Collecting is one of the most common hobbies across the world. People tend to collect many different items, some are very expensive and valuable, and others are less expensive but equally valuable to collectors. Some collectibles are antique and vintage, while others are more of a new age. In fact, it seems like everything can become a collectible item if there is interest and a market for it.
However, some types of collectible items are superior to others, such as stamps, coins, antique furniture, antique toys, jewelry, and fine china (also called porcelain). In most cases, valuable and antique fine china is inherited from a grandmother, great-grandmother, etc. These were considered as sets for a special occasion.
Unfortunately, not everyone was lucky enough to have that type of heritage passed down. If you think about it more, that can actually work in your favor. Since you didn’t inherit a collection and you are starting from zero you will be more motivated to collect all valuable and rare antique or vintage patterns. Also, this way you’ll build a collection according to your own taste and preferences.
To many people across the world, this type of collecting is more than a hobby it’s a lifestyle. This is the exact reason why we decided to investigate this topic a bit more deeply. Let’s talk about the most valuable fine china and what makes them so unique and desirable.
What Is Fine China?
Fine china is made out of a mixture of different materials and components. The most common combination is mixed clays, kaolin, feldspar, and quartz. Also, other materials may be added depending on the manufacturer. You must remember that there are two types of china – fine china and bone china.
At first glance, these look very similar, but the difference is real. The main difference is the composition of materials – bone china has cow bone ash mixed in the combination. Also, the firing temperature is relatively lower due to the bone ash material. It is believed that bone china is more robust and more durable than fine china.
A good quality bone china should have at least 30% bone ash in the ceramics mixture. Anything below this is still considered bone china since it consists the cow bone ash but their quality is lower.
How to distinguish them apart?
There are a few small details that will help you distinguish bone china from fine china. The ceramics made with bone ash has a milky white color and a luminous sheen. You can easily
test this, just shine a bright light on bone china, and you’ll see that more light goes through it. On the other hand, fine china is dense and slightly more opaque.
This means that fine china is heavier, while bone china is lighter. The glaze is far smoother on bone china. Bone china is resilient against breakage thanks to bone ash, however, keep in mind that bone china does not mean stronger china.
The last significant difference is the price. Bone china is more expensive than fine china, due to the addition of bone ash.
Why Is Fine China Such Popular Collectible?
Fine china is desirable for many reasons, for starters it does not easily chip. It looks amazing, and the color is beautiful, depending on which type it will be white or off white, or ivory color. Some are embellished with gold leaf, hand-painted designs, or both. In fact, the incredible hand painting is what makes china so desirable and valuable.
Fine china became popular in Western Europe somewhere around the 16th century. This is the first time it was introduced to people from this part of the world and it immediately gained its popularity, which has not diminished since.
These first pieces of fine china featured original Chinese designs. This means that the most commonly used patterns were dragons, flowers, scrolls, waves, and other Chinese and Buddhist fortunate symbols.
After some time, Europeans started to produce their own fine china designs. They mainly illustrated themes recognizable to the Western market. Most dishware from that period carries an image of Dutch windmills or ancient Roman landscapes. However, the original designs are still much more distinctive and sought-after among collectors.
Most Famous And Valuable Fine China Brands
Putting together a set of antique or vintage dinnerware for most people is a fun way to add some flair to your kitchen or decorate your dining area. However, for collectors finding and buying these antique and vintage sets is like winning a race. They are in for the big, they are hunting for top-tier fine china brands. So let’s see which brands are the “IT” thing in the world of fine china.
In top five most valuable antique fine china brands are:
- Qing Dynasty Porcelain – This is authentic oriental hard-paste porcelain manufactured between the 17th and 20th centuries. They mostly used China clay and China stone for crafting. The enamel is overglaze, bodies are flawless with creative decoration techniques that portray mainly cultural elements. The last sold piece was estimated to be $84 million!
