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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Tracing the History of Chinese Porcelain

Porcelain is often recognized and celebrated for its translucence, but it is far from delicate. In fact, by its very nature, formed and forged by fire, porcelain is like a beautiful phoenix rising out of the flames.

Pinpointing the period when porcelain was first developed is a bit tricky. According to some resources, it was at least two millennia ago. There are reported discoveries of “near porcelain” in regions active with civilization during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), as well as examples dating to China’s Eastern Han Dynasty (221-206 BC). Other resources point to the Tang Dynasty era (618-970 AD) as the period in history when porcelain became widely known.

Copper-red dragon and phoenix vase, Qianlong seal mark and of the period, sold at auction for $259,708 (inclusive of buyer’s premium) in February 2017. Image courtesy Rob Michiels Auctions

One thing that seems to be apparent is that each dynasty in the history of porcelain helped to hone its production and presentation. Be it techniques used to make porcelain, methods of exporting, development of regions rich with firing kilns, or variation in design and decoration, it’s evident that porcelain’s history is one of multigenerational influence and evolution.

Not unlike most antiquities today, porcelain rose out of necessity. Creating utilitarian vessels to serve people’s day-to-day needs led to the creation of the remarkably durable, yet luminous medium that could be molded, dried, and fired. During the Tang Dynasty, when some of the earliest formal kilns for porcelain production were established in Chinese provinces, new specialities were produced: celadon in the Zheijiang province, and white porcelain in the Hebei province.

Porcelain Point: The city of Jingdezhen in China’s Jiangxi Province is one of the most prolific and longest tenured porcelain-producing regions, dating back more than 1,700 years. Today many traditional porcelain-making techniques are being passed on to artisans attending classes at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen.

Celadon green vase with floral motif, Qing Period/19th century, Qianlong mark, 14” h. x 9-1/2” w. Estimate: $600-$800. Image courtesy Jasper52

In the beginning, export of porcelain for monetary gain wasn’t a consideration. However, that changed as visitors became more prevalent in China. With porcelain finding favor among the elite of Chinese society, it was not uncommon for leaders to bestow gifts of porcelain to visitors from abroad. After a trip to China around 850 AD, Muslim explorer Suleiman wrote that he had viewed porcelain for the first time, a revelation that attracted widespread interest. Paraphrased, and based on various reports of the translation of his writings, Suleiman reported that Chinese artisans used a fine clay to make vases that were both transparent and strong. Curiosity in the Western world led to a demand that turned porcelain into a product for export.

Porcelain Point: For centuries porcelain ranked #2 among China’s leading exports, just behind silk. This included years when Chinese emperors banned the export of all goods, including porcelain.

Porcelain Chinese punch bowl, 18th century, offered by Cohen & Cohen, during the 63rd Annual Winter Antiques Show in New York. Image courtesy Christie’s

Even with its deep and diverse history, the popularity of porcelain is far from a thing of the past. Today it takes pride of place in museum exhibitions, is a popular attraction at antique shows around the world, is the subject of study by academics, and is the focus of bidding battles at auction. Reporting on the 63rd Annual Winter Antiques Show held in New York earlier this year, former New York Times columnist Wendy Moonan selected not one, but two items from the porcelain family to include in her compilation of 10 stand-out items from the show. The highlights included an 18th-century punch bowl featuring a scene taken from a theatrical presentation, and a circa-1990 celadon platter made by Kawase Shinob – yet another example of porcelain’s appeal, whether it is of ancient past or contemporary times.

A History and Description of Chinese Porcelain by William Cosmo Monkhouse
Encyclopedia Brittanica
China Museums


KPM Berlin Porcelain Boasts Royal Lineage

Just as the secret formula for making porcelain eluded Western ceramics manufacturers for centuries, understanding its many facets can be confounding for today’s novice collectors. Take, for example, KPM porcelain. KPM factory marks yield few clues as to the actual origin or age of a piece because “KPM” was not an actual company name.

KPM Berlin is known for its useful wares, especially dinner services. KPM Berlin coffee set, Kurland pattern, 20th century, porcelain, polychrome painting with flowers and butterflies: coffee pot, six cups with saucers, cups, sugar bowl, creamer, six dessert plates, cake plate. Henry’s Auktionshaus AG image

The KPM mark was applied to porcelain made over a period of 250+ years by various owners, including European royalty. Collectors now use the term KPM to refer to porcelain produced in Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Porcelain, the translucent white material made from kaolin (a fine white granite clay) fired at a high temperature, was developed in China nearly 2,000 years ago. Porcelain is also commonly referred to as “china” because its first appearance in the Western world was in the form of wares imported from China.

