With changing tastes, growing interest from China’s middle class and ancient objects emerging from the ground, there are some new opportunities in the hugely diverse realm of Chinese earthenware.
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The scope of Chinese ceramics is enormous. Spanning centuries, dynasties, regions and vast stylistic changes, the art of these pieces, which are sometimes still referred to by laymen as “china,” has a depth and beauty that captivates Eastern and Western collectors alike. However, the growing moneyed middle class in China over the past few decades has radically changed the market for these ceramics. Whereas for centuries there has been Western interest in certain kinds of pieces—most commonly in the “blue and white” patterns that are so familiar to our eyes—Chinese interest is developing and shifting not only prices, but the relative popularity of various styles and eras of ceramics.
“Perhaps one of the things that makes ceramics so desirable to collect is that you do get a great variety of sizes, shapes, colors, etcetera,” says Bruce MacLaren, the Chinese art specialist at Bonhams. “Often if you say Chinese porcelain you think of a blue and white vase, and it’s that, but a lot of that was made for export. There are a couple different markets going on in China at any time. There was a huge demand for porcelain from oversees markets, so a lot of things were made just to be sent out—and for the specifications of where they were going. If something was being made for Europe or America or Southeast Asia, it would be according to that buyer’s taste. At the same time, they would be making things for domestic taste in the same spot, for the throne as well. And of course, there were different standards of quality at each point.”
One thing that is consistent among all different types of collectors seems to be an interest in pieces that bear the imperial mark. When it comes to later dynastic pieces, even the finest examples were made on an industrial scale. Thus, there is hardly ever artist attribution. Instead, the importance lies in the mark of the emperor, who would own or reserve the most renowned examples of ceramics made during his rule. Says Izzy Chait of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers in Beverly Hills, Calif., “Western collectors always cared about imperial marks, but what happened in China is that they developed a middle class. Now Chinese people can go to the Palace Museum or the Capital Museum—the quality of visual display in Chinese museums is getting better and better. People want some connection to the palace. For thousands of years they could never even get into the palace. Now that they have money, they are spending it.” Besides the cultural relevance of the imperial mark to Chinese collectors, it is also serves as a mark of quality. Says MacLaren, “The imperial pieces do well. Because the emperors were specific about getting the finest pieces for their palace, naturally those have the well-deserved reputation of being the finest pieces that were made.”
In fact, the mark was often put on reproduction pieces, so that even if the pieces aren’t “of period” they still bear the mark. As a result, a perhaps surprising market that has opened up is for early 20th-century ceramics—from the tail end of the Qing period (1644–1911) to the early Republic. About these pieces, MacLaren says, “Most of them are less than 100 years old, and they’re getting very good prices. We’re seeing a difference from 10 years ago, when they were selling for $300–500, to now, with prices like $3,000–5,000.” Here, the market can be slightly artist-driven, but in general it’s the precision and quality of these pieces that draws collectors. “These pieces are as well made as Yongqing or Qianlong, if not sometimes better,” says Chait, “ They often have 18th-century marks on them. They are really precise and exact copies of things made in the 18th century, and sometimes the enameling is even better.”
Among pieces that are currently gaining steam with collectors are the elegant and simple ceramics from the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and early Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), a period known for the proliferation of a monochrome style, often in light greens, taupes, whites or light browns, or with simple patterns of flowers and rolling leaves. Tortoiseshell glazes were unique to the Jizhou kilns of the Jiangxi province, which was for 300 years a leading producer of ceramics both domestically and for export. Eric Zetterquist, a New York dealer who specializes in this era of ceramics, described in a recent catalogue of Jizhou wares their special significance: “The area was a center for Buddhist and Confucian studies in the Song Dynasty, and likely attracted stylistic influences from other parts of China, as well as their end-markets in Korea and Japan. This gave them a rich decorative vocabulary well beyond purely local tastes.”
Even today, these pieces have a great influence on contemporary ceramicists. Says James Lally of J.J. Lally & Co. in New York, “The innovations are slips and new glazes. They’re not showing off with virtuoso technique. If you talk to a potter working today in Vermont or Birmingham, they’re going to say they’re inspired by Song potters.” Incidentally Lally notes that, “Song ceramics were very popular with Japanese collectors in the ’70s. That category has been long neglected since the Japanese retired from the field” due to their country’s ongoing recession. Yet Chait acknowledges that collectors are beginning to take note of these pieces again. “A lot of things that over the last two or three years or the past decade have been what I call ‘sleepers’ are turning into ‘not sleepers’—good Song dynasty things, for example. Vases that were not that expensive now some are bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars because everyone has woken up.”
Neolithic and Pre-Tang or Archaic (before 618 A.D.) ceramic wares seem to have a greater market among Westerners than among the Chinese. “Before around 20 years ago when the mainland Chinese were only minorly involved with the market, earlier pieces, archeological pieces, did much better,” explains MacLaren. “In today’s market those pieces are more difficult to sell because the Chinese aren’t buying them. It’s considered taboo to have something from a tomb in your home.” However, Conor Mahony, president of New York’s Chinese Porcelain Company, insists that Chinese collectors are “getting over all that.” He says, “There’s a new generation now that just doesn’t see it that way.”
