Spotlight on blue and white china

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In the early days of OKA, our blue and white china pieces were amongst the very first collections and have remained popular with customers and interiors journalists alike. From beautiful decorative vases to barrel seats to tableware, these handpainted pieces with their intricate designs always delight and intrigue the onlooker.

We asked Stephen Loakes, Director and Senior Specialist of Chinese Ceramics at Sotheby’s in London, to give us an expert insight into the history behind these works of art.

What’s your typical working day like?

My day-to-day role is to identify and value Chinese ceramics and works of art that Sotheby’s can offer at auction in London, or alternatively in, Hong Kong, New York or Paris. I receive literally hundreds of enquiries for valuations every month, and it sometimes feels like I am looking for a needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, the vast range of pieces I see and the exhilaration of finding those special pieces makes every day different. I also arrange valuation days in the UK and Europe, and leads come in to me from our network of offices around the world and from our valuation counter at our Bond Street sale-room, where people can bring their items or photographs for a free valuation for sale. Each of these consignments is then fully researched and catalogued by our team of experts in the London office and offered for auction in either May or November. 

When did you first become interested in Chinese art?

My fascination with China developed from a very young age, after crawling around the carved wood dragon base of my grandparents’ dining table.

What do you look for when valuing a piece of Chinese Porcelain?

The value of a piece of porcelain will be determined by its age, rarity, quality of decoration, condition and aesthetic appeal. My role is to then place that object into the hierarchy of current market values – is it more or less desirable than the last sold similar example? 

When did Chinese porcelain become popular in the UK?

Chinese porcelain made for the western market became popular in the UK in the 18th Century; families would order whole dinner services enamelled with their family crest .The craze for collecting Chinese blue and white porcelain (known as ‘chinamania’) started later in the 19th Century with the Aesthetic Movement. Among those famous for collecting were the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde and the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Their particular taste was for Kangxi period (1662-1722) blue and white; however, demand outstripped supply and the Chinese were quick to produce blue and white pieces in the Kangxi style to satisfy market demand. Porcelain is so identified with China that it is still called “china” in everyday English usage.

Where would you find the best collections of Chinese porcelain?

In the UK, it’s The British Museum in London, which now includes the Sir Percival David Collection. For the rest of the world, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

Does Chinese porcelain come from a specific region?

From the 12th Century the town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province has been synonymous with porcelain production and to this day is the ceramic capital of China.

What is the cultural relevance of the symbols used?

Many of the designs convey well-known romantic stories and the symbols convey auspicious wishes such as longevity and happiness.

What’s the oldest known piece of Chinese porcelain?

Porcelain is known to have been produced in China from the later 6th Century.

What’s the most expensive piece sold to date?

Sotheby’s Hong Kong hold the record for the most expensive piece of Chinese porcelain sold at auction: £20 million for a famille-rose enamelled double-gourd shaped vase of the Qianlong period (1736-95).

Do you often surprise people with your valuations?

Just recently, I visited a house and spotted an 18th Century imperial vase being used as a lamp, so you can imagine the owner was rather surprised to hear my valuation of £200,000-300,000!

What was your favourite piece in you last sale, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art?

Lot 3, which was an underglaze-blue painted porcelain ‘fish’ dish, dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). I love the marvellous way the fish is cheekily depicted amongst those water weeds and the painterly freedom which endows the dish with a certain freshness, even upon multiple viewing.

The Kraak range is one of our most popular china collections. What’s the history of this style?

Kraak wares were produced from the mid 16th Century to the mid 17th Century (at the end of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) with the peak of production around 1600. This was the first time blue and white porcelain was produced in massive quantities almost exclusively for export, especially for the new market in Europe. The Portuguese dominated this trade during the second half of the 16th Century, trading from their permanent trading post in Macao and transporting their cargoes back to Europe in ships called ‘carracks’, hence the name Kraak ware.

We especially lo Giant Imperial Handpainted Vase. Can you tell us a bit more about its design?

This bottle vase is painted in underglaze cobalt-blue with nine ferocious scaly five-clawed dragons (a sign that the piece is in the style of those made for the court – lesser pieces can be found with three-clawed dragons) in mutual pursuit of a flaming pearl (representing wisdom), all amidst cloud and fire scrolls. The neck has an apocryphal six-character seal mark that says ‘da qing qian long nina zhi’ which translates as ‘made in the great Qing Dynasty in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor’ (1736-95). The Qing Dynasty was from 1644-1911. We recently sold a Qianlong period blue and white ‘dragon’ moonflask in our November 2013 sale of ‘Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art’ (lot 16) for £770,500 (seen on the right).

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Topics: accessories