Tips of the Trade
How to Be a Porcelain Pro
From Ming dynasty.
This piece looks Persian—and it is.
This piece was clearly made in the 20th century.
The bumpy feel on the base of this porcelain vase is called "orange peel" and is indicative of late 18th-century Chinese export porcelain.
The blue on this glaze indicates it was made in Japan.
We've all seen white and blue porcelain before—maybe while strolling around a Chinatown chatchka shop, a first-rate art museum, in Macy's decorative wares department, or even at a neighborhood yard sale. Called under-glazed blue-and-white porcelain, it has been made for a thousand years in China and for hundreds of years in other parts of the world, including Holland, England and the Middle East.
Lark Mason offers his tips on collecting blue-and-white porcelain
But can you teach yourself how to navigate such a vast field of porcelain with confidence that you aren't making too many mistakes—or worse yet, getting duped? We asked that question of Lark Mason, an expert in Asian art at igavel.com, and his answer was an unequivocal "Yes."
"I do this all the time," Lark says. "I look across a room and if I see a shape that's the wrong shape for what it's purported to be, I'll get closer and look at the design, and then flip it over and look at the clay. I'll put all those things together to place it to a particular culture, manufacturer, and a time in history. From that, I'm able to come up with whether an item is what it's supposed to be and how much it's worth."
Here's how you can learn to do the same.
Shape It Up
Lark says that one of the easiest ways to begin evaluating blue-and-white porcelain is to evaluate an object's shape, which pins a piece to a particular place. "In the late 19th century in Holland, it was very popular to have large, under-glazed blue scenic decorated dishes," Lark explains, noting that these dishes could run 25 inches wide. "This size dish was popular in this period, and when you see one there's a good chance it's from Holland, or maybe Japan, at the same time."
The shape of a piece can also peg it to a particular time in history. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, spherical teapots were very popular in the West. If you find a spherical teapot that a seller claims has been made in, say, the late 16th century, be suspicious.
Differentiate the Design
The designs painted on a piece—whether it's decorated with mythological scenes, or animals, landscapes, or abstract designs—can also tell you about the where and when of a particular porcelain piece. The dragon, for example, is associated in China with the union of heaven and earth, as well as the power of the imperial government. A porcelain piece decorated with a dragon was probably made by potters in China or elsewhere in Asia.
Landscape scenes did not become a widespread decorative feature on ceramics in general before the 17th century. "So if you find a landscape scene in under-glazed blue, that identifies the object as dating from no earlier than the 17th century," Lark says.
Get a Feel
Examining the type of porcelain the piece is made from will reveal even more about its origins. For example, the craft of porcelain making was unknown in Europe until the early 18th century, so porcelain purported to be made on that continent before that time simply is not, Lark notes. Porcelain is also distinguishable from other types of ceramics because it is translucent. Most other kinds of ceramics are opaque—even glassy-looking varieties such as fritware, which has a sand-based ceramic body, and Delft, made with tin to give it the appearance of porcelain.
If you look at the base of a piece, or at the clay interior that might be revealed by a chip, you can also get a sense of whether an object really is porcelain. In porcelain, the clay fuses and produces a smooth surface even where it's chipped. "If a chip shows a grainy surface that is not fused together then it probably is not porcelain and did not come from Asia," Lark says.
Read the Blues for Clues
The exact color blue on the porcelain is another important clue about where it came from and when it was made. The blue color on porcelain comes from cobalt. The kind and quantity of impurities in cobalt varies from mine to mine and produces different shades of blue when fired. The blue in English ceramics made in the Worcester factory in England during the mid-18th century is usually a rich midnight blue. Whereas other English porcelain factories of that era did not have access to the same cobalt and their blues are often less dramatic, Lark notes. Japanese porcelain makers in the 19th century used cobalt that turned the blues in its porcelain much darker. At the same time in China, the shade of blue was typically lighter.
"It is possible by knowing the specific tones of blue to associate an object with both a culture, manufacturing center, and period of time with great accuracy," Lark says. "This involves honing your visual memory." He adds that the best way to develop this skill is to memorize the particular features on museum pieces and to study small pieces that you can buy at affordable prices. Learning to discern these features should help you spot fakes and pieces that are mistakenly sold as something they are not, Lark says.
"I come across questionable pieces daily, but if you learn these ways of ways of distinguishing porcelain you should be able to pick out 9 of 10 fakes."
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Tips from the Pottery & Porcelain category:
Firing Miss Daisy: What Happened at Wedgwood? (Houston, 2006)
Next of Kiln: The Overbeck Sisters (Houston, 2006)
What's the Word: Garniture? (Houston, 2006)
School of Mines Pottery
The Tafoyas: Legends of Pueblo Pottery (St. Paul, 2005)
What's the Value of Research? (St. Paul, 2005)
How Much to Buy "Spring"? (Portland, 2005)
Detecting Fabergé Fakes
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.