A Collector's Guide for Buying Antique Chinese Vases
Humans have been making pottery for thousands of years, and scientists recently found some of the oldest pottery in the world in China. Despite how widespread pottery was, Chinese porcelain quickly became some of the finest in the world.
For millennia, Chinese merchants traded these porcelain vessels along the Silk Road and then by ship.
Today, antique Chinese vases are highly sought after and can fetch stunning prices at auctions. How can you get started with collecting these pieces, and how do you know which ones are valuable? Read on for everything you need to know!
What Are Antique Chinese Vases?
Vases and other pottery were produced in China throughout the reigns of various dynasties. These vases were often made for decoration, although other pottery held food, liquids, or even flowers. Some were made for common use, while a few were specially made for royalty and use in palaces.
For many centuries, merchants traded these vases throughout China and the world. Today, there are still many fine specimens of this antique pottery in homes, museums, and private collections. Some vases are still being discovered where they had long been forgotten in attics, basements, or storage units!
Generally, antique vases and pottery range from the beginning of the Han dynasty all the way through the end of the Qing dynasty. The Qing dynasty was the last dynasty in China, ending in 1912. This means that every antique Chinese porcelain vase is more than 100 years old!
Tortoise Shell Glazed Stoneware Vase
Why Collect Them?
There are plenty of reasons why you might want to start collecting Chinese vases!
For one thing, the connection with history appeals to many collectors and buyers. When you buy an antique vase, you're holding something from centuries or even millennia ago. It's a special connection with the people who made it and the history of times long past.
Along with this, some pieces have unique histories even after their production! When you can trace the voyages and journeys that took your vase to the present day, you have a tether to those historical people and events. It's one thing to study history, but it's another to have something physical that ties you to it!
With that, many collectors and museums seek out these pieces for the history and knowledge behind them. Far too many people are ignorant about history, especially Chinese history, and items like these vases are perfect opportunities to learn and teach. With an antique vase, you give people something beautiful to help explain historical events.
And the truth is, these vases are beautiful! Many collectors appreciate the history, but it's hard to deny the beauty that comes with these vases. Pieces like this make great displays and decorations, and the history behind them only makes them better.
Some Tips for Buying Antique Chinese Vases
So, if you're interested in buying one of these unique, historical pieces, what do you need to know? There are a lot of factors that go into determining the value, rarity, and authenticity of Chinese vases.
While these tips can help you get started, you need years of study and practice to become truly good at identifying Chinese pottery. There are a lot of dangers and scams out there, so don't get overconfident in your abilities!
It's fun to imagine that you will be that person who finds a priceless vase at a yard sale, but those occurrences are extremely rare. Rather, you should focus your efforts on learning what you can and finding experts who can aid you when you're out of your depth! If you're unsure about a vase, have an expert appraise it to tell you its worth and authenticity.
But to get you started, here are some key factors to Chinese vases you should know and study. These can help you know whether a vase is authentic, how rare it is, and how much it's worth.
Knowing the Dynasties
It's important to learn about the different dynasties in Chinese history. Most historians consider the Han dynasty to be the first era when porcelain vases flourished.
There were ten dynasties from the Han to the Qing. Each of them has unique pottery styles, the most influential of which are summarized here, but it's a good idea to study each dynasty to truly learn the differences between them.
The Han dynasty ruled from 206 BC through 220 AD. This dynasty was one of the greatest dynasties in Chinese history, and thoroughly changed the history of China forever afterward. Much of Chinese culture and its advancements can be traced back to this era, including the emergence of porcelain.
Later on, the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-618 AD and 618-907 AD, respectively) produced vast quantities and types of ceramics. Although much of the paint on these ceramics has faded or fallen, this was also the first period to use underglaze painting.
The Song dynasty was another prestigious era of pottery making in China. There was a revival of Confucianism in this era, and the pottery was made to reflect the aesthetics of Confucian thought. This meant an emphasis on simplicity over overly ornamental vases and pots.
The Yuan dynasty saw ceramic changes influenced by their trade with the Islamic world. This blue and white ceramic was more decorative than earlier Chinese wares, and was traded widely throughout the world.
Finally, the two most recent dynasties were the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). Although the most recent, these dynasties produced many popular styles of vases that are still highly sought after. There are several key clues that can tell you whether a vase comes from the Qing dynasty or not, so you should definitely study the pottery from these recent dynasties.
Starting in the Ming Dynasty, reign marks were added to the bottom of many pieces of porcelain. Depending on the era and style of vase, the pottery might have four or six characters. Some of these marks were Chinese characters, while others were shapes of objects or plants.
This is a good reason to start learning Chinese characters! It can be difficult to discern antique Chinese vases' markings without some knowledge of what they represent or mean.
But once you can read the marks, you should know a lot about when the pot was made! Often the first two marks (read top to bottom, right to left) would have the Emperor's name or dynasty. The next marks often represented the artist or potter who made the piece.