- Blue and White Porcelain – This is one of the oldest pieces of porcelain ever produced. This combination of cobalt blue and white porcelain is in use since the 9th century, however, it reached its peak in the 14th century. So it was produced during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, which makes it very valuable. It is made from kaolin clay so it is extremely durable and colorful pottery. One of the best examples is a Ming cobalt blue Meiping vase, which was sold for $21.6 million!
- Jihong Porcelain – A very unique variety of red porcelain that was produced during the period of the Ming Dynasty. This brilliant red porcelain was very popular and appreciated among Ming emperors who use them for sacrificial ceremonies. It was made from kaolin clay and was decorated with pearls, gold, jade, corals, and agate. This made the production process difficult and demanding. Today we can find less than 100 pieces of pottery made from this porcelain. A rare underglaze copper-red Jihong porcelain vase produced in the early Ming Dynasty period (14th to 17th century) was sold for $10 million!
- Blood Red Porcelain – This unique copper-red glaze porcelain was discovered and produced during the Tang Dynasty, in the period from the 7th to the 10th century. Chinese potters discovered this type o porcelain by accident while they were researching how specific heating temperatures impact different types of porcelain. This red porcelain was adored among the Chinese because red symbolizes joy, luck, and happiness. Since the production was expensive and complex this type of porcelain was rarely used. The red porcelain bowl with two lotus flowers from the Emperor Kangxi period of the Qing Dynasty was sold for $9.5 million.
- Joseon Porcelain – This is white porcelain produced in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (14th to 20th century). the porcelain exists in other painted colors as well. However, white porcelain items tend to be considerably more expensive. Joseon porcelain is a mixture of white kaolin clay and petunse. A rare uncolored Joseon porcelain jar was sold for $1.2 million.
These authentic oriental models are much more valuable than European replicas. It is believed that only four great porcelains originate from China – blue and white porcelain, colored glazed porcelain, blue and white rice pattern porcelain, and powder-doped color decorated porcelain.
Finding these authentic antique Chinese fine china is extremely difficult nowadays due to their rarity. This is the main reason why collectors acquire them at great costs.
List of most valuable fine china collectibles
The most expensive finance china collectibles
As already said collectors are willing to pay large amounts of money to get the desired antique collectible. Especially when it comes to centuries-old oriental porcelain items that originate from China. In this paragraph, you can read about the top ten most expensive (until today) porcelain collectibles.
Chinese Imperial Revolving Phoenix Vase
Period: 18th century
Porcelain revolving vases were and still are a very popular type of vases in China. Tang Ying was the creator of this special type of vase. He worked for decades in the Beijing Palace imperial workshops and served both Qing-dynasty Emperors Yongzheng’s and Qianlong’s courts.
These emperors were known for their passion for porcelain and exotic artworks so he was in charge of constantly coming up with new and interesting designs. For instance, porcelain trompe l’oeil and revolving vessels were some of his innovative ideas.
Revolving vases feature double-layer structures and openwork decorations. Moreover, these vases have reticulated outer layers and painted interiors. As you rotate the inner section, the reticulated outer section (decorated with a figural landscape of multi-color foliage) reveals the inner sections.
These movable parts have highly complex construction and decoration as well. Every element of the vase has to be separately glazed, enameled, and fired so they can be assembled to fit in perfectly. The firing process had to be executed flawlessly, so all elements shrunk the same without any distortion.
It took an average of 18 months from start to finish, which is why so few of these have been made and survived until today.
This particular revolving vase is 63 cm tall, and it is the second largest known to exist! It was made somewhere between 1736 and 1795. It features a baluster shape and an elegant tapering neck. The base is enameled turquoise and centered with an underglaze-red four-character Qianlong imperial seal mark, and a white cartouche.
You can notice archaistic kui dragon handles on the neck, this design was very popular among imperial porcelain vases during the Qianlong period. The ruby-colored vase is decorated with a phoenix in high relief which swoops from clouds among other birds.
