Collecting 17th-19th Century "BALLAST WARE"
Chinese Canton Porcelain

by Lorena Overstreet Allen, M.Ed., ISA
Photographs by the Author; courtesy of collection of Rob Feland.
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 1998

Chinese Canton Porcelain

A Role In Post Revolutionary American History

Most of the porcelain shipped from China to the West during the 17th Century through the 19th Century was formerly known as "China trade porcelain", although now it is commonly referred to as Chinese export porcelain, including the blue and white Canton ware. Canton porcelain was manufactured and fired in the kilns at the Provence of Ching-Te Chen, then sent by the East India Trading Company to the seaside port of Canton for the final decorating process by Chinese artists and craftsmen working in the enameling shops. Thus the name "Canton" alludes as much to the decoration and design on the ware as well as its port of export. Chinese Canton ware was shipped to Europe and America in the holds of cargo ships which resulted in its becoming known as "ballast ware". It became part of Post Revolutionary American history, an age when New Englanders from Salem and Boston eaqerly awaited their shiploads of porcelain from the Far East. The Canton blue and white patterned dinner and tea sets were favored by George Washington as well as the merchant classes. Eventually, it became an integral part of important private, as well as public, collections throughout Post Revolutionary America, being the province of the collector and curator.

Dating Canton Porcelain

Between 1800 to approximately 1860 the United States was the principal market for all Chinese export porcelain, although there was virtually no production from 1839 to 1860 because of China’s Opium Wars. By 1890 the United States government required all imports to be marked with their country of origin, hence "CHINA" or "MADE IN CHINA" is displayed on the foot of the later wares, simplifying the dating process. The U.S. Stamp Act of 1894 mandated the imprint of “Made In China” on all export porcelain although in the early 20th Century some Canton ware still arrived with only paper labels.

Chinese Canton Porcelain

Canton Porcelain’s Unique Characteristics of Color and Design

Utilitarian in appearance with outer rims having unsymmetrical ridges and indentations, Canton has several characteristics that distinguish it from other Chinese export porcelains although it is very similar to the blue and white Nanking pattern. Both Canton and Nanking ware are hand painted with a composition of a coastal village scene consisting of tea house, arched bridges, willow trees, meandering streams and distant mountains and an absence of figures. The most obvious difference between Canton and Nanking patterns is noted in the design of the borders of each. The border of Canton patterns has a blue lattice network and inner border of wavy or scalloped lines called “clouds” while Nanking borders are diapered with a geometric lattice and spearhead design and may have an application of burnished gold. Unlike the aesthetically finer quality and reliable color of Nanking ware, Canton pigments vary in intensity from a washed out gray-blue to cobalt blue, depending on the varied intensities of heat within the kiln during the firing process. These thick greyish to cobalt pigments and glazes adhere closely to the body. Another distinguishing characteristic is the coarser textured examples of Canton ware which may have a residue of ash embedded in the clay resulting in the descriptive term “oatmeal” applied to such pieces.

A Very Special Collection of Canton Ware

Rob Feland, whose collecting of Canton porcelain spans thirty-five years, graciously allowed his collection to be photographed for this article. A significant portion of Mr. Feland’s very fine collection of Canton was acquired from a neighbor whose grandfather was the captain of a clipper ship that traveled to the Far East in the late 19th Century and exported the Canton "ballast ware" to America. Mr. Feland stated he favored the Canton over the finer, more delicate Nanking ware because of its simple, utilitarian designs and coarser texture. His collection is artfully displayed in cabinets, on tables and walls, demonstrating how Canton porcelain mixes compatibly with other patterns of blue and white Chinese porcelain while contributing character and historical appeal to the decor.

Chinese Canton Porcelain

Guidelines For Collectors of Canton Porcelain

When selecting Canton ware, an objective rule to follow is to search for quality, not quantity. In addition to searching for unique forms and shapes such as covered vegetable dishes and soup tureens collectors should attempt to search for a “near perfect” example of a particular form or style, rather than compromising on a chipped or cracked piece showing obvious restoration. On the other hand, the absence of flaws and imperfections due to age and wear of the piece must be considered suspect since much of the charm of Canton ware is in its coarser appearance, such flaws and imperfections being present during the creation. Quality is exemplified in the decoration, which may vary considerably depending upon the skill and dexterity of the artist who hand painted it. The collector needs to examine for vibrant hues with lines expertly drawn, graceful forms, exquisite detailing and modeling noted in the handles and finials of tureens and covered vegetable dishes, reign marks or lack thereof, (although Chinese potters affixed their reign marks to their pottery wares these marks are often suspect and should be verified) and whether the piece is a later reproduction. Reproductions from Portugal are usually marked “Mottahedah” on the underside. A comparison of the underglaze clay at the foot depicts differences resulting from modern firing techniques. The absence of the hand painted Chinese designs with the use of transfer designs are a clue to spotting reproductions.

Current Market Condition For Canton Porcelain

The interest in Chinese export porcelain is reflected in the new awareness and appreciation by an increasing number of collectors as well as museum curators. As noted by Brian Dursum, Director of the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Florida, Chinese export porcelains and Canton ware in particular, although being far removed from the Imperial ware of China, are excellent choices for collectors who are eager to expand their blue and white Chinese porcelain as it is still relatively available and affordable.

Chinese Canton Porcelain

Still, the market for Chinese export ware in general, since Hong Kong’s retrieval from China may have an impact on the availability of Chinese goods and antiques, may be reflected in the monetary value of the porcelain. Canton is becoming increasingly more difficult to find in Florida although one may be able to locate pieces during visits to estate sales, antique shops and/or galleries specializing in Chinese export porcelain. Even in a retail market affordable prices can still be had although even with chips and scratches plates are commanding prices upward of $150 and, if in perfect condition, may be priced at $400-600. A large 18th Century platter in good condition may command a price of $2,000, while a soup tureen of the same age $3,000. Other factors affecting value are age, color (the deeper the hue of the blue, the higher the price tag) rarity and uniqueness of form.

The best way for collectors to become familiar and recognize quality is to view the finest examples available by visiting various museums exhibiting Canton porcelain. In this regard, collectors are fortunate to have excellent museums displaying Canton in its assorted forms including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ira Koger Museum of Jacksonville, Florida, The Hong Kong Museum, The Winterthur Museum, and The Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, Massachusetts.

About the author:
Lorena O. Allen, M.Ed., President of L. Allen Appraisal Studios, Inc., is a fine art appraiser/consultant in Winter Park, Florida and a certified member of Appraisers Association of America and International Society of Appraisers. She includes among her clients, museums, attorneys, and insurance companies as well as collectors of fine art and antiques. Address: P.O. Box 2543, Winter Park, Florida 32790. Tel: 407-671-1139,

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