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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Selection of Chinese export porcelain offered in auction. Photo courtesy of Sloan's
On an early Sunday morning in 1784, a ship called The Empress of China drifted out of New York harbor on its way to Canton. Her captain and crew would be the first American agents to set up trade with the country.

Thirty-five years later, 30-to-40 Yankee ships a year were docking in Canton harbor after a risky yearlong journey. They delivered American ginseng, silver coins and furs in exchange for tea, silk and export porcelain.

The Manchu rulers of China viewed the sailors and merchants as “foreign devils” and confined them to a ¼-mile-long section of the waterfront. They could not carry weapons, entertain women, or go anywhere unsupervised.

Nevertheless, a Chinese puzzle fell into place with these journeys.

For centuries rumors of exquisite Chinese porcelain drifted westward. Delicate porcelain vases, as clear as glass. Expertly crafted. Unlike anything the world had known.

The merchant vessels delivered their cargo in New York and out of the crates came export porcelain adapted in style, subject and color to satisfy any whim in Western sensibility. Not to mention the added weight of the porcelain that helped guarantee a safe pilgrimage to America.

Custom pieces included coffeepots, tankards, soup tureens and eggcups, items you wouldn’t necessarily see in the Chinese market.

Most early-Chinese export porcelain was made in Ching te Chen, about 600 miles away from the port at Canton. As the demand for custom pieces grew, the painting end of the business was moved to Canton.

Some of the most collectible Chinese export porcelain today is the Armorial pieces. These include examples showing coats of arms, insignias or family monograms.

American flags, American eagles, or the Great Seal of the United States, portraits of George Washington and other patriots are all desirable.

“We have a big demand for Armorials,” says Sarah Liberatore, specialist in decorative arts, Sloan’s Auctions, Bethesda, Md.

“Mostly we see individual pieces like plates.” Sloan’s featured an assortment of Chinese export porcelain in their March 27-29, 1998, auction held in Washington, D.C.

“Depending on their size, age and condition, export porcelain plates can bring $300-$400 a piece.”

Rose Medallion is another popular type of export porcelain and is distinguished by its center medallion and floral and gold field with Chinese figures, birds, fruits, flowers and butterflies.

More than one million pieces of export porcelain arrived in the west yearly at the height of trade in the 19th century. So you’ll see export porcelain nowadays in china closets all over America.

For the collector there are two things to be aware of “reproductions and fakes,” says Liberatore.

“Some of the fakes are such good quality and it’s difficult for even the experts to tell the difference. The reproductions are wonderful too, and can easily blend in with genuine export porcelain in antique shops.”

If you find a piece at a flea market or auction you have questions about, it’s best to vote on the side of caution and pass. Another will come along.

Condition is also a critical point in valuing export porcelain. Hairline cracks, chips and scratches all detract from the value. The most common examples of export porcelain are plates and saucers. The more difficult to find are the teapots, coffee pots and large platters.

Q. A few weeks ago you wrote a story about an auction house that specialized in Western artifacts. I collect Wild West posters and would appreciate your listing the complete address and any other information about the auction house. Earl Schmid, Pittsburgh.

A. Nothing speaks truer about the past than the unselfconscious advertising signs, posters, antique photos, and letters from the battlefield, and diaries of famous figures.

Items like these provide uncensored, momentary flashes into the past. Like puzzle pieces they fit together and tell the story as it really happened. Not some storybook version. For me, the objects I write about have more relevance when I can understand where and how they fit into the context of history. Reassembling the story behind the artifacts and keeping it simple is the challenge.

The auctioneer your interested in is C. Wesley Cowan, 747 Park Avenue, Terrace Park, Ohio 45174.

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