Antique Detective: Identifying Chinese porcelains by colors, motifs and marks

Colorful Chinese porcelains have been popular with collectors for decades, and continue to bring good prices at auction. While most dealers know the differences between rose medallion, famille rose and rose Canton, many of today’s collectors don’t. Then there are pieces labeled famille noir, famille verte and famille juaune. Others are described as Mandarin palette. And, what about those pieces with double blue ring marks on the bottom?

Recently a friend who has been collecting Chinese porcelains for years showed me a piece her daughter had bought at an estate sale. While it appeared at first glance to be a small famille rose bowl, she was puzzled. She thought it dated from the 19th century; it had double blue ring marks on the bottom, but no reign mark. I pointed out that double blue ring marks have long been put on faked pieces and reproductions. The glaze didn’t have the patina of age to place it in the Ch’ing Dynasty. The porcelain seemed too white, with no sign of impurities, and the colors too bright. Conclusion: It was made within the last 10 years, with a paper label that had been conveniently lost. The glaze was smooth and when we ran our fingers around the foot ring it was smooth. If old, it should have felt slightly rough.

The piece had been overpriced at $25.

There are differences between famille rose, rose medallion and rose canton.

FAMILLE ROSE: Muted shadings of carmine or rose pink decorated in Canton with floral designs.

ROSE MEDALLION: Figures and other motifs painted within a medallion or frame. This often referred to as Mandarin.

ROSE CANTON: Floral designs in gaudy colors.

Famille verte is mostly green with aubergine, iron red and harmonizing colors. Sometimes early 20th century examples were made on a crackled, oatmeal ground.

Famille noire uses the green palette of famille verte enamels on a black design background.

Famille jaune uses a famille verte palette on a yellow background.

Three-color ware was popular in the late 19th century. The colors were yellow, green and aubergine (eggplant color). It often had raised designs.

Since these porcelains are all painted with under-glaze colors they have survived years of wear and use.

At auction and at shows, 19th-century Chinese porcelain vases and bowls can be priced in the thousands of dollars. Before buying, close examination is important.