Authenticating Chinese Porcelain
The key to determining values and place of origin is where authenticating Chinese porcelain becomes difficult . In American furniture the form, construction, material used and overall proportions are the guides one goes by to determine whether a piece is from Boston or New York or South Carolina. They all have regional indicators and usually its a combination of factors that fix the age and where the piece came from. On many occasions its possible to determine who made it or at least the workshop that produced it. Chinese ceramics are an entirely different game, but it can be done. TO say “Authenticating Chinese Porcelains Is Difficult” is an understatement, but a fun challenge.
Is it an 18th C. Copy of a 14th C. object?
China’s long history of remaking things from previous eras makes dating a true challeneg. It does get easier however, through experience. Porcelain manufacturing in the 19th C. (late Qing dynasty 1644-1912) potters were busily remaking examples reminiscent of 18th C. examples. During the early and mid 18th C. (Qing Dynasty) they were pushing out objects that hearkened back to the Ming (1368-1644) period. This practice goes back centuries. Demand was also affected through the discovery of new kiln sites and recorded known dates of usage based on Imperial documents or other resources. These discoveries often suddenly change what’s been an accepted date to be something else. A Southern Sung bowl always thought to be from the 12th C. has it’s age pushed up to the Yuan to early Ming period is just one example.
For example, for many decades Asian scholars attributed a group of cream colored vases, jars and bowls to the Sung era, this was accepted as an absolute fact. Then around 30 or so years ago archaeologists and scholars found a kiln, which did not exist until the late Ming period, holding mountains of shards of these same pieces. Suddenly all those pieces in collections around the world moved up in age by 500 years.
Shipwrecks and Trade
At other times the new information has come from wreck divers who actively seek sunken ships throughout the South China Sea and all across the Indian ocean. When they find one, not infrequently, they are able to discern the name of the ship and when it vanished from old Chinese documents. The known approximate sinking dates allow these cargoes can accurately be dated. In these cases the ages of ceramics can move forward a half a century or more, or back a half a century based on the new discovery.
These constantly shifting lines of time coupled with the remaking copies today make things more complicated for museums, collectors, and scholars.
Fakes, Copies and Fraud.
Currently, in China scientists and potters are working hand in hand with Government subsidies to remake stunning copies of Imperial Pieces created originally throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as well as the Ming Period (1368-1644). Yuan copies are also flooding the markets.
Knowing all of this trying to figure out where to begin can be a bit of a daunting task.
NOTE: Visit our Home Page and check our ever present list of Chinese porcelain and Asian Art Dealers with active eBay listings for some nice real examples. Also browse our image archive under RESOURCES for images of some fine authentic Chinese porcelains, many of which were sold on eBay.
Fortunately, sometimes the best way to know what something probably is, is by knowing what it isn’t or at least isn’t likely to be. Here are a few rules to work with and are good to know.
So here are a few basics to keep in mind, authenticating Chinese porcelains is difficult, very difficult.
Once you’ve handled a good number of real pieces it will (I promise) get much easier.
Authenticating Chinese Porcelains Is Difficult, But Not Impossible
- They are very hard to come by and are truly rare. So, if you’re in an antiques shop, at a local auction or off on eBay poking around and come across what looks like one, tell yourself the likelihood is less than 99.99 to 1 of it being real. Especially if the price seems”very” reasonable. Even if its LATE 19th C. Mark and period example.
- During the 19th C. Chinese porcelains were produced in massive quantities, when supplies ran short they even crushed up earlier pots and jars to make new ones. Most were done very much in the manner of 18th C. examples. Which is why the un-glazed areas of the feet are somewhat buff colored and not snow white and perfectly smooth to the touch.
The 19th C. was not a period of unbridled creativity for Chinese art.
Chinese art of the 19th C. was a mixed bag artistically. Foreign trade and influences combined with growing economic issues caused the loss of much artistic inspiration. Consequently, artisans re-produced objects mastered in previous centuries. So always assume the piece you are looking at is 19th C. unless you have knowledge indicating otherwise. DO not listen to most antique dealers who have attached a date to something from China, usually the information came form a passing dealer or they pulled the information out of a book. In the world of Asian art, pictures do lie.
