Collecting guide 10 things you need to know about Chinese ceramics

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 — featuring outstanding pieces from the Leonora and Walter F. Brown Collection 

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  • Handle as many pieces as possible

A large and rare blue and white dish, Yongle period (1403-1425). 15¾ in (40 cm) diam. Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York

A large and rare blue and white dish, Yongle period (1403-1425). 15¾ in (40 cm) diam. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 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.

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  • Ask questions

A rare blue and white magic fountain ewer, Jiajing period (1522-1566). 15⅜ in (39.1 cm) high, cloth box. Estimate $40,000-60,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York
A rare blue and white 'magic fountain' ewer, Jiajing period (1522-1566). 15⅜ in (39.1 cm) high, cloth box. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered 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.

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  • 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 blue and white dish, Yongle period (1403-1425). 13¾ in (34.8 cm) diam. Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York
A very rare blue and white dish, Yongle period (1403-1425). 13¾ in (34.8 cm) diam. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie's in New York
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  • 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 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 superbly enameled famille rose pear-shaped vase, Yongzheng period (1723-1735). 15⅜ in. (39.1 cm.) high. Estimate $60,000-80,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York
A superbly enameled famille rose pear-shaped vase, Yongzheng period (1723-1735). 15⅜ in. (39.1 cm.) high. Estimate: $60,000-80,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie's in New York
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  • 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.

A rare and exceptional ‘number three’ jun jardinière, Yuan-Ming dynasty, 14th-15th century. 10¾  in (27.3  cm)  diameter, double Japanese wood box. Sold for $3,015,000 on 22 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A rare and exceptional ‘number three’ jun jardinière, Yuan-Ming dynasty, 14th-15th century. 10¾ in (27.3 cm) diameter, double Japanese wood box. Sold for $3,015,000 on 22 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

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.

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  • Look underneath

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.

A rare underglaze-blue and enamel-decorated dish, Zhengde-jiajing period (1506-1566). 7 in (17.7 cm) diam. Estimate $40,000-60,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York
A rare underglaze-blue and enamel-decorated dish, Zhengde-jiajing period (1506-1566). 7 in (17.7 cm) diam. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie's in New York
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  • 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 finely decorated blue and white baluster vase, transitional period, circa 1650. 16½ in (41.9 cm) high. Estimate $30,000-50,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York
A finely decorated blue and white baluster vase, transitional period, circa 1650. 16½ in (41.9 cm) high. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie's in New York

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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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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. 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) diam., softwood stands. Estimate $15,000-25,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christies in New York
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) diam., softwood stands. Estimate: $15,000-25,000. Offered 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.