Phoenix is covered in different shades of pink, green, blue, and yellow and it represents a mythical empress of all birds and symbolizes femininity. On each side, you will find numerous motifs such as upside-down bats that symbolize happiness, therefore, symbolizes the arrival of happiness.
The Meiyintang ‘Chicken Cup’
A chicken cup is a golden grail among China porcelain collectors. These cups were crafted during the Chenghua reign and their quality is outstanding. What also makes them special is the tactile material, their range of colors, and their charming painting style. The potting, painting and firing processes are real evidence of how China’s craftsmanship and culture evolved in that period.
Only a small amount of these cups were produced, so it is almost impossible to acquire them today. There are only three other examples being preserved in private collections. The term ‘chicken cup’ is used to describe a tiny porcelain wine cup painted with cocks, hens, and chicks.
These were delicately potted to feature translucent sides subtly raising out from the countersunk base. On top, you’ll notice an everted rim. The exterior rim outlines are painted in faint cobalt blue. A wide variety of colors was used to paint this dish, yellow, green, light and dark olive green, and iron red.
If you look better you will see an image of a red rooster, golden hen, and chicks out in a garden. One side features an image of a rooster with his head turned back and a hen pecking at a red-winged insect. Also, one of the chicks looks on, and the other two chases each other around a small patch of leaves.
The other side portrays the rooster arching his neck, the head is raised and a beak slightly opened. A hen is hunched over and tending their chicks, she is pecking at a red-winged insect on the ground. In the other section, you can see a hen with one chick on her back while two others are peeping in the background. These two scenes are divided on one side by underglaze blue rocks and yellow lily flowers with bright green leaves.
Magnificently Carved Lobed Dingyao Basin Northern Song Dynasty
Period: 11th century
During the period of-Northern Song Dynasty China was at peace so this was the time of prosperity. The demand for high-quality goods such as porcelain was on the rise, so production significantly jumped.
The production quality was also improved by using the “upside-down” firing process. However, this was not all, the decorative techniques evolved as well,so the craftsman started using incised or molded motifs.
Basins like this one were usually fired in mantou kilns (bread bun kilns) or horse-shoe-shaped kilns. This current basin was potted with eight ethereal lobes rising from a flat base with a diameter of 32.4cm. It is pretty rare to find this large size upside-down basin.
The main reason why they weren’t produced in this size is the risk of warping and cracking during the firing process. Also, the high cost of production demotivated craftsmen from making large-size basins like this. White porcelain, with a sparkling, glossy, surface is decorated with an unglazed mouth rim crowned by a delicate copper-brown band. A perfect contrast to a white body.
On the interior side, you will notice skillful and detailed decorations such as fish swimming in the water among the waterweeds. It is amazing how they succeed to imitate the dynamic movement of fish through the water. The water pattern is carved with the smallest details in mind, it truly gives you the feeling of fluidity. On the other hand, waterweeds look like they are rippling the water.
The Fonthill ‘Dragon’ Jar
This is a type of traditional jar in Chinese culture. As you can see a jar’s body is decorated with two relief carvings of dragons flying among clouds and waves. You may have heard about these jars under the name – Canglong jiaozi. The illustration on the jar is referring to a father teaching his son their ways of ruling.
There is a story behind this particular vase. In 1773, Emperor Qianlong chose his 15th son to be his successor and prepared him for kingship. The jar and illustration represent Emperor
Qianlong’s effort to guide his son through all the challenges and hardships of being Emperor. It also represents the solitude that comes with the ultimate power.
The younger and smaller dragon represents the son Yongyan, and the big and mighty dragon who looks protective and affectionate at his heir is the Qianlong Emperor. All details on this jar are carved with care. Clouds are lightweight and strategically arranged to put an accent on the dragon’s body. While below dragons you can see ocean waves that rage.
Jar’s design is simple it features a short wasted neck, lipped rim, broad shoulders, and a belly that slightly narrows to a base.
The entire jar is coated in a monochromic Celadon glaze and the color is amazing – something between milky green and pale blue. This outstanding shade was very difficult to reach, as it requires pure reduction firing. Most Caledon glaze porcelain after this one had deeper carvings and less bluish glaze.