The most popular color pallets used during the 19th C. were; Famille Rose, Famille Verte, Famille Juane, under glaze blue and white, monochromes, iron red under glaze, mirror black with gilt trim, Sang de Bouf, Docai, Wucai, Flambe and so on. In other words, they used them ALL.
- Many of these will have marks of one kind or another or simply a double circle in under glaze blue. Some marks will be impressed, other will be in a square or in rows depicting 4 or six characters. IGNORE them all. The last thing you want to look at is the signature on the bottom of a vase or bowl. Perfectly great 18th C. examples have marks of Emporers from 3 centuries before.
- Beware of the Rare Pair! While the Chinese did make things in pairs, particularly in the late Ming Period onwards, 99.999% of them are 19th C. with the single exception of certain forms of China Trade export wares. To the early Chinese potter making a PAIR seemed odd to them and created a visual conflict to their artistic eye. Other than in architecture, large protective statues and displaying lanterns the symmetry of pairs was mostly a western concept. Note, the pair of transitional vases illustrated are slightly different in size, typical of “pairs” from this period.
|Youngzheng Period Famille Rose Charger|
- Famille Rose enamels didn’t exist prior to the Yongzheng period (1723-1725) Began when China learned to mix colloidal gold and enamels. So if you see a piece that looks like its MING! or early to mid Kangxi (1654-1722) in form or worse yet has a mark of any period predating Youngzheng you have a fake in your hands, period.
- Ancient Pottery, i.e. Tang Horses, Camels, Court Figures, Beasts, Foo Lions, Granary’s: always assume its a 19th C. or 20th C. copy, no matter how old it looks. Unless you want it as a decoration or a lamp base and it’s CHEAP. These have been on the repro tour for centuries.
- Pay close attention to the faces or people and animals, in particular horses, dragons, Chimeras and people, the eyes can be very telling. Study published pieces of known dated examples. Earlier pieces often have much more charming almost cartoonish expressions. Later examples the faces are lifeless, squarish with undefined features. Early Dragons looked almost goofy and comical, horses had sleepy looking elongated eyes (also elephants) look at many examples and you’ll see the difference.
Glazes: Early piece tend to have much neater feet,
Where the glaze ends and the bare unglazed porcelain starts at the base. Look for indications of glaze having slipped over the base and later being ground off and polished after firing. In particular with thickly glazed monochromes this was a problem, San de Bouf and Flambe glazes being the most common offenders. Later feet also tend to be rounded, rather than trimmed and cut, late ones look obtuse.
- Look at the shapes of early pieces with particular attention to scale and elegance. Does it tapper gently? Are the shoulders of the vase strong and handsome or are they just droopy slopping downward and weak? Does the bowl from the side view form a strong line proportional to the height of the foot. It takes a while, but its worth learning.
Understanding quality and spotting it requires looking at thousands of pieces. Visiting regularly good museums and befriending dealers will hasten the process rapidly.
The best way you can learn to date Chinese porcelains is by pure STUDY. Be prepared to buy essential books, lots of books!!! Next and of equal importance, keep track of exhibitions anywhere near you. Also be sure to get to know a reputable dealer and ASK him/her for advice and guidance. Use your hands as well as your eyes , weight and texture is crucial, l
earn how the feet should “feel”. When in DOUBT, bailout, keep your money in your pocket until you KNOW. Sure you might miss a bargain, but in the long run, you’ll save a fortune. You’ll also end up with a nice collection you can enjoy, upgrade and develop carefully your collection. Keep notes on where and when you bought something, save your receipts and above all fun. Try to meet other who share your interest. Authenticating Chinese porcelains is difficult, but a very rewarding are of interest.
Accept the fact you may never own a Yongle dish, as it is one of the rarest types in the world. You can learn and collect for the day when you come face to face with one of these in a museum. At that moment when you appreciate it for it’s very existence, you will then truly be a collector.