Still, questions of tomb stigma aside, many of these pieces are a steal, though not necessarily rare. Part of the dip in their prices can be attributed to the fact that so many archeological pieces have been found recently. As MacLaren puts it, many objects are literally coming up “out of the ground.” Says Chait, “A big jar, 40 years ago, could have gotten $30,000. Then they found a huge supply, and demand didn’t change very much, so prices went way south, as low as $1,000 to $2,000. Han and Tang are still bargains. You can buy something that is 1,200 to 2,000 years old for $20,000 or less. A Han figure that used to be $5,000 or $10,000 is now $2,000 or $3,000.” Lally agrees. “Forty years ago we thought there wasn’t much of it,” he says. “But now you can get some really great examples for $10,000, and masterpieces for $50,000.”
Another “soft spot” on the market is porcelain made for export, in general because of the lack of Chinese interest. Says MacLaren, “The silk road was also the porcelain road.” China is so richly endowed with the natural resources that are needed to make pottery—like kaolin, which is composed largely of the clay mineral kaolinite, pottery stone, or decomposed micaceous or feldspar rocks, and quartz—that the making of exceptional ceramics began extremely early, and its subsequent large-scale manufacture and export became a huge economic engine. “In the 1990s, says MacLaren, “they were finding old shipwrecks with cargo full of porcelain that they would date very reliably back to 1862 or whatever, and it was amazing just how much porcelain was being made for the West and Southeast Asia at the time. It was huge economically for them. If you go to Ikea, their porcelain was made in basically the same place as it was in the 17th century.”
Beginning in the 17th century, Western interest also spurred certain trends in export ceramics.
Manufacturers began experimenting with overglaze enamels and different colors specifically for western collectors. By the 18th century, European manufacturers began to fabricate pieces of porcelain in certain look-alike styles. The famous blue and white “willow pattern,” which is said to tell the story of two star-crossed lovers, features Chinese-inspired stylized features, complete with a border that resembles the Great Wall. However, the style, which is extremely recognizable and widespread today, didn’t even originate in China, but instead is of completely European design. Of course, the pattern was copied by Chinese potters after it became popular.
Other than dipping into the export or Neolithic markets, there are other ways for the impassioned, but perhaps more frugal collector, to acquire a fine piece for less. Considering how fragile these pieces can be, damage can sometimes be fixed with near-miraculous results, and there might be no use crying over spilled milk, as it were. Chait explains that there is a significant market for repaired pieces—even ones that have been broken into pieces and reassembled. “A really interesting thing about ceramics is that the differential is sometimes huge—a damaged piece could be 2 or 3 percent of the price of a whole one. For those people for whom millions of dollars for a piece of imperial Chinese porcelain is out of the ballpark, getting something with damage could be the way to go.” He recalls that I.M. Chait sold a Qianlong mark-and-period dish that had a piece of the rim put back in the mid-five figures instead of for hundreds of thousands. “There’s a changing viewpoint among collectors and auction houses,” Chait adds. “There was inherent prejudice against it, but now more and more things are coming onto the market damaged, and there’s more acceptance of it. Like car collectors, you accept that you have to do some restoration if it’s the only way to get one for your collection. There’s an auction house in Beijing that specializes in “broken treasures” and has two or three sales a year. They take really great stuff that has some damage.”
But what about fakes? Any sector of the art market that deals with cultural and historic artifacts is subject to the art of forgery. Says Mahony, “There will always be people who will try to get around the tests. There is no definitive test. You need to consider multiple things when authenticating a piece.” The most widely known method is the thermoluminescence test, which can estimate the date of firing of particular types of ceramics. However, it requires that a small bit of porcelain be drilled or cut from a piece for testing, which can be very risky to a fragile piece. Therefore, exact dating can often be tough, although scholarship and manufacturing records can certainly be very reliable. Still Chait admits, “One thing that hurt the market, especially in pottery, was that at one point some years ago there were too many fakes of Tang figures. They were using polymer resins and grinding up bricks to get genuine 2,000-year-old powder to do all sorts of things with.” Certain buyers were turned off and didn’t want to worry about authentication or restoration. As a result, though, some parts of the market opened up. “Even today there are still bargains,” says Chait.
As far as what’s still taking the big bucks, blue and white still rules. A beautiful Yongzheng mark-and-period blue and white porcelain vase recently sold at Bonhams for just shy of $6 million. With intricate designs of swirling chrysanthemums, interlocking lotuses, pomegranates, peonies and bands of cascading waves at the lip and base, along with the six-character mark in seal script at its bottom, one might consider it the perfect storm of porcelain.
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Dynamic Ceramics”