Hemswell Antique Centres

How can we help?

Antique oriental ceramics – what’s valuable and what’s not


When purchasing antique oriental ceramics it is important to recognise the features between pieces originating from different countries.

Chinese and Japanese ceramic ware has been renowned the world over for centuries, but it was the Chinese who first invented the process for porcelain production during the Tang dynasty of 618-907 AD. Created from the fusion of a white clay material (kaolin) and petuntse (a fine stone) at temperatures in excess of 1250°C which vitrifies the medium, porcelain is defined by a white, fine-grained and translucent material, unlike earthenware which is coarse, opaque and porous. The Chinese dominated the porcelain market until the 16th century when its method of manufacture spread to Korea and Japan.

The differences between antique Chinese and Japanese ceramics

The main difference between antique oriental ceramics is the thickness of the porcelain. As China had a richer natural source of kaolin and developed firing methods much earlier than the Japanese, antique Chinese ceramic pieces are much thinner, lighter in weight and more delicate.

Chinese ceramics feature much brighter colours and have a fully transparent, shiny glaze (the result of firing at extremely high temperatures) which showcases the brightness of the colours. By comparison, Japanese pieces are heavier with a matte glaze and a more natural, ‘earthy’ palette.

Antique oriental vase markings

Dealers, auctioneers and collectors will use the marks found on antique oriental ceramics to judge its value. The marks found on antique oriental ceramic differ in meaning between China and Japan.

Antique Chinese ceramic marks

Antique Chinese porcelain marks were a certification of manufacture, denoting the dynasty and emperor that the piece was made for. These ‘reign’ marks were first seen on porcelain from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and were a way to protect the potter’s work and brand. Chinese emperors considered their individual reign marks to be a way for them to be remembered for posterity. However, one of the longest-reigning emperors, Kangxi of the Qing dynasty (1661-1722) was superstitious, believing that if a piece of ceramic ware bearing his reign mark were to be broken, it would be a bad omen for him. Porcelain from his reign features two concentric circles.

Antique Chinese marks are read from top to bottom and right to left, with horizontal marks read from right to left. The majority of reign marks are made up of four or six characters, varying in style according to the period, with the first two referring to the dynasty or emperor.

Antique Japanese ceramic marks

Unlike antique Chinese ceramics, Japanese pieces do not bear a reign mark with marks more commonly denoting the signature of the artist. With antique Japanese porcelain having a huge export market from the 19th century onwards, marks were commercially oriented and represent a wide variety of characteristics including the potter, decorator and factory, as well as the pattern and the exporter or importer. Marks written in English can be an indicator of age too. A NIPPON mark pre-dates 1921 although more modern pieces have since re-adopted this. Between 1921 and 1941, pieces destined for the US export market were required to be marked ‘Japan’ or ‘Made in Japan’. Pre-1926 pieces will feature a hand-painted mark with later pieces bearing marks made by stencil.

For collectors who are unfamiliar with the Chinese and Japanese languages, it can be almost impossible to authenticate or age a piece from its marks. Experts who can distinguish between the other characteristics of an antique piece such as shape, decoration and pattern have years of experience, although there are some simple ways for a novice collector to identify a fake.

How to spot fake antique oriental ceramic ware

There are telltale signs that will help you determine whether an ‘antique’ piece has been made to appear aged. Genuine pieces will show signs of age, including dirt to the base where it has stood for many years. Genuine dirt will wipe off! Signs of wear and tear should also be present, although beware well-placed marks that are intended to give the impression of age.

The best way of ensuring your piece is authentic is to seek the advice of an expert who will understand and recognise the nuances of shape, production processes, colour and imagery in the decoration, as well as the construction and shape of the base of a piece, and even the glaze.

When searching for antique oriental ceramics for sale, it is always better to go to an antiques dealer with specialist experience. At Hemswell Antique Centres, we have many dealers who are members of LAPADA, The Association of Art and Antiques Dealers. Their accredited membership gives the novice collector the peace of mind that their advice is reliable and trustworthy. In addition to antique porcelain, our oriental antiques include a selection of items including furniture and decorative ornaments and we also have dealers of oriental rugs.

Choose from thousands of pieces online or take a day trip to historic Lincoln and while away some time browsing our four buildings which house wares from over 300 dealers. 

Back to articles