The Chinese porcelain category can seem daunting to a new collector. Here, specialist Margaret Gristina offers tips for narrowing down an extensive field
One major distinction in the seemingly endless category of Chinese porcelain is the division between ‘Chinese-taste’ works, which were created for imperial palaces and the domestic market, and works destined for export to the West.
‘There’s a big difference between the two,’ confirms Margaret Gristina, a Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art specialist at Christie’s New York, ‘although this can sometimes be blurred in pieces from the early 18th century. As a collector you’ll most likely be drawn to part of the one type or the other. We often suggest to collectors to start by looking at as many examples as possible to narrow down what excites you and what attracts your eye.’
Some of the biggest variations between the Chinese-taste works (above) and those created for export (below) are the decorative patterns and shapes. Chinese-taste pieces created for domestic consumption are almost always decorated with Chinese motifs, such as flowers, landscapes, Buddhist emblems and so on. Those bound for the West often incorporate Western themes or designs, which the artists would have received from foreign traders.
‘Such traders would give them actual Western designs to replicate,’ Gristina says. ‘Some export pieces may have a mixture of East and West, with a Chinese design in the centre, and a European motif on the border.’ Sometimes an exact overall pattern or original was supplied to duplicate. European shapes were also supplied for the potters to duplicate.
If you find that you are more drawn to purely Chinese-taste porcelains, it is interesting to note that many decorative motifs and themes carry some sort of hidden meaning — for instance, the widely popular grouping known as ‘three friends of winter’: the pine, the prunus (plum blossom), and bamboo, which are all evergeen throughout the winter months.
‘Woven together, they represent a wish for long life,’ explains Gristina. While the symbolism would be evident to Chinese collectors, if it happened to appear on a piece of export porcelain, it is unlikely that Westerners would have understood the meaning.
Another popular motif in Chinese porcelains is the carp. According to legend, the carp represents success as it swims upstream, overcoming rapids in an attempt to pass through the Lung-Men or Dragon Gates, upon which they would be transformed into glorious dragons. ‘The metaphor relates to the dedication and determination of students to pass exams, and represents a wish for success,’ says the specialist.
The dragon, which symbolises imperial power, is one of the most frequent motifs in Chinese porcelains. ‘It is a symbol of the emperor and one of the most sought after decorations for today’s Chinese collectors,’ says Gristina.
The imperial dragon appears on the finest of porcelains created for the emperor, which also bear imperial reign marks. Eventually, the dragon became an enduring motif and appears on a variety of wares, including imperial, domestic and export.
Pieces can range in value: ‘Much depends on rarity, condition, and provenance,’ says Gristina. ‘There are definitely affordable imperial pieces that are perfectly authentic and available to the new collector.’
Traditionally a Western collecting category, porcelains made in the period between the Ming and Qing dynasties, known as ‘Transitional’ wares, are gaining popularity with Chinese collectors.
‘The kilns in China were not under imperial control at the time, so the painters and artisans had greater artistic freedom. You find a lot of interesting designs and some beautifully painted landscapes during that time period,’ explains the specialist. ‘I think that this area is a wonderful place for a new collector to start, because you can find some really intriguing scenes, fantastic painting and still acquire compelling pieces in the relatively lower value range.’
There are also hybrid pieces, which blur the boundaries between domestic and export works. Made in the early 18th century, these objects reflect Chinese tastes but were sold to both domestic and export markets. At this point in history, before private European orders were common, demand in Europe for Chinese porcelains was great, and Western trading companies brought back porcelains decorated with Chinese motifs for a demanding clientele.
Another interesting sub-category of Chinese porcelains to consider includes pieces that would have adorned scholars’ desks: small brushpots, objects upon which brushes rested, flower vases and more. These pieces were made in a range of materials, such as wood and enamel, and also in porcelain.
‘Some of the most interesting examples are porcelain made in imitation of another material,’ Gristina says, ‘such as a porcelain brush rest that imitates stone or wood. It’s an interesting area that offers a collector pieces that were actually used and enjoyed by Chinese artists and scholars.’
As is always the case, new collectors should strive to see as many works as they can, and get their hands on any and every material that they can from museums, auction houses, and dealers.
‘If you want to collect the imperial pieces, get a book on the marks. Learn them, and look at them on actual porcelains to see how a correct mark looks,’ Gristina advises. ‘In the 19th century, the Chinese made a lot of pieces with earlier reign marks, not to deceive, but to emulate earlier dynasties.’ It’s not unusual for a new collector to confuse a 19th-century piece that displays a Ming of Qing mark for a piece from those actual periods.
Colour is also an indicator: ‘A Kangxi period piece, for instance, would have a mark in underglaze blue,’ Gristina says. ‘Get to know the marks.’ One useful reference is Gerald Davidson’s 1991 Guide to Marks on Chinese Porcelain, but it does not cover the colour variations.
Regardless of what category you move forward in, the more porcelains a collector handles, the better. That’s particularly true when it comes to recognising restorations. ‘If it’s done well, restoration to porcelains is probably one of the hardest to spot,’ says Gristina.
In the past, restorations tend to brown or yellow and flake with time, but new techniques make restorations harder to see. One trick to uncover restorations is to stick a pin in the questionable area; if it sticks be wary. Porcelain that has not been overpainted will not scratch. Holding a flashlight up to a work can also help with spotting hair-line cracks.