8 things to know about Chinese ceramics

Chinese ceramics come in such an astonishing variety of forms, from functional wares to treasures fit for an emperor, that it can be hard to decide where to begin. Here’s a short guide to what new collectors need to know about palettes, glazes, reign marks and more. Illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s

A selection of Chinese ceramics offered in the Art d'Asie sale at Christie's in Paris on 13 June 2024

A selection of Chinese ceramics offered in the Art d’Asie sale at Christie’s in Paris on 13 June 2024. In addition to lots illustrated below are (clockwise from left): a Jian ‘hare’s fur’ tea bowl, Song dynasty (€3,000-4,000); a Dingyao dish and one of two Dingyao bowls (illustrated far right), Song dynasty (€3,000-4,000); a Cizhou sgraffiato vase, meiping, Northern Song dynasty (€30,000-40,000); and a peachbloom-glazed water pot, taibai zun, Qing dynasty (€20,000-30,000)

Handle as many pieces as possible

Potters have copied Chinese ceramics for hundreds of years, both out of reverence for an earlier period and to fool buyers — so caution is advised. There is no quicker way to learn than by handling as many pieces as possible.

A rare yellow-ground blue and white ‘pomegranate flower’ dish, China, Ming dynasty. Diameter: 29.8 cm (11¾ in). Estimate: €100,000-150,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

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 enhances your understanding of the weight of different pieces and the quality of the painting — and gives you a sense of how a ceramic should feel in the hand.

Familiarise 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 prominent in the Kangxi period (1662-1722). This was a palette of green, predominantly, plus blue, red, yellow and black.

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6487570

A wucai sweetmeat box, China, Ming dynasty. Diameter: 22.4 cm (8⅞ in). Estimate: €3,000-5,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6487603

An apple-green-ground famille rose ‘flower’ vase, China, Qing dynasty. Height: 29.2 cm (11½ in). Estimate: €15,000-20,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

The famille rose palette was added to the repertoire in the 1720s and featured a prominent rose colour; the enamels were opaque, and there was a wider range of colours. Many technical advances were made in the 18th century, with glazes such as copper-red and flambé being introduced.

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 south-west Zhejiang province, and also by the Yaozhou kilns in the northern Shaanxi province. The celadon glazes differed between these two sites, with the Longquan glaze often giving a warmer, bluish-green tone, compared with the Yaozhou glazes, which were more olive-coloured.

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 (which ended in 1644), Dehua wares were creamy in tone; but by the 19th century they had became more ivory and white. Also during the Ming dynasty, the kilns at Jingdezhen in the south of China produced most of the country’s blue-and-white ceramics.

Look at the base

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 authentication 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.

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6487593

An important ru-type hexagonal vase, China, Qing dynasty. Height: 47 cm (18½ in). Estimate: €80,000-120,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6487593

On the base is a Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795)

Building the knowledge needed to authenticate Chinese ceramics can take many years. Reference books are a good introduction to the field, and it’s also worth consulting specialists, who like nothing better than to talk about their subject.

Recognise 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.

A blue and white Chenghua-style ‘flower scroll’ ‘palace’ bowl, China, Qing dynasty (1723-1735). Height: 7.2 cm (2⅞ in). Diameter: 15 cm (5⅞ in). Estimate: €15,000-20,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

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.

Pay attention to shape and proportion

The shape of ceramics also evolved over time. Song dynasty ceramics, for example, were often inspired by nature and foliate in form.

Beautiful proportions are a noted characteristic of Chinese ceramics. If a vase or bowl looks out of proportion, it is often an indication that the neck or mouth of the piece has been ground down.

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6487555

A rare junyao tripod ‘narcissus’ bowl, China, Yuan-Ming dynasty, 14th-15th century. Height: 8 cm (3⅛ in). Diameter: 21 cm (8¼ in). Estimate: €120,000-180,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6487586

An important flambé-glazed baluster vase, hu, China, Qing dynasty. Height: 48.5 cm (19⅛ in). Estimate: €70,000-90,000. Offered in Art d’Asie on 13 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Consider condition

To assess the condition of a ceramic, it is important to know whether or not it is of 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 dust on the base, and perhaps a firing flaw that would have occurred in the kiln. Both would be acceptable.

You would not expect to find such flaws on an 18th-century imperial ceramic, because the firing techniques would have been refined. Twenty 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.

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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, because marks were often copied and can be ‘apocryphal’.

A useful reference book is Marks on Chinese Ceramics by Gerald Davison. Reign marks should be studied alongside the many different variations of hallmarks, auspicious marks, potters’ marks and symbols found on the bases of Chinese porcelain throughout the ages.

The Art d’Asie sale takes place at Christie’s in Paris on 13 June 2024, while Arts of Asia online is open for bidding until 18 June

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