Christie’s Guide to Collecting Chinese Pottery

Christies has managed to use such phenomenally rare pieces and astronomical prices that it might put off most people. But these Rules are as honest and useful that they would apply if you were scouring a local flea market in search of a treasure. I especially agree with Number 3- Buy what you love. In all things antique and decorative- if you have a talent for collecting; your gut leads you to as many treasures as an advanced degree.

I however, am not blessed in this regard and I offer up the following story to prove it.

I found a Blue and White Yen Yen Vase in the closet of my aunt. I asked her what I should do with it in her new apt and she said she thought it was awkward and not worth anything- Please take it away! So I had the “not worth very much” in my head and never applied the Rules below- ever- not even when I opened an antique store in Washington, DC. I did not look at it when I took it to my farm on the Northern Neck or to my home in Roland Park where I used it as a doorstop/umbrella stand. I only looked at it sparsely when a dog hit it coming in the house and sent it sprawling across the floor. I said exactly to my husband what was said to me “its not worth very much- take it away” and into the store it went.

Luckily we are lazy dealers and it was never priced or photographed. I only slightly noticed when my husband mentioned that a very nice Chinese gentleman said he would like the price. Spider had told him that he wasn’t even sure it was for sale. But something went off in my brain and I asked my husband, “how long did he look at it? ” For quite awhile he said and then I got on line and the first thing I saw was that the Baltimore Antiques Show was in town. 2 + 2 and I was in the car the next day and driving to Freemans Auction. Freeman’s suggested that it was worth 1500.00 and they would stick it in the next auction. I told Spider that if the man came back, he could contact Freemans.

Now I am a fan of Freemans. But the auction catalog arrived and my vase was not even pictured. And had what I would say was a rushed description. No photos at all- not the vase not the underside- nothing. And the auction was in 2 days. I called and did my part to get a do-over by placing a Reserve- which could not possibly be met with no photography.

The buyer paid $19,800. Enough said!!

Lessons Learned: Don’t let anyone else tell you what something is worth- figure it out yourself. Don’t be lazy when putting things up for sale and apparently don’t ask me or my husband anything.


Christie’s Collecting guide:

10 things you need to know about Chinese ceramics

What new collectors need to know about palettes, glazes, reign marks and more, plus why it pays to handle as many pieces as possible 

1 Handle as many pieces as possible

A teadust-glazed hu-form vase, Qianlong incised six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795). 13¾ in (34.9 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

A teadust-glazed hu-form vase, Qianlong incised six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795). 13¾ in (34.9 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

Chinese potters have copied Chinese ceramics for hundreds of years, both out of reverence for an earlier period and to fool buyers — so beware. There is no quicker way to learn than to handle as many pieces as possible. Large numbers of Chinese ceramics are offered around the world at reputable auction houses, which, unlike museums, allow potential buyers to handle them, so make the most of the opportunity. This creates an understanding of the weight of a piece and the quality of the painting — of how a ceramic should feel in the hand.

2 Ask questions

A very rare blue and white dish, Yongle period (1403-1425). 13¾ in (34.8 cm) diam. Sold for $637,500 in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Building the knowledge needed to authenticate Chinese ceramics can take many years. Reading reference books can give structure to the field, but pick specialists’ brains and ask as many questions as possible. There is nothing that a specialist with a little time on their hands likes more than to talk about their subject.

3 Buy what you love

Do not necessarily think of buying for investment. If you buy what you like, you will never be disappointed. Try to buy the best quality example your budget will allow.

A very rare yellow and green-enameled ‘dragon’ vase, Jiaqing incised six-character seal mark and of the period (1796-1820). Estimate $150,000-250,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

A very rare yellow and green-enameled ‘dragon’ vase, Jiaqing incised six-character seal mark and of the period (1796-1820). Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

4 Familiarize yourself with different palettes and glazes

Palettes and glazes evolved over the centuries. For example, the wucai (literally ‘five-colour’) palette was used in the Wanli period (1573-1619) and led to the famille verte palette, which was introduced in the 17th century and the Kangxi period (1662-1722). This was a palette of green, predominantly, plus blue, red, yellow and black. The famille rose palette was added to the ceramic painter’s repertoire in the 1720s and featured a prominent rose colour; the enamels were opaque and there was a wider repertoire of colours. In the 18th century, there were many technical advances, and glazes such as copper-red and flambé were introduced.