Yellow-Ground ‘Yangcai’ Vase
This particular elegant yangcai 23.9 cm tall yellow-ground bottle vase is very popular among collectors. The main reason is that design represents an advanced technical innovation in porcelain manufacture in that period.
Every Yangcai painted piece was among the most prized porcelain items in the Qing court. These were Emperor’s most treasured porcelain items so he displayed them in private quarters in the Qianqinggong (‘Palace of Heavenly Purity’).
If we look at the decorations this vase features one of the most imaginative styles produced at that time. This unusual creation was accomplished by using the sgraffito technique. A painted floral motif was colored with the special Yangcai palette. The vase is the only example, although the porcelain inventory list of the imperial court shows that the manufacturer made a pair.
Yangcai vase features an elegant yuhuchun form. This form is described as swollen pear-shaped body rising gently from the base to a narrow belly with a waisted neck and flared mouth. The enameled exterior is decorated with an opulent design of large luxuriant flower heads such as lily, pomegranate, iris, rose, peach blossom, lotus, passiflora, anemone, honeysuckle, narcissus, aster, and morning glory.
The Yangcai pallet of colors includes yellow, blue, rose-pink, green, and white which were used to paint the details on the brilliant lemon-yellow background. This typw of vases were very hard to produce since the manufacturer required formidable skills, so it is not surprising that they are exceedingly rare.
Chenghua Blue and White Palace Bowl
These Chenghua palace bowls are extremely rare. They are the most classic type of blue and white finance china produced in the Chenghua period. What makes Chenghua porcelain unique is the soft and watery cobalt blue color, which was rare compared to regular cobalt blue – very dark and deep blue.
This type of porcelain was produced in the 1480s in a dozen or so different designs. Palace bowls are finely potted with pleasing proportions (diameter is 14.9 cm). They are painted using an underglaze soft blue color, and the motifs were mainly flowers or fruit which might appear very simple.
The palace bowl that was sold for $56 million featured a daylily design which was the rarest of them all. There are only two more palace bowls with this design that are currently held in museums.
The daylily design features flowers which are subtly painted. Each side has two blooms with very realistically illustrated protruding stamens, filaments with pollen-bearing anthers, and long, curling, sharp leaves.
Blue and White ‘Fruit’ Meiping
During the Yongle reign the imperial potters invested a lot of effort into refining the materials they use, glazing techniques, and quality of pigments. They remodeled popular vases into new shapes, one of them was the meiping. What they did was fine-tune proportions, worked on more detailed decorations, introduced new types of motifs, adjusted the layout of the design, and evolve their painting into a soft style.
The blue and white fruit meiping is the first successful example of all these changes. Vases tapering body is boldly painted in a wide variety of deep and rich tones of cobalt blue. Six fruiting sprays are arranged in two sections. The upper section features peach, pomegranate, and crab apple branches. While the lower section features cherry, loquat, and lychee branches.
Details on this vase are carefully painted to make a perfect composition. The base of the vase is decorated by overlapping acanthus leaves. On the other side, just below the neck of the vase, you will find a band of lotus petal lappets forming a circle. The concave sides of the narrow-shaped body are decorated with two fruiting sprays.
A flat top is decorated with a collar of six lotus petals below a lotus head. The flat top features a perfectly shaped inner cylinder that fits the neck of the vase flawlessly. This fruit meiping is currently the only example in this size – 28 cm tall.
Rare Yellow-Ground Blue and White ‘Fruits’ Tianqiuping
What makes this yellow-ground Tianqiuping vase unique is that it represents the fusion of a few most celebrated designs from the Qing period. The end results in a piece that is innovative yet still familiar.
These vases were made with different kinds of decorations but the base was almost always striking yellow colored with blue and white details. This Tianqiuping vase was decorated with fruit and flowers and this design is extremely rare. The most similar vase to this one is a vase that has the same form but the decoration is different, it features a dragon and flowers. This striking blue and yellow combination first appeared on porcelain during the Xuande period and was considered to be a bold new genre of decoration.
