An Essential Guide to Antique Chinese Porcelain
It Sold for – $448,043 via Christie's (Oct 2020).
Whether it's an antique celadon minyao vase, a soft pink-ground Famille Rose floral moonflask, or a collection of Qianlong Period blue and white porcelain from the Qing Dynasty, antique Chinese pottery can complement almost any interior. Its delicate forms and diverse, meticulous decorative motifs make Chinese porcelain and other examples of antique Chinese pottery a dazzling addition to your decor. However, navigating the world of antique Chinese pottery can be challenging.
Deciphering the Popularity of Chinese Porcelain as Décor
To simplify the process, this article offers a primer to guide you through some of the most sought-after examples of Chinese porcelain in the auction market. In addition to providing a brief background on the fascinating history of antique Chinese pottery, we'll walk you through the basics of interpreting Chinese porcelain marks so that you can make informed decisions when curating your ceramics collection. Understanding these marks can help you research your next purchase and have greater confidence in its authenticity as an antique.
The Incredible Legacy and Culture of Chinese Pottery
It sold for $16,250 (March 2014).
One of world history's most coveted artistic traditions, Chinese pottery is one of the oldest art forms recorded. Chinese potters made earthenware vessels as early as 6,000 BCE, and their skills at increasing dynamic forms increased rapidly. By the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), increasingly refined conditions like the zun, a pot for wine or water, became common. At the same time, early porcelain prototypes were introduced and refined in the following generations.
The secret to that increasing delicacy was thanks to the relatively high concentration of kaolin that was part of the clay mixture in many of China's leading centers of porcelain production. This essential ingredient allowed pottery to be fired at higher temperatures. As a result, makers of antique Chinese pottery were afforded an expanded ability to work vessels into thinner walls and progressively dynamic forms.
Several production centers emerged across the Chinese landscape as Chinese porcelain-making traditions developed. For example, Chang'an, the capital city of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 9 CE, 25–220 CE), capitalized on the prevalence of celadon deposits to become a hub for luscious green-glazed wares that emulated the appearance of jade. Later, during the Tang Dynasty (618-690 CE and 705-907 CE), Chang'an continued to conjure even more dynamic and increasingly colorful forms, such as imaginative earth spirits. The city also became a hub for the iconic blue and white Chinese porcelain, a style made possible thanks to importing semi-precious stones, like cobalt, from the Middle East to conjure the iconic rich blue hue.
The beauty of Chinese porcelain lured collectors and connoisseurs worldwide as European powers began carving trade routes into the East, and pieces of porcelain appeared worldwide. Seventeenth-century European circles were so desperate to emulate the brilliance of Chinese porcelain that they even developed ersatz tin-glazed works (as the formula for porcelain – and its necessary ingredient, kaolin – still eluded European makers). By the 18th century, studios like Meissen in Germany and Sèvres in France finally mastered the materials to make their porcelain. Chinese porcelain continued nevertheless to be a coveted commodity as it is hard to resist the sheer beauty of such striking – and historic – vessels.
Given the wealth of Chinese porcelain available today, collectors need to know the elements contributing to a given vase or vessel's historical (and financial) significance. For example, the age and rarity of an antique piece of Chinese pottery can impact its value, as can the vessel's maker. Accordingly, in addition to appreciating the history of this breathtaking pottery, it is essential to know how to navigate a crowded field. This begins with a quick guide to Chinese porcelain maker's marks, also known as reign marks.
Reign Marks Explained
Simply put, the reign mark of a piece of antique Chinese pottery refers to the series of script characters arranged in parallel columns that denote the name of the Chinese dynasty in which the vessel was made. Specifically, they refer to the emperor in power when the piece was made and typically are located on the underside or base of the ceramic piece. Reign marks usually appear as two bands of Chinese characters that can be oriented either vertically – to be read right to the left – or horizontally –from top to bottom. These mark characters are often enclosed in a double circle rendered on the vessel in a blue underglaze addition.
Despite the extended history of antique Chinese pottery, reign marks were a relatively recent addition. The first reign marks began to appear on Chinese porcelain during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and were carried over into the subsequent Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); after that, the practice of reign marks began to wane. This means that the presence of a reign mark can be a helpful means to date your antique Chinese pottery.
Interpreting the Reign Mark
They sold for $496,218 in (June 2013).
Beyond orienting the reign mark along its vertical or horizontal orientation, you can further subdivide the six Chinese characters depicted. In a typical reign mark, beginning at the upper right:
The first and second characters relay the name of the dynasty
The third and fourth characters provide the name of the emperor
The final two characters read "nian zhi" ("made for")
Let's look at the example of two blue and white porcelain saucers. Their reign mark appears as follows:
In this example, the top two characters of the right-hand column give us the name "da Qing," which tells us this was created during the Qing Dynasty. Then, the third character in the right column and the first at the top of the left column refer to the ruler of the period, the Yongzheng Emperor (Emperor Shizong of Qing, who led the Yongzheng period between 1723-1735). Finally, the last characters – characters 5 and 6 – tell us "Made for." Pulling these characters together, this reign mark relays that these saucers were made during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
Some variations to these reign marks can occur. For some pieces of antique Chinese pottery, for example, the dynasty's name might be omitted, reducing the number of characters in the reign mark to four.
