Discover Vintage America - MARCH 2019
Developing an eye for the prize
Some time ago, I began collecting Asian porcelain, an interest to which I was indirectly led by my exposure to and schooling in the fine workmanship in my very first collectible, Lladró (Spanish) porcelain. At first, I collected Chinese porcelain but soon switched to Japanese, which is not quite as fraught with authenticity challenges.
Kutani Japanese porcelain in the "akae" (red brocade) style was produced from the late Meiji Period (c. 1890-1910) onward. Many of the later fare is slap dashed for export, the painting crudely executed. But there are many finer examples available for those with an educated eye. On separate occasions on the open secondary market, I bought these small Kutani shapes (both under 6" tall) - the ginger jar at left, complete with inner lid, because it was not at all a bad example of its kind, the bottle vase at right because it's one of the finest I've ever seen. Estimated era of both is early to mid-20th century.
Imitation is, in the history of Chinese porcelain, the sincerest form of flattery, and, throughout the centuries, many legitimate ceramic artists have signed their work with the seals of previous dynastic eras as a kind of homage to that which had inspired their own work. Some of this imitation goes on in Japanese porcelain as well, but the broader range of types and styles in Japanese ceramics, from Banko to Imari to Satsuma to Kutani, make it easier to focus on quality considerations within those styles.
Generally speaking, quality of any artifact results from the combination of interesting and valuable base materials and the attention to detail in working with them. There are, of course, exceptions at either end of that description. Even so-called "tramp art," intricate structures made of cheap materials such as Popsicle sticks, are collectible today for their sheer creativity. The market for "outsider art" painted by talented but unschooled members of marginalized groups has also attracted the attention of auction and art galleries.
Sometimes older items of Asian porcelain seem amateurish in their decoration compared to much later examples produced by artists who have benefitted from centuries of refinement in aesthetic techniques, but those earlier, cruder examples can easily command six figures at specialty auctions for their historic value in documenting the evolution of technique. Still, my definition of quality generally holds; antique malls are full of junk no serious collectors would buy because it is cheaply made in material and poorly executed in art.
So, whether as a dealer or a collector, how does one develop this eye for quality? Concerted and continuous exposure is the ticket. One way to get that educated eye is to visit high-end antique shops, museums, and auction houses. eBay is no substitute; like many mid-to lower-end antique shops in the trade, internet auctions have a few fine things but, for the rest, are as full of junk as beaches awash in discarded plastics. Until we can tell the difference between high porcelain and cheap dime store knockoffs or between a great painting on canvas and a schlock painting on velvet, we need exposure to quality as determined by those better qualified to vet it.
There are many great art and decorative arts museums in Mid-America, among them the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX; Des Moines Art Center in Iowa; and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Although not all of us are lucky enough to live in spots where access to great museums is easy, we can make museums a destination among destination spots on our vacation travels. And if we can't visit museums or high-end auction houses, we can buy the exhibition catalogs available from used book dealers.
Which brings me to one of my own favorite educational resources for developing a "good eye": books. I'm talking here about price guides long on lists and short on real information. I'm talking about solid books with lots of photos of better antiques and text about why they matter. The point is not that I'll ever be able to afford any of the items pictured in my library on antiques and collectibles – but that I just might be better able to recognize like items affordably priced should I ever find them "in the wild" of my antiquing travels.