Not only decoration design change but the form of the vase was also modified as well. Manufacturers broadened the neck and slightly lifted the shoulders to achieve a more imposing form. A robustly potted globular body rising to a cylindrical neck was more suitable for this new type of decoration. The motifs were carefully composed to create harmony and follow the rules of symbolism, which is very prominent in Chinese culture.
Two leafy branches, one peach and the other pomegranate stretch across the whole surface of the vase. They are separated by two flowering lotus and peony branches. By belief, the peach represents the wish for longevity, while the pomegranate symbolizes numerous sons, and flowers ward off evil.
Every part of this vase is decorated. You can see that the neck is decorated with a thick central band of lotus flowers and curling foliage. The upper rim of the vase features a band of pendent ruyi-heads. Between the neck and the body, you can see a band of decorations featuring ornamental details. While the base is bordered by a band of crashing ocean waves. The footing was left unglazed and features a six-character reign mark within a white panel.
Rare Pink-Ground Famille-Rose Vase with Poems
This is a finely potted antique fine china from the Qianlong period. In fact, in this period, vases with poems written on them were extremely common and popular. The vase features an elegant cylindrical body that rises from a splayed foot into a short-waisted neck with a flaring mouth.
What makes this design beautiful is that the exterior surface is molded into six lobed panels. Every panel is a place for a poem which is written in seal script, running script, and standard script.
The vase is decorated with delicately enameled clusters of flowers of hibiscus and rose, willow, prunus, and nandina berries. You can notice that the space which separates the central part of the body from the neck and base is colored in rich pink and filled with stylized lotus scrolls. The interior and the base are enameled in turquoise, while a central square on the base is white with the iron-red six-character seal mark.
This type of design was very hard and challenging to create since the craftsman had the difficult task of transferring a two-dimensional painting onto a three-dimensional ceramic jar. The process took a lot of time and effort, which is why these vases were rarely produced.
Vases like this, which combine panels with imperial poems decorated with floral designs, are rare. Besides this one, there are two similar ovoid vases. Both have tall trumpet necks decorated with imperial poems and floral designs in panels.
Rare Celadon-glazed ‘Dragon’ Vase
This vase is finely potted sometimes during the Kangxi period. The elegant form of this vase wasn’t so common in this period. These vases were usually related to peach-glazed “ba da ma” vases which were made for scholar’s tables rather than for the imperial court. However, a small number of these “laifuping” or radish vases, as the Chinese called them (which refers to the vessel’s elongated tapering shape) were made for Emperor’s collection.
The elegant form of the vase is also known as “sanxianping” which means vase with three rings. It has a tapered body that elegantly raises to high-rounded shoulders. The upper part of the vase is a tall cylindrical neck with a subtly flared rim. What is characteristic of these vases is a three-ring band at the base of the neck. The elongated ovoid body is decorated with carvings of two dragons, rising from rolling and crashing waves.
The vase is enameled with a smooth pale celadon green glaze, while the rim and rings are covered with a more subtle shade of pale green. This vase is 21 cm tall without the lacquered wood and metal stand. There are a few similar pieces of Kangxi Dragon vases. One of them is a three-string vase painted in white and decorated with two red dragons flying among the clouds.
How To Assess Valuable Antique Fine China Brands?
Determining if your fine china is real and valuable can be rather difficult if you are not experienced. In fact, many of us aren’t able to distinguish between the two different types of porcelain, let alone tell if it is really antique or not. In this section, we will share several useful tips that will hopefully make assessing porcelain items a little bit easier for you.
