Handle as many pieces as possible
Chinese ceramics have been copied for hundreds of years by Chinese potters. They copy out of a reverence for an earlier period but often just to fool the buyer. The market has many copies so buyer beware. When starting to collect ceramics, there is no shortcut to learning and authenticating pieces than to handle as many as possible. Take advantage of the large numbers of Chinese ceramics offered around the world at reputable auction houses. In many ways, auction houses are even better than museums as you can handle pieces in cabinets. In handling many pieces, you get a feel for what a ceramic should feel like in the hand, the weight of the piece, the quality of the painting.
Building the knowledge needed to authenticate Chinese ceramics can take many years. Reading reference books can give a structure to the field but pick specialists’ brains and ask as many questions as possible. There is nothing that a specialist with a little time on their hands likes better than to talk about their subject.
Always buy what you love
Do not necessarily think of buying for investment. In that way you will never be disappointed. Try to buy the best quality example your budget will allow.
Familiarise yourself with the different palettes and glazes and when they were introduced
For example, the wucai (literally five-colour) palette was used in the Wanli period (1573–1619); from this palette came the famille verte palette introduced in the 17th century and the Kangxi period (1662–1722). This features a predominant green enamel together with blue, red, yellow, black. The famille rose palette was added to the ceramic painter’s repertoire in the 1720s and featured a prominent rose colour; the enamels are opaque and there is a wider repertoire of colours. In the 18th century there were many technical advances and glazes were introduced such as the copper-red glazes and flambé glazes.
Learn about the various kilns and the distinction in glazes between kiln sites
Ceramics were made all over China and kilns in the north and south produced different types of wares and glazes. For example, in the Song dynasty (960–1279) you get beautiful celadon glazed ceramics from the Longquan located in the southwest Zhejiang province, and also the Yaozhou kilns in the northern China Shaanxi province. The celadon glazes differ between these two kilns with the Longquan glaze giving often a warmer, bluish-green tone compared with the Yaozhou glazes that were more olive in tone. Jun wares in the Song dynasty were produced with beautiful lavender glazes often highlighted by abstract purple splashes. The Dehua kilns specialised in ceramics with white and cream glazes. In the late Ming dynasty in the 17th century the Dehua wares were creamy in tone but by the 19th century these became more ivory and white. From the Ming dynasty, the kilns at Jingdezhen in the south of China produced most of the blue and white ceramics.
Turn it over
Always look at the bases of the ceramics as fakers often do not get these correct. The way a base of a vessel is cut, finished and glazed changes throughout the dynasties so looking at bases can help enormously with dating and authentication. Potters who are trying to fake ceramics often may not have an original example to look at, relying instead on photographs in auction catalogues or books that do not feature the bases.
Familiarise yourself with changes in underglaze blue decoration from the Ming to the Qing dynasty
This timeless Chinese decoration changed a lot over the centuries both in the designs favoured and the tone of the cobalt blue when fired. This helps with dating — a characteristic of 15th century blue and white porcelain is the so-called ‘heaped and piled effect’ — when the underglaze cobalt blue concentrates in certain areas, bubbling through the surface of the glaze and turning a deep blue-black. This inadvertently gave texture, energy and shading to the design and was highly admired in the 18th century when potters sought to copy the techniques on archaistic pieces made out of reverence for this early golden period. However, by the 18th century potters had mastered the technique of firing blue and white wares to achieve a more even, uniform cobalt blue tone and this was widely used on most porcelain. The blue varied throughout the dynasties. For example, during the Wanli period (1573–1619) blue and white wares often have a greyish-blue tone; in the Jiajing period (1522–1566) blue and white wares tend to have a vibrant, almost purplish blue.
Pay attention to shapes and proportions
The shapes of ceramics changed and evolved throughout the dynasties. Familiarise yourself with the different shapes in different periods. For example, Song dynasty ceramics often drew on nature for their inspiration and have foliate forms. Ceramics from the Song dynasty are all about combining simple forms with beautiful monochrome glazes. Chinese ceramics also have beautiful proportions. A vase or bowl that looks out of proportion is an indication that a neck or mouth has been ground down.
What is an acceptable condition depends on whether the ceramic is Imperial quality or not and when it was made. For example, on a non-Imperial porcelain vessel made in the 17th century, such as a Kraak ware charger, you would expect to see a certain level of fritting to the rim, or see some kiln grit or kiln dust to the base and perhaps a firing flaw that would have occurred in the kiln. These would be acceptable and would not be considered condition issues.
However, you would not expect to find these kind of kiln flaws on an 18th century Imperial mark and period ceramic as the standard would have been higher and the firing techniques refined. The price of mark and period ceramics made for the great 18th century Kangxi (1662–1722), Yongzheng (1723–1735) and Qianlong (1736–1795) Emperors has escalated in the last decade. Whereas 15 years ago, only mint condition mark and period ceramics would have been considered acceptable to collectors, now collectors will accept certain condition flaws in order to buy these pieces. For example, ceramics that have been broken and restored or have hairline cracks.
Familiarise yourself with marks
Reign marks state the dynasty and the name of the emperor for which an item was made and were used on all ceramics made for the Emperor and his Imperial household. Familiarise yourself with the reign marks used in each period but do not rely on a reign mark to establish the age of a piece. Marks were often copied and can be apocryphal. A useful reference book is The Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, Gerald Davison, London, 1994. This lists all the Imperial Ming and Qing dynasty reign marks that appear in seal script form, zhuanshu, and regular form, kaishu. These should be studied together with the many different variations of hallmarks, auspicious marks, potters’ marks and symbols that you find on the bases of Chinese porcelain throughout the ages.