Authentic marks can tell you a lot about the piece, including where and when it was made. This will take you a long way toward determining its value! Unfortunately, some potters would include marks of earlier emperors or reigns to honor them, which can cause some confusion.
Additionally, scammers and forgers know how important the marks are, and they have created many fake marks on forged vases and pottery. Unless you know enough to tell a forged mark from a real thing, don't think that a mark alone is a sign of authenticity!
Shape of the Pottery
Another key step for determining the age and value of a Chinese antique vase is the shape of the vessel. Certain eras saw the production of different kinds of vases, culminating in the Qing dynasty, which had a very wide range of vase styles.
Starting with the Song dynasty, a few styles of vases became popular. These included the Plum, Pear Shaped, Cong Shaped, and Double Gourd vases. The Yuan dynasty saw the addition of the Beaker and Garlic Head vase designs to the earlier vase styles from the Song dynasty.
These vase designs were still used through the Ming dynasty, but several new designs were also added. When the Qing dynasty came to power, potters produced a vast range of vase designs. These Qing designs include the Conjoined, Rotating, and Double Deer vases.
This is a lot to keep track of, which is why reference guides and lots of knowledge are so important! Is the Plum vase you're examining from the Song dynasty, or is it a vase from a later era that borrowed that shape?
Learn the Different Vase Colors
Certain colors, paints, and color patterns were used during different eras of China's dynasties. Some of these are rather simple, while others use very detailed, colorful designs.
Many Chinese vase patterns used white and blue paints. Oftentimes white was the base color, while blue was painted on top in various designs. You can sometimes tell who manufactured the piece or where it was made by the quality and type of dyes.
The Qing dynasty saw a wider use of colors, glazes, and techniques. This can sometimes help a discerning buyer tell the difference between Qing pottery and earlier, often simpler, white and blue pottery.
Again, the best way to learn these things is by studying and examining real specimens. As you get an eye for the different dyes, glazes, and techniques that were used through the centuries, you'll be better at determining the authenticity and value of vases.
Be Wary of Scams and Forgeries
As mentioned earlier, you have to be quite wary of forgeries, scams, and outrageous prices. Chinese vases can fetch stunning prices at auction, which is why so many people have used this market to scam people.
If you're unsure about a piece or something doesn't feel right, don't buy it! There are plenty of authentic Chinese artifacts out there, and there will always be another day to find one that fits your collection. It's much better to wait a bit longer than to jump right in and throw your money away on a fake.
That's why it's recommended to only buy your vases from trusted sources and auction houses. Their dealers and appraisers know how to tell the real articles from the fakes, so you can be sure you're getting genuine antiques through them. This will help you avoid many of the issues that early collectors often face.
And if you find a vase you're unsure about, you can always ask experts for advice! Try to build connections with dealers, collectors, and appraisers, and they'll almost certainly be happy to help you if you want advice. They can point you in the right direction and give you resources to help you authenticate pieces for yourself.
Examining the Condition
Even if you know the authenticity, age, and rarity of a vase, you still need to pay attention to the condition! A vase's condition will have a huge effect on its value, and you don't want to overpay or buy something that doesn't fit with your collection.
In general, older vases tend to be in worse condition. If you're only looking for pristine pieces, you're more likely to find them from the Qing dynasty, as those are the newest.
Look at the overall condition of the porcelain in the vase, as well as the decorative features and paint. Are any pieces broken off or missing? Does it have any chips or cracks?
In the same way, is your vase's paint still vibrant and colorful? Or has it faded away, perhaps even disappearing completely? These types of things can determine whether your vase is a priceless artifact or simply a valuable one.
Where to Buy Chinese Vases
So with all of these thoughts in mind, where can you actually go to buy Chinese vases? There are a few options open to you!
Although regular thrift stores and garage sales do produce the occasional newsworthy headline, you're unlikely to find authentic vases there. On the other hand, antique stores are often a good starting place! You can talk with the vendors there and see if they have any vases in their inventory and perhaps start learning what they know.
However, many antique dealers are generalists rather than specialists, and they may not deal much with Chinese pottery. This can sometimes be a way to buy pieces for less than what they're worth, but it's also more difficult to find good pieces that you'd want to purchase.
That's why passionate artifact collectors look into ceramics sold by companies like Weisbrod. You know that the dealers share the same passions as you, and have the knowledge to help you find exactly what you're looking for. Why settle for anything less?
Learn More About Chinese Antiques
There's a lot to learn about antique Chinese vases, and you can spend a lifetime learning all the intricate details of these fascinating pieces of pottery. Keep learning and enjoying the intricacies of the hobby, and you'll never get bored with it!
If you'd like to learn more about Chinese artifacts, or you're interested in seeing our galleries, feel free to contact us or browse our collections! We're always eager to share our knowledge and expertise with the world to help showcase these fascinating pieces of art.