Chinese Porcelain vases

Finding Antique Chinese Porcelain Around New England | Collecting

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Antique Chinese Porcelain Vases, Bowls, and Assorted Forms From Around New England

Antique Chinese Porcelain can probably be found more readily in New England than in any other part of the country.  Following the signing of "The Treaty of Paris" in 1783 ships from Salem, Boston, New Haven and Portsmouth were enabled to conduct global trade, including China.  Known as "The China Trade" ships in huge numbers crisscrossed the oceans trading goods along the way. Acting in some respects not unlike floating distribution warehouses.  From that time forward the taste and affinity for exotic goods from China and Japan became engrained in Northeastern American cultural life. 

During this period, objects were made specifically for export in a wide range of mediums tailored to western tastes. Including not only porcelain but furniture, ivory, fine lacquer, silver and paintings. This also included numerous made to order objects, typically of very high quality as opposed to more commonly produced items.  

Along with these items, vast amounts of trade was conducted exporting teas and spices. These consumable products made up the bulk of Chinese exports. In dollar amounts, the spice, tea and silk trade were the major profit centers for foreign businesses active in China's Hongs. 

By the start of the Civil War, very few homes of middle and upper-class coastal New Englanders were without items brought here by the China Trade. This was particularly the case for towns and cities with histories of direct shipping relationships and trade from China. So profitable was the trade, it resulted in producing America's first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) of Salem, MA.  He also profited mightily as a privateer looting British ships during the revolution. 

So profitable was the trade, it resulted in producing America's first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) of Salem, MA.  He also profited mightily as a privateer looting British ships during the revolution. 

The Second Wave Of Chinese and Asian Art

Ming to Qing Chinese vases
Ming to Qing Chinese vases
After the Civil War, the second wave of Chinese and Asian art to the west was soon underway, including New England. The post war economic boom leading to the maturity of the industrial revolution resulted in massive amounts of new wealth in America. In New England merchants flush with cash and vast wealth went shopping. For the next 50 years they built grand homes and set about furnishing them with treasures from around the world.

During this time when the west was flourishing economically, China was coping with the after effects of the Opium Wars and the waning power of the Imperial court.  China's problems lead to the eventual economic collapse of the country within 45 years. Officially Imperial rule in effect ended on February 12th, 1912 when Emperor Puyi abdicated the royal throne. 

Changing Tastes For Chinese Art

During this period of upheaval, objects that were once only available to China's elite and royal families were sold on the open market. Economic necessity sent millions of fine examples of antique Chinese porcelain west, including Europe and America. Much of it being bought by wealthy New Englanders for their own homes, as well as gifts to museums like the Museum of Fine Art-Boston and Salem's Peabody Essex Museum. 

While some antique Chinese porcelain became part of permanent museum collections, much of it did not. Over the last 100 years examples still in private hands, moved from generation to generation as either intact collections or single pieces into the hands of descendants and friends.  

Unlike objects made for the west during the China Trade era, the second wave of Chinese art including porcelain were purely Chinese in taste and style. These objects were immediately embraced by western collectors resulting in numerous massive collections in all categories and mediums. The most significant of which were porcelain, bronzes, jades and paintings with porcelain being the most favored. 

The End Of the Second Wave

By the late 1930's, the west was in a deep economic depression, Europe was at war and China was basically in ruins.  These conditions lead to the near cessation of all trade from China to the west, including the flow of art.  In 1935 Mao Tse Tung (1893-1976) now leader China's Communist party became China's most powerful leader. Going forward the legal exportation of antique Chinese porcelain and other cultural arts to western collections in effect ceased permanently.  Illegal trade and smuggling on a smaller scale lasted for decades through Hong Kong and other access points. 

Hong Kong 1888
Hong Kong 1888
Antique Chinese Porcelain
China Trade Goods, The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA
elias hasket derby
Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799)

Ming vase with dragons
Antique Chinese Porcelain Ming Dynasty, 16th C.
Chinese Blanc De Chine Kwan Yin
Chinese Blanc De Chine Kwan Yin, 18th C.
Qianlong famille rose vase
Qianlong famille rose vase

China Trade porcelain auctionClick to View Catalog

Antique Chinese Porcelain Found Today In New England

The antique Chinese porcelain typically encountered today in New England homes, ranges from extremely rare to common everyday examples. Often it's a mix of China Trade items and examples resulting from later collecting efforts of the post Civil War to WWII era.

