Of all the kinds of imported porcelain--Chinese, Japanese, and Persian--in the shop inventories of the marchands-merciers, it was Japanese porcelain that was the most expensive. The colorful Imari and Kakiemon wares from Arita were so coveted that they were imitated in China as early as the 1680s, and later in Dresden and in the French porcelain factories. Always encouraging a fashion trend, the Paris retailers capitalized on this expanded supply, with one marchand-mercier in the 1720s actually buying plain white Meissen porcelain in Saxony and sending it to Holland to be painted "dans le got de l'Ensien Japon." Despite such elaborate efforts at imitation, true Japanese Imari and Kakiemon, preferably antique, remained the most desirable, and for this reason was often mounted in silver instead of less expensive gilt bronze. Around 1740, the supply of Japanese porcelain decreased, and this scarce commodity began to be re-sold in Paris salerooms. By the late 18th century, Imari and Kakiemon wares had already acquired significant antique value. (See Carolyn Sargentson, Merchants and Luxury Markets: The Marchands-Merciers of 18th century Paris, 1996.)
The present tureens are the largest and most complete of the handful of surviving related examples of silver-mounted Imari. A pair with mounts by Paul LeRiche, 1726-1732, is in the collection of the Muse des Arts dcoratifs (illustrated in Bertrand Rondot, ed., Discovering the Secrets of Soft-Paste Porcelain at the Saint-Cloud Manufactory, circa 1690-1766, fig. 215. In press.) The Getty Museum has two single tureens, one 1717-1722, and another unmarked circa 1720 (the latter sold from North Mymms Park; both are illustrated in Gillian Wilson and F.J.B. Watson, Mounted Oriental Porcelain in the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1982, figs. 3 and 5). Another single example is at the Bavarian National Museum in Munich. All of the above silver-mounted tureens have bud finials, strapwork handles, and gadrooned borders similar to those on the present examples, but none has a stand. Another pair, with strapwork handles but no covers or stands, belong to a three-piece garniture sold at Sotheby's, New York, November 19, 1993, lot 7. A sixth tureen and cover with very similar porcelain has much simpler silver mounts (illustrated in Timothy Schroder, The Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, 1988, fig. 158).
All of the above examples have silver strapwork handles of a stylized foliate pattern. The present tureens however have distinctive strapwork handles incorporating dolphins, a possible reference to the original owner. This suggestion is supported by the fact that there appears to have been a device above the trident, possibly a crown. It is quite likely that these marine motifs signify a naval officer. The most likely candidate is the Comte de Toulouse, son of Louis XIV by Mme de Montespan, who was French Admiral-General as well as a noted collector and amateur.