In the world of collectible antiques, few boast the prestige, attention, history, and, yes, sometimes astronomically high prices of top-quality Chinese ceramics. Combining more than 1,000 years of aesthetic and technological development with a subtle beauty that still resonates today, these pieces are some of the most sought-after at all levels of the art market. The following is a brief guide designed to familiarize newcomers to the category with the major periods, styles, and types of Chinese ceramics, with an emphasis on Chinese vases.
The Rise of Chinese Porcelain
Chinese pottery represents one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. Traces of early stoneware have been found in Yuchanyan Cave in Hunan that are estimated to be 17,000 to 18,000 years old, and there is evidence that kilns capable of firing more delicate and complex ceramics were in use as early as 2,000 BCE. By the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), ceramic production had increased to what contemporary observers might call near-industrial proportions and sophistication. This was in part to meet the needs of a growing population with a taste for often-elaborate funerary jars and figurines, up to and including the legendary Terracotta Army – made around 210 BCE to accompany Emperor Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife.
As manufacturing techniques developed and major kilns fell increasingly under imperial control over the course of the later Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties (more on these eras below), the scope of Chinese porcelain expanded accordingly. High quality porcelain pieces served many purposes ranging from functional to ritualistic, including common cups, bowls, and plates to funerary urns and “scholar’s objects” like brush washers, with the finest wares and most precious glazes reserved for the Imperial family and associated functionaries.
Stylistic and aesthetic concerns naturally shifted over the course of these centuries as new approaches and technologies developed (in part due to the expansion of the empire’s reach into Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond), although a strong emphasis on the importance of tradition kept many formats in circulation for generations after they first became popular. Chinese ceramicists’ predilection for referencing and copying earlier designs means that today’s savvy collectors keep their eyes peeled for subtle details in glazes, shapes, and motifs, as well as the marks of specific kilns known for their high quality.
“China” in the West
Though Chinese traders had long maintained contact and commerce with the peoples of India and the Middle East through trade networks like the Silk Road, Chinese goods only became widely accessible to Europeans in the wake of early colonialism and imperial expansion beginning in the 16th century CE. By the mid-1700s, trade between China and Europe was formalized into the Canton System, whereby all Western merchants were required by Chinese law to conduct their business sole within the southern port city of Guangzhou, then romanized as Canton. Under this state-sponsored trade monopoly, British, French, Dutch, and other European traders exchanged gold and silver bullion for silks, spices, and especially porcelain.
“China,” as the material is still sometimes called today, quickly became one of the earliest consumer fads in Europe. Popularized by the first international corporations—chief among them the famed Dutch East India Company—as “exotic” luxury goods, these pieces were seen by the moneyed gentry of Western nations as symbols of both wealth and worldliness. Chinese vases and the like became fixtures in upper-class households in addition to serving as one of the few portals to the cultures of the East. Thrilled with this booming new demand for their work (despite being leery of European influence in general), Chinese ceramics manufacturers quickly began producing pieces tailored to their new foreign market, sometimes including European design motifs or creating custom-made dinner sets for select (and high paying) customers. Many of the 18th and 19th century pieces on the market today were made specifically for such trade and are referred to as “export porcelain.”
Chinese Ceramics Today
Though the craze for Chinese ceramics has cooled since its heyday in the early modern period, the intensive manufacturing of Chinese vases over the past several centuries means that the contemporary market includes a range of styles, colors, sizes, and prices for collectors of all levels. Today, the upper end of the market tends to be dominated by newly wealthy Chinese collectors willing to pay top dollar for these incredible examples of their cultural history, but knowledgeable collectors with more modest budgets can still bring home truly exceptional pieces if they have a sharp eye and a firm grasp of the material’s complex history.
The sheer number of ceramics sold both within China and abroad means that previously unknown masterpieces are rediscovered fairly often. Indeed, the most expensive Chinese vase ever sold—a sumptuously detailed Qianlong (Qing-era) piece—was insured for only £800 before selling for over £53.1 million at a 2010 auction. Though few other pieces reach such dizzyingly high prices, vases and other ceramics in good condition and well-established provenance achieve prices in the millions regularly, and prices in the tens and hundreds of thousands are hardly unusual.
With the market inundated with both fakes and copies of earlier (and thus more valuable) pieces, buyers would do well to consult experts and pay close attention to provenance before making a major purchase, although collectors on the lower end of the spectrum (and less concerned with historicity) can readily take home beautiful examples of the craft without breaking the bank.