 Fortunately, the inherent beauty and long well-documented appreciation of Chinese art by New Englanders has resulted in massive amounts of it being preserved.  Over nearly four decades, we as dealers and collectors ourselves, have had the opportunity to handle thousands of pieces dating from China's Neolithic era to fine eggshell examples made during the 1930's. 

The Taste for Enamel Decorated Antique Chinese Porcelain

New Englanders were first exposed to China's fine enameled porcelains during the China Trade era.  Not only were they beautiful and fascinatingly well done but were decorated with pictorial scenes of the exotic settings a world away. It's important to bear in mind the making of porcelain was something only learned in the west in Germany by alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger in 1708.  The Chinese had been making it at that point for over 800 years.   

While some China Trade porcelain were made to order who's designs were based on western shapes, styles, and imagery, many clearly were not.  This confluence of western and eastern tastes can today be found and enjoyed for not only their beauty today but in the full appreciation of their historical origins. early all porcelain made for export were decorated in either Famille Rose

Nearly all enamel porcelain made for export were limited to Famille Rose palette which had only been developed during the 18th C. .  The first Famille Rose examples were done at the end of the Kangxi period around 1720.  From there the quality of not only these, but other colors palettes blossomed in technical quality and beauty done by Chinese artisans.    

By the mid 18th C. the range of possible colors available for porcelain decorating was nearly endless. The options for polychrome decorations by then included Doucai, Fencai, Wucai, San Cai, Famille Verte, Famille Jaune, Famille Noire and of course, Famille Rose.  While vases, bowls and table objects found today in the west can be encountered with all of the palettes available, most generally viewed as being "In the Chinese taste" and not Export items. 

Here , There and Everywhere

Today, thousands of examples bearing all of these color ranges can be found throughout our region. While they can and are found of course in other parts of the country they pale in comparison to the volumes located here.  Spending a little time examining upcoming auctions across the country tells the tale. While the item may be being sold in perhaps Texas, with a little digging don't be surprised to learn its roots upon entering the United States in New England.  

Blue and White Antique Chinese Porcelain 

Ming Wine jar
Ming Dynasaty Wine jar, 16th C.
Of all Chinese porcelain categories, none are more collected than blue and white examples. Cobalt was first used in China as early as the Chou dynasty (1122-221 bce) to color beads and during the Tang dynasty (618-907 c.e.) for pottery glazes. It was not until the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) that it was first used as an underglaze blue decoration on porcelain.

Since it's inception as an underglaze decoration on porcelain the ranges of the color have become nearly endless.  Initially the source of Cobalt was Persia where it had been long used on glass, pottery and some metalwork. It then began being  traded to China by Muslim traders and was quickly adopted by Chinese ceramic makers. As time went by additional sources of cobalt in China were discovered with slight differences in characteristics, resulting in varying tonal qualities. These broader color ranges and tonal options by the mid Ming dynasty  (1368-1644) allowed potters a great deal of latitude when attempting to achieve certain effects.  

The color ranges possible can go  from a deep almost purple blue to pure sapphire blue to even an almost grey-blue.  These variations are particularly noticeable on examples made during the Jiajing dynasty (1521-1567). 

Cobalt pigment became a universally used colorant, on not just Chinese taste porcelain but on export wares of the late 17th to the 20th C..  Some of the finest examples every produced in China can be seen on 18th C. Export examples known as "Fitzhugh".   

All ranges of Chinese blue and white as with enamel pieces can be found in houses, shops and auction houses throughout the New England region.  


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Best regards, Peter Combs

Chinese Blue and White of the Ming Dynasty

Kangxi Famille Verte vase
Kangxi Famille Verte vase, Circa 1700-1718
Yongzheng Famille Rose Vase
Yongzheng Famille Rose Vase

Chinese Transitional Period Wucai Jars
Pair, Chinese Transitional Period Wucai Jars, mid 17th C.
Kangxi Cobalt vase
Kangxi Cobalt vase Circa 1700
Jiajing Blue and White vase
Jiajing Blue and White vase, 16th C.
Chinese Fitzhugh Platter
Late 18th C. Chinese Fitzhugh Platter