How to spot a million dollar Chinese vase



2016-01-05 15:41:58

Every couple of months a story will surface about a Chinese vase discovered in an attic or used as an umbrella stand that has sold for millions.  

Often the auctioneer will have no clue as to its value either. They are just as surprised as the consigner when the bidding hots up out of nowhere.

But how do you tell the difference between a bit of old tat and the real deal?

Well, it’s not easy.

But this article is a good place to start.

Because there are a number of subtle differences that can indicate that maybe – just maybe - what you’re looking at could be worth something.  

Look at the shape

One of the biggest indicators of the age of Chinese porcelain is its shape.

A Meiping vase - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Is it broad at the top tapering to narrow at the bottom? This is a hallmark of Meiping vases – which can date to the Song dynasty (960-1271 AD).

Does it have one or more necks and openings? It could be a Shuanglianping conjoined vase from the Qianlong era (1736-1795 AD).

There are also shapes that do not appear in traditional Chinese porcelain.

As with all areas of collecting, if you want to get serious you’re going to need to do your homework.

Check the pattern and colour

Pattern and colour are hugely important.

The oldest vases, from the Shang period (2070-1600 BC), tend to be unadorned as the knowhow for creating glazes hadn’t been invented yet.

In the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) the first simple glazes were introduced. Known as Celadon, these vases are highly prized.

As the years advanced the glaze grew in complexity - until the introduction of cobalt in the Yuan era (1271-1368) saw the development of the iconic blue and white patterning.

A pair of Yuan dynasty vases - Image: Wikimedia Commons

From then on the designs became ever more elaborate, with a range of colours used.  The varieties make for fascinating study.

A good tip is to look for anachronisms. If the shape indicates one era but the pattern and colour suggests another, it's likely a fake.

Learn to recognise the marks

Most genuine pieces of Chinese porcelain (from the 14th century onward) will display a mark on the foot.

A Qianlong dynasty mark - Image: Wikimedia Commons

Usually, this will show the name of the emperor under whose reign it was produced and sometimes the kiln where it was made.

Most of the time it will be written in zhuanshu, or seal script – an archaic form of Chinese.

Such marks mainly came into use during the Ming period (1368-1644) – it’s extremely rare to find them on earlier vases.


So you’re at the flea market and you’re 99% certain that what you have in front of you is a genuine 18th century Shiliuzun vase – the best examples of which can sell for over $2m.

Only problem is it’s chipped all over and displays a nasty crack. Unfortunately, it's unlikely to make you a millionaire.

As with every other branch of collecting, what makes a high-end piece so valuable is its exceptional level of preservation.

So follow these tips; do your homework and who knows? You could be sunbathing in the Bahamas by the end of the month.

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