A rare and unusual Doucai moon flask, 18th century. 12¼ in (31.2 cm) high, hardwood stand. Estimate $50,000-70,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

A rare and unusual Doucai moon flask, 18th century. 12¼ in (31.2 cm) high, hardwood stand. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

5 Learn about the differences in glazes across kiln sites

Ceramics were made all over China and the kilns in the north and south produced different types of wares and glazes. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), for example, beautiful celadon-glazed ceramics were produced in the Longquan area of southwest Zhejiang province, and also by the Yaozhou kilns in the northern Shaanxi province. The celadon glazes differed between these two kilns, with the Longquan glaze often giving a warmer, bluish-green tone, compared with the Yaozhou glazes that were more olive.

Jun wares from the Song dynasty were produced with beautiful lavender glazes, often highlighted by abstract purple splashes. The Dehua kilns specialised in ceramics with white and cream glazes. In the late Ming dynasty in the 17th century, Dehua wares were creamy in tone, but by the 19th century, these had became more ivory and white. Also during the Ming dynasty, the kilns at Jingdezhen in the south of China produced most of the blue and white ceramics.

6 Look underneath

A rare underglaze-blue and enamel-decorated dish, Zhengde-Jiajing period (1506-1566). 7 in (17.7 cm) diam. Sold for $81,250 on 25 September 2020 at Christie’s New York 

The way the base of a vessel was cut, finished and glazed changed from one dynasty to the next, which can help enormously in the dating and authenticating process — especially as forgers don’t always get it right. They may not have an original example to copy, relying instead on photographs in auction catalogues or books, and these don’t always include images of the base.

7 Recognize changes in blue decoration

This decorative element changed a lot over the centuries. A characteristic of 15th-century blue and white porcelain, for example, was the so-called ‘heaped and piled effect’, in which the cobalt-blue underglaze was concentrated in certain areas, bubbling through the surface of the glaze and turning a deep blue-black. This inadvertently gave texture, energy and shading to the design and was highly admired in the 18th century. 

Chinese potters subsequently mastered the technique of firing blue and white wares to achieve a more even cobalt-blue tone. But the tone varied from one dynasty to the next. During the Wanli period (1573-1619), for example, blue and white wares often had a greyish-blue tone, while in the Jiajing period (1522-1566), the tone was almost purplish-blue.

8 Pay attention to shapes and proportions

The shape of ceramics also evolved. Song dynasty ceramics, for example, were often inspired by nature and foliate in form. Chinese ceramics are also well known for their beautiful proportions. A vase or bowl that looks out of proportion is an indication that a neck or mouth has been ground down.

A flambé -glazed ‘pomegranate’ vase, Qianlong six-character incised seal mark and of the period (1736-1795). 7 78 in (20 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate $50,000-70,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

A flambé -glazed ‘pomegranate’ vase, Qianlong six-character incised seal mark and of the period (1736-1795). 7 7/8 in (20 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 23-24 September at Christie’s in New York

9 Consider the condition

What makes the condition of a ceramic acceptable or otherwise depends on whether or not it is Imperial-quality and when it was made. For example, on a non-Imperial porcelain vessel made in the 17th century — such as a Kraak ware charger — you would expect to see some kiln grit or kiln dust on the base and perhaps a firing flaw that would have occurred in the kiln. Both would be acceptable. 

However, you would not expect to find these kind of flaws on an 18th-century Imperial mark and period ceramic, because the firing techniques would have been refined. Fifteen years ago, only mint-condition mark and period ceramics would have been considered acceptable. Now, however, collectors will consider ceramics that have been broken and restored, or which have hairline cracks.

10 Familiarise yourself with marks

Reign marks state the dynasty and the name of the emperor for which an item was made, and were used on all ceramics made for the emperor and his imperial household. Do not rely on a reign mark to establish the age of a piece, however. Marks were often copied and can be apocryphal.

A pair of rare gilt-decorated coral-ground ‘dragon’ dishes, Yongzheng yuan nian jianzhi marks, corresponding to 1723, in underglaze blue within double circles and of the period. 7⅞ in (20 cm) diameters, softwood stands. Sold for $43,750 in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York

A useful reference book is The Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, Gerald Davison, London, 1994. Reign marks should be studied alongside the many different variations of hallmarks, auspicious marks, potters’ marks and symbols that you find on the bases of Chinese porcelain throughout the ages.

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