The Scripts and Colors of Reign Marks
We mentioned the traditional format for reign marks. Still, it is also essential to remember that you can usually encounter two different kinds of script used for the characters in these marks. These include:
Ming Jiajing Wucai Carp Motif Porcelain Jar. It sold for $42,500 (June 2018).
The more common script style, kaishu script, featured regular Chinese characters and was featured across Chinese porcelain pieces throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. For example, as early as the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE), kaishu is more reminiscent of today's standardized Chinese characters.
A Fine and Rare Large Turquoise -Ground 'Bajixiang' Imitation-Cloisonne Vase Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong. It Sold for (Est: $44,850) via Sotheby's (October 2010).
More popular in the later centuries of the Qing Dynasty – particularly during the extended reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), zhuanshu script, like that seen on this Qianlong imitation cloisonne vase, is much more stylized and can be detected thanks to its angular forms. Each character is elongated such that the characters unite similarly to a unified band or seal. This similarity means these marks are sometimes called "seal marks." The legacy of zhuanshu is quite old, as there is evidence of its use as early as the Shang Dynasty (1500-1028 BCE).
In addition to these two script forms, reign marks can appear painted or stamped in different colors. The most common hue for these marks is the deep blue rendered from cobalt across blue and white porcelain pieces. Red, derived from copper, was also used to conjure some of these reign marks. In other cases, gold pigments were used to emboss reign marks on antique Chinese ceramics, thereby adding to the glamour of a particular vessel.
The Authenticity of the Reign Mark
While discovering a reign mark from the Ming or Qing dynasties on your porcelain might exponentially increase your excitement about the age and importance of your antique Chinese pottery, remember that not all reign marks are authentic. Reign marks can estimate age, but many were repeated or forged on subsequent pieces of Chinese porcelain. These forgeries might seem simply like a ploy to fool consumers; however, these reign marks were often repeated out of reverence and respect by modern makers for those Chinese ceramic artisans of the past. Such effects are often called "apocryphal" when discussed in auction house catalogs or on the antique Chinese porcelain market. If you are not convinced of the authenticity of your antique Chinese pottery by reign mark alone, you can also assess the value of a piece by considering the following:
If a Chinese porcelain piece is of exceptional quality or exhibits a remarkably meticulous motif, it is of more excellent value than a vessel with less intricate or vibrant details. The same can be said for the state of the reign mark. If the application of the reign mark needs to be more precise or defined, you may have an antique Chinese vase. You might have acquired a piece of porcelain deemed minyao ("for the people") that often displayed less meticulous craftsmanship. If, however, you've been led to believe that the antique Chinese pottery you're considering was deemed guanyao or of the highest quality for imperial use, then these imperfections in the reign mark are cause for alarm.
It Sold for –$5,153 via Sotheby's (May 2015).
Early makers of Chinese porcelain typically repeated similar forms throughout their pottery production. If a piece of antique Chinese pottery presents a highly unusual or angular shape, it is probably not that old.
Though many antique Chinese pottery pieces will be decorated with blue glaze on a white surface, early porcelain makers used an expanded palette that often-incorporated reds, soft greens, and deep blacks. That being said, if a piece of Chinese porcelain offers too kaleidoscopic a range or exhibits colors that would be difficult to conjure from nature, there is a possibility that your vessel is a more modern creation.
When There Isn't a (Traditional) Reign Mark
They Sold for $120,000) via Sotheby's (March 2022).
While a missing reign mark might be a red flag regarding the age or authenticity of your antique Chinese porcelain, there are some periods of Chinese pottery production where this absence is to be expected. During the rule of the Kangzi Emperor, Shengzu of Qing, in the 17th century, reign marks were temporarily outlawed for any vessel not explicitly made for imperial use. The purported reason the emperor wanted to curtail the use of these reign marks was that he held porcelain production to a high standard. So, he tried to avoid his name being associated with potentially lesser-quality works that might be discovered.
In the case of these vessels, though the reign mark was omitted from the blue underglaze double circles, symbols would often take its place. They could be borrowed from nature, like the reishi or lingszhi mushroom, or, in the case of the icon of the ceremonial ruyi scepter, tied to other ritual or commemorative practices. These works are relatively rare but important to distinguish from script-secured reign marks.
Picking the Perfect Piece of Chinese Porcelain
It's probably easy to see why so many collectors find collecting antique Chinese pottery utterly irresistible. Its delicate glazes and subtle forms only become more enticing when situated within the impressive history that the tradition of antique Chinese pottery relays. Before you take the plunge and purchase your next piece of antique Chinese porcelain, take stock of our quick guide to the world of reign marks. These marks can help you assess the age of your antique Chinese pottery while offering a brief glimpse into the past of an artistic tradition that can bring imperial luxury to your home.