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Collecting Guide: 10 things you need to know about Chinese ceramics

How to get clued up on everything from reign marks to firing flaws, palettes, glazes and the different kilns — featuring upcoming lots and standout works sold by Christie’s

  • 1
  • Handle as many pieces as possible

Chinese ceramics have been copied for hundreds of years by Chinese potters, out of a reverence for an earlier period, but also to fool buyers — so buyer beware. There is no quicker way to learn about pieces than to handle as many as possible. Take advantage of the large numbers of Chinese ceramics offered around the world at reputable auction houses. In many ways, auction houses are better than museums because you can handle the pieces. This gives an understanding of what a ceramic should feel like in the hand, the weight of the piece and the quality of the painting.

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  • Ask questions

Building the knowledge needed to authenticate Chinese ceramics can take many years. Reading reference books can give a 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 better than to talk about their subject.

Video: Specialist Kate Hunt talks about her passion for Chinese porcelain
  • 3
  • Always buy what you love

A turquoise-glazed double-gourd vase, Kangxi period (1662-1722). Estimate                    $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in The Art of China Online Autumn Sale, 20-27 September 2017, Online

A turquoise-glazed double-gourd vase, Kangxi period (1662-1722). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in The Art of China: Online Autumn Sale, 20-27 September 2017, Online

Do not necessarily think of buying for investment. In that way you will never be disappointed. Try to buy the best quality example your budget will allow.

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  • Familiarise yourself with the different palettes and glazes and when they were introduced

A large yellow-ground famille rose tripod censer. Qianlong six-character seal mark in iron red. 14½ in (36.8 cm) high. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 14-15 September 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A large yellow-ground famille rose tripod censer. Qianlong six-character seal mark in iron red. 14½ in (36.8 cm) high. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 14-15 September 2017 at Christie’s in New York

For example, the wucai (literally five-colour) palette was used in the Wanli period (1573–1619); from this palette came the famille verte palette introduced in the 17th century and the Kangxi period (1662–1722). This features a predominant green enamel together with 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 are opaque and there is a wider repertoire of colours. In the 18th century there were many technical advances, and glazes such as the copper-red and flambé were introduced.

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  • Learn about the various kilns and the distinction in glazes between kiln sites

A dehua figure of seated guanyin, 19th century. Estimate                    $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in The Art of China Online Autumn Sale, 20-27 September 2017, Online

A dehua figure of seated guanyin, 19th century. Estimate: $4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in The Art of China: Online Autumn Sale, 20-27 September 2017, Online

A painted and incised Cizhou deep bowl, Northern Song-Jin Dynasty (960-1234) 5¼ in (13.2 cm) high. Sold for $785,000 on 15 September 2016 at Christies New York
A painted and incised Cizhou deep bowl, Northern Song-Jin Dynasty (960-1234) 5¼ in (13.2 cm) high. Sold for $785,000 on 15 September 2016 at Christie's New York

Ceramics were made all over China and kilns in the north and south produced different types of wares and glazes. For example, from the Song dynasty (960–1279) you get beautiful celadon glazed ceramics from the Longquan located in the southwest Zhejiang province, and also the Yaozhou kilns in the northern China Shaanxi province. The celadon glazes differ between these two kilns with the Longquan glaze giving often a warmer, bluish-green tone compared with the Yaozhou glazes that were more olive in tone. 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 the Dehua wares were creamy in tone but by the 19th century these 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.

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  • Turn it over

Always look at the bases of the ceramics because fakers often do not get these correct. The way a base of a vessel is cut, finished and glazed changes throughout the dynasties, so looking at bases can help enormously with dating and authentication. Potters who are trying to fake ceramics often may not have an original example to look at, relying instead on photographs in auction catalogues or books that do not feature the bases.

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  • Familiarise yourself with changes in underglaze blue decoration from the Ming to the Qing dynasties

A rare small blue and white hexagonal jar. Early Ming dynasty, 15th century. 4½ in (11.3 cm) high. Estimate $70,000-90,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 14-15 September 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A rare small blue and white hexagonal jar. Early Ming dynasty, 15th century. 4½ in (11.3 cm) high. Estimate: $70,000-90,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 14-15 September 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A large famille verte dish, Kangxi period (1662-1722). Estimate                    $800-1,200. This lot is offered in The Art of China Online Autumn Sale, 20-27 September 2017, Online

A large famille verte dish, Kangxi period (1662-1722). Estimate: $800-1,200. This lot is offered in The Art of China: Online Autumn Sale, 20-27 September 2017, Online

This decorative element changed a lot over the course of the centuries. A characteristic of 15th-century blue and white porcelain, for example, is the so-called ‘heaped and piled effect’ — when the underglaze cobalt blue concentrates 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. 

Later potters mastered the technique of firing blue and white wares to achieve a more even cobalt blue tone. The blue varied throughout the dynasties. For example, during the Wanli period (1573–1619) blue and white wares often have a greyish-blue tone; in the Jiajing period (1522–1566) blue and white wares tend to have an almost purplish blue.

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  • Pay attention to shapes and proportions

A very rare Sancai-glazed pottery phoenix-head ewer, Tang Dynasty (618-907), 13½ in (34.3 cm). Sold for $437,000 on 17 March 2015 at Christies New York
A very rare Sancai-glazed pottery phoenix-head ewer, Tang Dynasty (618-907), 13½ in (34.3 cm). Sold for $437,000 on 17 March 2015 at Christie's New York

The shapes of ceramics evolved throughout the dynasties. For example, Song dynasty ceramics often drew on nature for their inspiration and have foliate forms. Chinese ceramics also have beautiful proportions. A vase or bowl that looks out of proportion is an indication that a neck or mouth has been ground down.

  • 9
  • Consider condition

A rare large Fahua reticulated tripod censer. Late Ming dynasty, 16th century. 10⅝ in (27 cm) diameter. Sold for $35,000 on 17 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A rare large Fahua reticulated tripod censer. Late Ming dynasty, 16th century. 10⅝ in (27 cm) diameter. Sold for $35,000 on 17 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

What is an acceptable condition depends on whether the ceramic is Imperial quality or not 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 to the base and perhaps a firing flaw that would have occurred in the kiln. These 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. Whereas 15 years ago only mint-condition mark and period ceramics would have been considered acceptable, now collectors will consider ceramics that have been broken and restored or which have hairline cracks.

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  • Familiarise yourself with marks

A small ruby-pink-enamelled dish, Yongzheng six-character mark in underglaze blue with a double square and of the period (1723-1735), 5¼ in (13.4 cm) diameter. Sold for $305,000 on 15 September 2016 at Christies New York
A small ruby-pink-enamelled dish, Yongzheng six-character mark in underglaze blue with a double square and of the period (1723-1735), 5¼ in (13.4 cm) diameter. Sold for $305,000 on 15 September 2016 at Christie's New York

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. However, do not rely on a reign mark to establish the age of a piece. Marks were often copied and can be apocryphal. A useful reference book is The Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, Gerald Davison, London, 1994. Reign marks should be studied together with the many different variations of hallmarks, auspicious marks, potters’ marks and symbols that you find on the bases of Chinese porcelain throughout the ages.