Stories of hidden treasures touch the heart of every collector, because deep down inside that is our one true wish: to find by happy accident an object of beauty and value in the attic or at a garage sale.
So imagine one French family’s surprise when they found a rare artefact in the attic of their recently passed uncle. Not only was their discovery one of historic reverence, it was a thing of beauty: an 18th-century Imperial Yangcai Ruyi vase produced exclusively for the court of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796).
The Jingdezhen Imperial Workshops
Created by the Jingdezhen imperial workshops, vases like these were either special commissions or created solely for the Emperor’s court by the highest skilled craftsmen in the atelier.
Jingdezhen means ‘foreign colours’ and references the atelier’s technique of combining vibrant colours, enriched enamels and Western styles borrowed from European Jesuit craftsmen.
Sotheby’s believes this vase to be a special order and possibly one of a pair, owing to its elaborate design:
"Porcelains with such elaborate and challenging designs are exceedingly rare on Qing imperial porcelain and did not form part of the imperial kilns’ regular production lines. Its design is a tour de force, the highly complex, labour-intensive, multi-colored brocade-like fields and borders of formal floral-and-pearl designs on a sgraffiato ground clearly combined with a continuous scene of an idyllic landscape with deer and cranes devised to create an effect as opulent and luxurious as possible."
A fine and magnificent Imperial ‘Yangcai crane-and-deer Ruyi vase’, Six-Character Iron-Red Qianlong Seal Mark and Period
Despite its luxurious opulence, the vase arrived at Sotheby’s Paris in a shoebox, albeit in perfect condition. It was evaluated by specialists as the only one of its kind. Upon examining the Complete Records on Porcelain from the Qing court, they found only two mentions of ‘Yangcai ruyi vases with cranes and deer’.
In 1765, the 30th year of Qianlong, one such vase was delivered to a Buddha Hall, a place of private worship, on the Emperor’s private estate; and in 1769 a pair of such vases were ordered as a "birthday tribute."
Another similar example is a vase housed in the Musée Guimet, Paris, from the important collection of Ernest Grandidier (1833-1912):
"Although very different in execution and almost certainly painted by different hands, the two vases are closely comparable in their basic form and design, and the painting manner of their respective nature scenes seems equally indebted to the style of Giuseppe Castiglione’ paintings on silk."
Other examples of Yangcai porcelains of this rarity can be found in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Several vases can be found in this collection with similar nature scenes, ornamental brocade-like design and colourful backgrounds, but rarely do you find a Yangcai vase with "complete paintings in handscroll format, like the auspicious landscapes" of the newly discovered vase.
Acquiring an object from this period of time when the Chinese empire was at its peak, is like being part of a "glorious" time in history.
The Imperial Yangcai crane-and-deer Ruyi from the Famille-rose brand and Qianlong period is estimated at 500,000 to 700,000 Euros, but is expected to reach in excess of $1 million. Most recently Sotheby’s sold a porcelain Famille-rose bowl for $30.4 million. This is one to watch for sure.
Tips for Collecting Chinese Porcelain
Chinese porcelain is a hot collectors item and if you look carefully, you can find affordable pieces at auction. The place to start, according to Margaret Gristina, a Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art specialist at Christie’s New York, is to find what you love.
Know what you like
To the untrained eye, you may be deceived into thinking all Chinese porcelain is the same, but there is a big difference both in style and price for Chinese-taste works produced for the imperial palaces and domestic market, and those destined for the Western market.
Chinese-taste works vs. non-traditional porcelain
Chinese-taste works are designed with Chinese floral motifs, natural landscapes, Buddhist emblems, and many feature carp, dragons and hidden meanings of prosperity and happiness. Whereas the themes and designs of the export pieces were more western in style.
Transitional wares (1628-44)
Transitional wares are another category to explore and a great place to start for a new collector. Created between the Ming and Qing dynasties, transitional pieces have a beauty of their own and can be found in a lower price range.
Pieces made in the early 18th century known as hybrids were export pieces commissioned specially for collectors who loved the Chinese themes and motifs.
Other objects created for scholars like small brush pots, vases and brush stands can be found in intriguing designs and colours:
"Some of the most interesting examples are porcelain made in imitation of another material," Gristina says, "such as a porcelain brush rest that imitates stone or wood. It’s an interesting area that offers a collector pieces that were actually used and enjoyed by Chinese artists and scholars."
Know what you’re looking for
Before you go out hunting, do some research and learn what to look for and the different marks found on Chinese porcelain. You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the various glazes and colour palettes from different periods. The more pieces you handle, the more you’ll recognize a good investment when you see one.
Check for cracks and restorations
To detect restorations, a few tricks of the trade include looking out for browning, yellowing, and flaking. If an area looks suspect like it’s been overpainted, take a pin to the it to see if it sticks – a sure sign it’s been restored. Another tip is to hold pieces up to the light to check for cracks.
We might not all be lucky enough to find treasure in the attic, but there’s plenty of riches to be found at auction. Happy hunting!