Imari: Japan’s original porcelain masterpiece

NEW YORK – Imari ware is a broad term for the first porcelain ever produced in Japan. Its development was made possible by the discovery of exceptionally fine kaolin in 1616, early in the Edo period. It is also known as Arita ware, named for the town where it was made, which was a traditional ceramics center on the island of Kyushu.

Initially, Imari utilitarian tea bowls, rice bowls and dinner plates featured simple, hand-painted, Korean-style cobalt blue designs against white grounds. This thickly potted, thinly glazed, grainy quality dinnerware was expensive and generally used by Japan’s privileged classes.

Massive Japanese Imari porcelain punch bowl, 18th/19th century, 18¼in diameter. Image courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Innovative, multicolor Imari ware, created by painting bright enamel over their glazes, appeared in the 1630s. Vivid overglaze fauna, floral and figural motifs, executed in green, yellow, red, black and underglaze blue, adorned useful items like bottle vases, saki flasks, mugs, bowls and pots. Thereafter, Imari porcelain featured elaborate, colorful designs.

When political turmoil halted the production and export of Chinese porcelain in the 1650s, international demand for Far Eastern decorative items prompted the Dutch East India Company to ship Japanese Imari ware instead.

Though production of simply styled blue and white Imari cups, plates and bowls continued as before, many of Japan’s export wares, through form, decoration and style, were tailored to appeal specifically to European tastes. In fact, Dutch artists often provided Imari potters with prototype figural designs. Examples include colorful Japanese courtesans, naturalistic hunting dogs and cheery scenes of drunken Dutchmen astride spirit kegs. Few of these prized “Old Imaris,” which were produced before 1750, reach today’s market. Those that do are generally costly.

Large pair of 18th-century Japanese Imari (Edo Period) porcelain figures, 17.5 and 17in high, respectively. Image courtesy of John Nicholson Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

By about 1680, simple Imari designs featuring crisp, red, blue and green images of dramatically styled birds and floral scenes against milky white grounds had morphed into designs that were not only brighter and asymmetrical, but also more complex. Their shapes – square, octagonal or hexagonal plates and bottles, and fluted bowls, dishes and vases with lobed edges – were often sophisticated, as well.

From around 1700, high-quality, delicate Imari ware from the Kakiemon kiln dominated both the domestic and export market. Their overglazed, enameled motifs, which include geometrics as well as favorites like cranes, courting birds, flowering plums, pines, peonies, bamboo, cherry blossoms and floral scrolling, are derived from the classical Japanese style of painting. Created in various shades of blue, iron red, yellow, black and eggplant purple enamel, some also incorporated gold in their designs.

During this period, overglazed pieces produced at the Nabeshima kiln, which feature sparsely arranged but sophisticated motifs derived from traditional Japanese fabrics, dominated the market as well. In fact, porcelains produced at both these kilns, which were created expressly for use by feudal lords, shogunal families and members of the ruling classes, are considered to be among the finest Japanese porcelain ever produced. They also dominated the European market through the mid-1750s, when matching sets often adorned shelves and mantelpieces of the aristocracy.

Rare 19th-century Imperial Japanese Imari porcelain vase, melon-shape design, 19in high. Image courtesy of Kaminski Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

These refined, unusually high-quality Kakiemon and Nabeshima Imari pieces are the rarest and most expensive of all at auction today. Yet many Western collectors tend to overlook their simple but elegant designs, which are characterized by soft colors, smooth surfaces and natural motifs. Japanese and Westerners with a strong sense for the Japanese aesthetic, however, are always in pursuit of these exceptional items. One of their highly desirable plates can easily reach into five figures.

Japanese exports declined considerably in the mid-18th century when China began flooding the European market with similar yet far less expensive pieces known as Chinese Imari. In addition, because the Imari style had become so popular, enterprising European kilns, such as Meissen, Royal Crown Derby, Chantilly and Worcester, also produced Imari-inspired designs. Over time, the term Imari came to mean any densely decorated, gilded porcelain that featured Oriental-style motifs in vivid shades of gold, green, red and underglaze blue.

Exceptional palace-size Japanese Imari porcelain charger, 26in in diameter, on ebonized stand. Image courtesy of J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Exports of authentic Japanese Imari rose once more during the late 19th-century Meiji era, when Japonism, a fascination with all things Japanese, was influencing Europe’s art and design landscape.

“Though many matching or oversized, richly appointed pieces of this era, which were produced solely for decoration, are of lesser quality than previous creations, they are currently in high demand when well executed,” said Matthew Baer, a dealer at “A really nice Meiji Period Imari vase in the 12-to-16-inch size range can retail anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in today’s market,” he added.

“Currently, collectors consider Imari ware produced by the Koransha/Fukagawa kiln during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the most desirable by far,” Baer continued. Most of their productions tend to exhibit bold, dense, precise, well-executed artwork that features stylized motifs such as koi, irises, chrysanthemums or bamboo.

These may seem most familiar to collectors because they are often displayed in homes and featured in decorating magazines. Yet their prices vary immensely. A well-decorated 19th-century Koransha plate of good to excellent quality, for example, will generally run between $150 and $600. In recent years, however, medium and lesser quality pieces have seen a decline in value.

Nineteenth-century Japanese Imari (Meiji Period) porcelain floor vase, 37in high. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Moreover, though a wide range of high-quality, traditional Imari ware is available in a variety of styles, most enthusiasts are seeking pieces with fine and/or unusual designs and forms. So, unless something is of exceptional quality, it is often passed over.

“A beginning collector on a limited budget might consider seeking 19th-century, traditional three-tone platters, vases, serving bowls or charger plates,” Baer said. Many of these are currently found for under $1,000 each. Alternatively, they might prefer seeking more interesting or unusual items, like a small 19th-century incense burner, covered rice bowl, figurine or tea caddy. These are also found at reasonable prices.

One of the joys in collecting Imari is that there really is something available in every price range. Examples of this ancient art form are currently within reach of just about everyone.



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