A Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Export Porcelain

home decor, interior designers, chinese porcelain
Trade is carried out on the Canton waterfront, circa 1855 (image credit)

Chinese export porcelain has been a finishing touch in interiors for decades and treasured by iconic designers including Mario Buatta, Bunny Williams and Mark D. Sikes. Whether on plate walls, bookshelves or tabletops, Chinese porcelain is highly sought-after and a hallmark of a well-styled and collected home. 

The Chinese invented porcelain as we know it in the 14th century, and for centuries, no one could emulate the bright, fine, delicate look of Chinese porcelain. As a result, Chinese porcelain became the gold standard for buyers at the time. It remains so for collectors today, from important American to European collections. 

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Anne Wagoner Interiors/Erin Comerford Photography


When trade between Europe and China began to truly flourish in the 17th century, Chinese porcelain became an important export along with tea and silk. Throughout the 18th century, most pieces exported were classic blue and white. In the late 18th/early 19th centuries, brightly colored ‘famille rose’ (the most famous of which is the ‘rose medallion’ pattern) and ‘famille verte’ porcelain ware became in vogue and were found alongside the blues. The range of color-ways, patterns and styles across the centuries is immense and impossible to capture in one blog post! 

 

Jessica Lev Antiques, Collection of 19th Century Famille Rose



Though much of the oldest Chinese export porcelain continues to capture high prices and the attention of mature collectors, many of the prolific 19th century pieces are more attainable. The ‘rose medallion’ and ‘Canton’ patterns have long captured the attention of interior designers and homeowners. As you think about beginning your own collection, there are a few main driving factors of value ranging from age as well as the size and condition of the piece.

1) Age: The oldest pieces are rarer, and typically the most expensive.

2) Size: Larger and shaped pieces are harder to find, especially in good condition, so a few inches of height or diameter can lead to exponential increases in price (for example, a 16 inch punch bowl is about 2-3x as expensive as a 13 inch punch bowl, the same with a 16 inch vs. a 13 inch platter).

3) Condition: Not to be overlooked, condition is an important part of value, and defects like chips and repairs (even good ones) drastically impact the collectible value of porcelain. On the flip side, it can also make certain pieces more affordable.

 

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Chandos Interiors / Julie Soefer Photography

 

The recent value and popularity of Chinese porcelain has led to a flood of reproductions onto the market. Modern reproductions cannot emulate the design and artistry of antique pieces. The designs are stiffer and the colors not as finely blended. The recent value and popularity of Chinese porcelain has led to a flood of reproductions into the marketplace. Modern reproductions cannot emulate the design and artistry of antique pieces. The designers are stiffer and the colors are not as finely blended. The more porcelain you see and handle, the easier it becomes to identify originals and appreciate their quality. When evaluating a potential ‘fake’ or ‘modern’ piece of porcelain, keep the following in mind:

1) The vast majority of Chinese porcelain is unmarked. If a piece is signed, it is likely a reproduction. (A marking of ‘China’ indicates a date of 1890-1915 and ‘Made in China’ indicates one later than 1915).

2) Chinese porcelain is known for its bright white and smooth appearance. If you are looking at the bottom of a piece of porcelain, and it looks dirty and the age appears forced, then it is probably a reproduction.

3) While blue and white paint is ‘under-glaze’ and will not show wear, any ‘famille rose’ pieces will have rubbing to the paint and decoration. Expect to see rubbing and wear to the paint, most notably in any gilding. If it looks perfect and like it was painted yesterday, it probably was!

Regardless of what you are collecting, it’s always a thrill finding that perfect item you’ve be searching for for years!

Jessica Lev is the Antiques Expert for The Traditional List and has been a contributor since 2021.

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