Let’s do some evaluating
The reality is that appraising fine china isn’t easy but at the same time, it is not rocket science either. Luckily there are several methods that will help you realize if the porcelain piece you are eyeing has any special value or not. Here is the list of necessary steps:
- Examine the porcelain type – As already mentioned there are two main types of porcelain – fina china and bine fine china. It is crucial to be able to tell them apart since their value isn’t the same. You will mostly differentiate them by color. Bone fine china has softer and creamier shades than regular fine china. Also, bone fine china is lighter and when you tap on it the sound will be more like a bell ringing.
- Determine where and when it is produced – It is vital to know that most antique porcelain pieces bear marks that are stating the piece’s origin. These marks are also known as reign marks. They are indicating the emperor’s reign or dynasty during which the piece was produced. On the other hand, European porcelain items possess distinctive marks. These are usually accompanied by a number or letter which labels the manufacture year.
- Check the item’s dimensions – The size of a porcelain item will affect the price, while at the same time confirm you if the piece is real or fake. There are the exact size and dimensions stated for most antique porcelain items, so if the dimensions are different, you are dealing with a fake item.
- Color, style, and pattern – The style, color, and pattern will tell you all about the porcelain item. An original antique fine china will almost always have evenly distributed glaze colors. For instance, some antique china is only manufactured in certain colors such as blue and white, translucent white, or red and white combination. Some will carry distinct patterns. Make sure you learn as much as you can about the different dynasties and reign’s specifications, this will make determining easier.
- Consult reputable fine china specialists – If you don’t want to take any risks, you can always hire a specialist. They will easily tell you the age and authenticity of a fine china piece. The thing is that due to its durability, porcelain doesn’t visibly age like some other materials like precious metals, wood, or textiles. There will be no obvious signs of wear on the pieces so we highly recommend you to always hire a professional.
Where Can You Buy Or Sell Valuable Fine China?
When buying valuable and expensive items such as antique fine china it is important to choose a trustworthy medium. That said, these are the places we recommend you when you want to purchase or sell precious fine china:
- Auction houses – These are the best and most reliable places to acquire or sell valuable collectibles. If you can handle the pressure of competition make sure you check the auction houses such as Heritage Auctions, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s.
- Online auction platforms – It is pretty convenient to shop online we get it. You can buy almost anything on platforms such as Live Auctioneers, Ruby Lane, eBay, and Etsy. What we recommend you is to check the Chairish platform which is one of the most reliable e-platforms when it comes to fine china.
- Antique shops and flea markets – Check your local antique shops and flea markets and you might get pleasantly surprised. These places are full of rare and valuable things, you just have to look closer.
How old is an antique fine china?
We all know about that general rule – if a collectible is older than 100 years it is labeled antique, everything else is vintage. However, when we talk about fine china, we talk about seriously old collectibles. Most pieces were manufactured between the 1400s and 1800s. But don’t forget that there are a lot of newer fine china pieces that are collectible, and even valuable as antique china.
How can I tell if my fine china is valuable?
Check for the marks on the base of your porcelain item. If you see reign markings or printed years, it’s easy to tell vintage from antique. All pieces that wear some kind of trademark, are probably modern and not valuable much.
In case there are no markings at all, or just a symbol, you’ll need to do some research on the pattern or even better take it for a professional assessment.
Is fine china worth collecting?
Well yes and no. It depends on what type of fine china you are collecting. Investing in vintage and antique fine china is a very expensive but rewarding pastime. On the other hand, collecting figures and dinnerware made from fine china is not that profitable. If you are serious about investing your money in collecting fine china then make sure you hunt for old valuable pieces.
When All Is Said
We are sure that after reading this article you became aware of how collecting valuable fine china can be a lucrative hobby. However, don’t rush into it since this hobby requires a lot of patience, passion, and knowledge in the end. Antique collectibles no matter which type, are very delicate, rare, and valuable items and many collectors are after them.
Don’t forget that not everything revolves around money, collecting as an activity is an enjoyable and relaxing process. Many people join a porcelain collectors club or dealers association to learn more about fine china from people who are more experienced.
We would like to hear your stories and experiences with collecting valuable fine chine, so please don’t hesitate to leave a comment in the section below.