years of cultural progression. However, while often admired in auction houses, buying Chinese ceramics can be daunting to the novice collector. This is understandable – the subject is extensive and complex and becoming an expert takes many years of study.
Despite this, first-time buyers should not be put off – as with any area of collecting, knowledge comes with time. If you’ve been considering starting your own collection, or would simply like to learn a little more about this intriguing subject, here’s some advice on where to start:
Handle as many pieces as possible
There is a wealth of academic information available online and textbooks – these are an excellent place to start building your knowledge, and can serve as a reference point for your studies. But there is no quicker and more effective way of learning than handling the goods themselves.
Chinese ceramics have been imitated for hundreds of years, either drawing inspiration from earlier periods or to deceive the beholder’s eye. Visit museums, archives and auction houses, where you can observe the form, glaze and conditions of a variety of pieces. By handling these pieces, you will grow familiar with the subtle giveaways such as the weight and quality of decoration on a piece, which can make all the difference to it’s value. Buyer’s should take advantage of auction house viewings to handle as much as possible.
Also, be sure to pick the brains of the in-house experts; they are often happy to share their knowledge and point out smaller details which less experienced eyes may miss at first. Plus, we always like to talk about our specialized subject!
Get to know your reign marks
A reign mark records the dynasty and the reigning emperor when the piece was made. They can be found on Chinese ceramics from the early-Ming dynasty (15th century) through to the Qing dynasty (20th century). Knowing how to read at a reign mark is a key asset for any collector or enthusiast to help identify the date and the value of a piece of Chinese porcelain.
Reign marks comprise 4 or 6 characters, usually in two vertical columns which are read top to bottom, and right to left. They tend to appear in one of two different scripts; Kaishu (regular script) which appears hand-written, or zhuanshu (seal-form script) which is more archaic and angular in its appearance. With either type, reign marks follow a certain format, and can be broken down into three categories when reading: the first two refer to the dynasty (either ‘Great Ming’ or ‘Great Qing’); the next two refer to the name of the Emperor; and the final two meaning ‘made for’ or ‘year made’. Four character marks omit the first two marks for the name of the dynasty.
Becoming familiar with reign marks is an excellent starting point, however buyers should not make the mistake of determining the age of a piece purely from it’s mark. A good portion of the ceramics on the market today are not of the period they claim to be. Some of these are of course copies made to deceive the buyer, but it is not uncommon for a piece of a later period to bear the mark of an earlier emperor. These are ‘apocryphal’ marks, and they were used as reference to an earlier emperor and admiration for the porcelain of the period, from which later artisans drew inspiration. Many pieces of the Kangxi period bear the mark of the Ming period emperor Chenghua (1465 – 1487) as imperial porcelain of this time was revered by Kangxi artisans.
Furthermore, some genuine period examples may bear no reign marks at all, as is the case with some Kangxi period ceramics; for a short period, the emperor restricted the use of his reign mark for all but the best imperial wares. Many potters of the time instead marked their pieces with auspicious emblems such as an artemisia leaf. While recognising reign marks is a great place to start, it must be considered in conjunction with other aspects such as decoration, style and condition to determine it’s true age.
Become familiar with colour palettes and glazes
Glazes were initially developed for practical reasons, to make ceramics waterproof and more durable for everyday use, but over time the decorative potential of glazing became increasingly important. From cool, monochrome hues to richly coloured and elaborately decorated wares, the colours and styles of glaze popular in Chinese ceramics have varied immensely through the dynasties as fashions changed and technologies advanced. Becoming familiar with the vast bank of styles and technical terms can be daunting to beginners, but this can be a very helpful tool in identifying a piece; it can assist with dating a piece according to when a glaze or style was introduced, and with continued study, collectors can pick up on the subtle differences in glazes which can help to identify the region of origin, or separate older and younger pieces of the same colour palette and style, such as those in the ubiquitous blue and white palette which remained popular for hundreds of years.
Take for example, the wucai palette (a.k.a. ‘Five-colour palette); Chinese court long favoured monochrome colours, and it wasn’t until the Wanli period (1573-1619) that artisans developed the technology to produce polychrome decoration. From this palette came the famille verte palette introduced during the Kangxi period (1662-1722) which features a predominant green enamel together with blue, red, yellow and black. In the 1720’s the famille rose palette was developed and featured a prominent pink colour; the enamels of this are more opaque and there is a wider repertoire of colours.
Shape & Proportion
The shapes of Chinese ceramics changed and evolved throughout the dynasties – although there are variations among different dynasties and reigns, tradition and limited free expression under imperial guidelines, resulted in a relatively small quantity of recurring shapes, particularly in vases. Identifying these shapes can assist in dating pieces according to when it was first produced, and whether or not that shape was popular during a certain period. Chinese ceramics are also noted for their well-balanced proportions, and pieces which look out of proportion may indicate damage or later alteration.
Given the age and great distances many pieces have travelled, finding an item in perfect condition is quite remarkable. What is ‘acceptable’ condition varies between collectors; some may accept hairline cracks and minor breakages as part of the object’s history, but for others only exceptional condition will do. Generally speaking, pieces in better condition retain more value and buyers should always aspire to buy the best they can afford; but if a piece is damaged, do not undervalue it – it could allow you to purchase something rare and equally important and at a lesser price.
When asking for a condition report on an item, or assessing the condition in person, be sure to look out for:
Hairline cracks: very fine cracks to the glaze or body of the piece – this could affect its integrity long-term
Frits & Flaking:This is wear and missing areas of glazed decoration to the body or the edges of a piece which often occurred during the firing process.
Nibbles & Chips: small to moderate areas of damage to the body of the piece. Be sure to assess the size of these areas and ask for additional pictures if required.
Repair & Restoration: Pieces which have previously been broken may have been repaired with large rivets, which can be unappealing to the buyer and drastically affect value. Pieces may also show later restoration to decoration – this can be of a poor or very high quality, but for some bidders affects the authenticity of the piece.
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