Chinese porcelain was once so highly regarded in Europe that monarchs competed to acquire the finest pieces. They also attempted to unravel the secrets of its manufacture in hopes of producing elegant wares in their own royal pottery works.

Porcelain plaques were often decorated by independent artists. KPM hand-painted portrait plaque, signed on the back with impressed KPM and scepter mark, plaque measures 12.5in high x 10 in. Fontaine’s Auction Gallery image

Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) had a passion for the commodity known as “white gold,” and in 1751 gave permission for Berlin merchant Wilhelm Caspar Wegely to establish a porcelain factory. Most surviving examples of his wares are white figures, which are marked with a “W” and a combination of numerals. Plagued by the economic hardships brought on by war, the factory closed in 1757.

Purchasing Wegely’s tools and raw materials, and enlisting his top modeler and decorator, Berlin entrepreneur Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky resumed porcelain production in Berlin in 1761.

With the Seven Years’ War at an end, Frederick II bought the struggling company in 1763 and named in Königliche Porellan-Manufaktur Berlin (Royal Porcelain Manufactory of Berlin). The king allowed the Royal Berlin factory to use his emblem, a cobalt-blue scepter mark, in combination with KPM, an acronym for Königliche Porellan-Manufaktur.

Porcelain plaques from Berlin tend to fetch higher prices than comparable examples from other manufacturers. Fine Berlin KPM plaque of the five senses, impressed monogram and scepter marks, measures 16in x 10in. Fine Arts Auctions image

Until the abdication of Emperor William II in 1918, the company was owned by a succession of seven kings and emperors. It is still in operation today.

Through the years, competitors also used the KPM mark, muddying the waters for collectors.

The original KPM Berlin factory is famous for its dinner services, three of which were introduced in 1767.

Because Frederick II was the owner of the company, he often gave KPM porcelain as diplomatic presents. He personally strived to maintain and promote the porcelain’s quality, and to ensure factory employees worked in a satisfactory environment.

Hand-painted porcelain plaques are a popular collecting category. Monumental Berlin KPM porcelain plaque, 19in x11.25in, signed J. Wagner Wien, ‘Triumph of Ariadne,’ circa 1890, 11.25in x 19in. Royal Antiques image

The company flourished under Frederick the Great’s successor, his nephew Frederick William II, who came to power in 1786. The factory utilized the latest technology, installing efficient kilns.

Napoleon’s troops occupied Berlin in 1807-1808. They seized KPM’s cash and auctioned off the factory’s inventory for the benefit of French authorities. During this period KPM ran up huge losses.

The chemist Hermann Seger joined the company in 1878 and began to develop new glazes. Among his inventions were oxblood (sang-de-boeuf), celadon, crystal and running glazes. They were inspired by ancient Chinese ceramics.

KPM Portrait floor vase, signed Wagner, circa 1900, 50in high x 15in diameter, white glazed porcelain, polychrome overglaze painting. Auctionata image

Theodor Schmuz-Baudiss was appointed artistic director in 1908 and began to make greater use of the glazes developed by Seger. KPM porcelain of the Jugendstil era such as the Ceres dinner service made in 1912 is generally considered to be a paragon of perfection.

After the demise of the monarchy in 1918, KPM became the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur. However, the KPM and scepter marks were retained.

On the night of November 22, 1943, an Allied air raid destroyed the KPM Tiergarten buildings in Berlin. The factory moved into temporary quarters in Selb.

After World War II, the company became the property of the state of Berlin. In 1957, manufacturing returned to the rebuilt KPM buildings in Berlin-Tiergarten.

In 1988 KPM became a limited company known as KPM Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin GmbH. No longer a state-owned enterprise, KPM was placed in the hands of Gewerbesiedlugnsgesellschaft, a subsidiary of state-owned Investitionsbank Berlin.

Berlin banker Jörg Woltmann took over the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin in 2006 and became the sole shareholder. KPM celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2013 and continues to be a leading manufacturer of fine porcelain that is sold worldwide.