Discover Vintage America - MARCH 2017
How old is it, really?
Judging the age of an artifact isn't all that easy. If you were the one to pull it out of an old abandoned farmhouse or barn, you might be fairly comfortable concluding it's an antique. But if you found it in an antique mall, you might not be so sure. As a dealer and as a collector, I go by this general note to self: "It's probably newer than you think."
Chinese double gourd vase case
One thing that makes Chinese porcelain so difficult to date accurately is the venerable tradition of "honorific marks" in which potters would use the marks of earlier dynasties whose work they especially admired. The intent of these pieces was to pay homage to the potter's aesthetic forebears, not to deceive. Today, Chinese potters remain such consummately skilled artisans that their work can fool even the experts into believing that a late 19th or 20th century vase is actually a 14th century Ming.
Still, I couldn't resist the double-gourd vase pictured here that I recently found in an antique shop that otherwise specializes exclusively in rustic American farm furniture and implements
from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The young owner of the newly opened shop admitted that, despite his extensive knowledge of his other inventory, he knew next to nothing about ceramics. The item had come in with some other stuff more consistent with his interests.
I wasn't thrilled with the bright lime green glaze, a Chinese monochrome with which I was unfamiliar. But I loved the double gourd shape and the intricately crackled glaze. I admitted to the dealer that I didn't know how old it was. "On the other hand," he commented, "how new can it be?" – since his other inventory was carefully sourced from ancient farmsteads he knew housed genuinely old stuff.
When I got home and did some additional research, I found that the blue seal mark on the base was from the Qing dynasty of the mid- to late 18th century. But since marks can be deceiving, I was immediately skeptical and looked for other age clues.
There appeared to be some wear on the foot rim as one might expect to find on a piece with some age on it, but that, too, can be artificially induced.
The opening was narrow, and what I could see of the inner throat didn't look too starkly white as would be the case in a modern piece. I also found on the surface some minute, barely perceptible defects in the external glaze, including at least one pinprick of glaze retraction and several tiny specks of ash or iron ore. These would also favor an older age for the item as the surfaces on much of the new porcelain coming out of China tends to be "too perfect" to be old.
Finally, I was able to find pictorial references to Chinese porcelain in this unusual lime green glaze, including a late Qing vase with a faint blue dragon amid clouds under the green glaze auctioned at Christie's in 2015 for $2,375. In 2009, also at Christie's a 20th century lime green vase bearing an honorific mark of the late 17th to early 18th century sold for $2,000.
Consistent with the basic premise that "it's probably newer than you think," my preliminary conclusion is that my vase is probably not "of the period" (not made in the 18th century). But it may well have been made as early as the 19th century – and even if it were 20th century, we can see from the Christie's example above that a well-made example would not be cheap. I'd have to bring it to an expert in Asian ceramics to be sure of its age, but one thing I can say pretty confidently is it's worth more than the $15 risk I took on it!
Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector (and now dealer) living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at email@example.com.