Chinese Ceramics - History and Facts

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Chinese ceramics and porcelain have a long and illustrious history. These world-renowned ceramics are not only remarkable for the quality and artistry involved in their production, but the ways in which their styles and motifs can be traced from the early Palaeolithic era to the modern day.

Ceramics were primarily imperial objects, designed and made for the emperor and his court. Familiarising yourself with the historic glazes and colour palettes associated with different dynasties is an essential tool to evaluating the price and age of an object. In the Song dynasty (960-1279) pots were glazed in beautiful celadon glazes, in both the Longquan kilns (Southwest China) and the Yaozhou kilns (Northwest Shaanxi province). Despite using similar glazes, the different regions produced remarkably different results. The Longquan kiln ceramics have a beautiful blue-green glow whilst the Yaoxhou kilns produced a rich olive colour. In the Wanli period (1573-1619) the Wucai (literally translated as ‘five colours’) palette emerged and shaped a new generation of ceramics. Throughout the Ming dynasty the iconic blue and cream ceramics emerged and the so-called ‘heaped and piled effect’ began to take shape. In the 18th century, technical advancements meant that potters began to experiment with glaze colours, resulting in copper red and flambé glazes being added to porcelain and ceramics. By the 19th century a crisp white colour was refined and the iconic blue-and-white ceramics were mass produced.

Chinese ceramics have always held a prestigious place both within and outside China. They were the prized possessions of Emperors, given as gifts to imperial visitors and coveted by the rest of the world. In recent years, these ancient ceramics have become more valuable and their status as symbols of power, wealth and artistry has been affirmed by the million pound auctions every year. Most recently, Sotheby’s auctioned a race Ru-ware brush-washer, a priceless piece from the Ru kilns in Northern China which is believed to have exist from 1086-1106. The piece sold for a record breaking $38 million, breaking the previous record for Chinese ceramics, when a 500-year old imperial ‘chicken’ cup from the Ming dynasty was sold in 2014 for $36 million. The mythical status of the Ru-ware ceramics is partly their scarcity (it is believed that a hundred pieces remain and only four are in private circulation) but also its unique glaze; the serene blue-green ‘ice-crackle’ style of glaze was famously likened by centuries of Chinese scholars to the “blue of the sky after the rain.”

When evaluating Chinese ceramics there are three key factors to consider: authenticity, age and condition. China’s potters have a long history of copying older and more prestigious ceramics, partly out of reverence for the original artisans but also as forgeries for unsuspecting buyers. The practice is still very much alive today but there are several ways in which you can identify fake ceramics. As forgeries become more sophisticated, many experts advise that a buyer should always check the base of any ceramic. The way a base of a vessel is cut, finished and glazed changes with different dynasties and any discrepancies can quickly alert you to any inconsistencies in the objects age. Many potters who try to forge ceramics rely on photographs from auction catalogues and books, but these images often lack detailed photographs of the bases. Secondly, the age of a ceramic can be determined by the region mark (found on the base). Every ceramic contains a mark which states the dynasty and the name of the emperor for which the item was made. The mark can appear in many different forms, as seal script, shuanshu and regular form (kaishu). Taking the time to study and identify the seals of different dynasties and emperors increases your chance of making an accurate valuation. Finally, the condition of a ceramic vessel and how important it is to the value of an object depends on whether the ceramic was imperial quality or not. For example, on a non-imperial porcelain vessel made in the seventeenth century, you would expect to find some kiln dust or grit on the base or perhaps an uneven finish to the glaze. However, in an 18th century Imperial ceramic you would not expect to find these flaws. It is also important to note that as the market value of Chinese ceramics is on the rise, less than perfect ceramics are now capable of holding immense value. Whilst fifteen years ago only a mint-condition mark and period ceramic would be acceptable at auction, today collectors will accept broken, restored or fractured ceramics.Frances Ketteman

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