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Collecting Guide: Chinese export porcelain

‘Made in China’ was once the ultimate mark of sophistication for Western porcelain enthusiasts. Specialist Becky MacGuire offers advice on collecting styles that cross continents, illustrated with works from our January 2018 sale in New York

Produced in the 18th century, Chinese export porcelain was crafted with the same technical virtuosity as Chinese Imperial porcelain but designed to Western taste. Its continued appeal is testament to the incredible interaction of Chinese artisans and Western importers who, without common language or culture and separated by vast oceans, together promoted the spread of these wares.

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  • Chinese export porcelain isn’t just blue and white

A very large famille rose dish. Yongzheng period (1723-35). 21 in (53.3 cm) diameter. Sold for $118,750 on 18 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A very large famille rose dish. Yongzheng period (1723-35). 21 in (53.3 cm) diameter. Sold for $118,750 on 18 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Bulk-ordered blue and white porcelain decorated with generic mountain landscapes comprised the overwhelming majority of China Trade cargoes. But the other 2 per cent — large, colourfully enamelled wares — were at the top of the market and remain so today. Made across three centuries and with decoration ranging from Chinese myths and legends to exotic botanical blooms, ‘famille rose’ and ‘famille verte’ enamelled porcelains appeal both to collectors and to those looking for high-quality decoration for their interiors.


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  • Armorial porcelain makes collectors’ hearts beat faster

A pair of famille rose armorial scalloped rim plates, Qianlong period, circa 1745. 9⅛  in (23.2  cm) diameter. Estimate $7,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A pair of famille rose armorial scalloped rim plates, Qianlong period, circa 1745. 9⅛ in (23.2 cm) diameter. Estimate: $7,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

It’s the Chinese export ‘private trade’ porcelain — pieces specially commissioned by Dutch and English East India Company directors, European royals or Yankee merchants — that really makes collectors’ hearts beat faster. At the top of the ‘private trade’ list is armorial porcelain: the great dinner services, tea services and decorative pieces made to order with European coats-of-arms. These objects reflected the absolute latest in fashion, not just in their decorations but also in their forms, which evolved as trends emerged and 18th-century cuisine developed.

Armorial porcelain can connect a collector directly to important personages of the day: Louis XV of France, Catherine the Great, the ‘Princely’ Duke of Chandos and many, many more owned Chinese armorial services. The pair of plates shown above was made for a rich Dutch China Trade merchant.

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  • ‘European subject’ porcelain reflects fascinating social history

A rare initialed fox hunting punch bowl, Qianlong period, circa 1795. 15⅞  in (40.3  cm) diameter. Estimate $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A rare initialed fox hunting punch bowl, Qianlong period, circa 1795. 15⅞ in (40.3 cm) diameter. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A particularly charming and even quirky Chinese export category is known as ‘European subject’. These wares were painted to order in China after popular Western paintings and prints, with scenes ranging from literary to topographical, mythological or historical.

A pair of doucai ‘South Sea Bubble’ plates, Yongzheng period (1723-35). 8¼  in (21  cm) diameter. Estimate $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A pair of doucai ‘South Sea Bubble’ plates, Yongzheng period (1723-35). 8¼ in (21 cm) diameter. Estimate: $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Some fascinating pieces in this category, to be offered in January at Christie’s in New York, include a very rare enamelled punchbowl, and a rare pair of plates decorated with Commedia del’Arte harlequins.

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  • Large pieces suit any era’s interiors

A very large pair of iron-red and underglaze blue jars and covers, Kangxi period, first quarter 18th century. 24¼  in (61.5  cm) high, overall. Estimate $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A very large pair of iron-red and underglaze blue jars and covers, Kangxi period, first quarter 18th century. 24¼ in (61.5 cm) high, overall. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Large-scale pieces — so-called ‘country house’ porcelain — filled the great 18th-century European houses. Timelessly elegant, the large Chinese export jardinières or floor-standing vases, such as the famous ‘soldier vases’ that stood guard in the palace of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, were equally at home in the American ballrooms of the Gilded Age; today they would perfectly suit a modern loft.

Offered in January, the very large pair of jars and covers shown above is decorated with vibrant scenes of landscape and gardens. 

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  • Look for forms based on European silverware

A pair of famille rose candlesticks, Qianlong period, circa 1740. 7½  in (19  cm) high. Estimate $6,000-9,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A pair of famille rose candlesticks, Qianlong period, circa 1740. 7½ in (19 cm) high. Estimate: $6,000-9,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A further category of Chinese export wares includes those modelled after fashionable European silver forms. From soup tureens, tea services, candlesticks and candelabra to ewers and wine coolers, these pieces offer a fascinating mix of Chinese decoration and Western shape.

A large verte-imari monteith, Qianlong period, circa 1740. 20¼ (51.5  cm) wide. Estimate $50,000-80,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A large verte-imari monteith, Qianlong period, circa 1740. 20¼ (51.5 cm) wide. Estimate: $50,000-80,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

When collecting in this category, look for quality of modelling and rarity of form, as well as attractive decoration and superior enamelling or painting. 

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  • Build your own porcelain menagerie

A large pair of recumbent spaniels, Qianlong period, circa 1760. 9 in (22.8  cm) long. Estimate $18,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A large pair of recumbent spaniels, Qianlong period, circa 1760. 9 in (22.8 cm) long. Estimate: $18,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Chinese potters had a long tradition of modelling lifelike ceramic figures to accompany important individuals in the afterlife, and developed a special affinity for these sculptures in porcelain. 


A small famille rose court lady candleholder, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 9 in (22.8  cm) high. Estimate $6,000-9,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018  at Christie’s in New York

A small famille rose court lady candleholder, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 9 in (22.8 cm) high. Estimate: $6,000-9,000. This lot is offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring 100 lots from Marchant, est 1925 on 18 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Eighteenth-century Europeans were captivated by the porcelain exotic birds, court figures and pug dogs made in China, and these models soon became highly desirable. Smaller figures were often placed on dinner tables, while large Chinese animal-form tureens were used in the dining room.