Ming porcelain, made in China between 1368 and 1644, has so endeared itself to collectors that it's almost become synonymous with blue and white Asian designs. Almost -- yet often not even close to the genuine article. Differences between a $10 million antique and what a recent wag called "Ming bling" are hard to miss. The intricacies of the real thing, however, require a good eye and a lot of learning.
Read all about it. Jan-Erik Nilsson of the collectors' website Gotheborg.com recommends that would-be collectors spend at least one-tenth of their money on books rather than the porcelain itself. "What makes Chinese porcelain so exciting to collect is, I believe, the fact that it is so difficult. Thanks to all the fakes, there are many genuine pieces around not properly identified as such. A flea market bargain could easily turn out to be the real thing," says Nilsson on his website, which maintains a list of "100 Best Books." Museum websites, which have photos galore, are also good sources.
Pick up your vase and give it a good look. An "Antiques Roadshow" interview with porcelain pro Lark Mason recommends you begin by evaluating the shape, design, feel and colors. True porcelain, made only in Asia until the 18th century, is translucent rather than opaque. A dragon design would usually indicate it was made in Asia. Other Ming themes included fish and flowers, including peonies and lotus flowers. Shape could indicate whether the vase was meant for the Islamic market rather than a domestic one. A lighter shade of blue on white, rather than a bright cobalt, could mean it was made in China rather than in 19th-century Japan or mid 18th-century England, Mason said.
Turn your vase over and look for the mark. Chinese porcelain was made in three categories: imperial, domestic or "peoples' ware" and export. The imperial and peoples' ware, and often goods made for Japan or Southeast Asia, carried marks on the bottom of the porcelain. Imperial goods were made in a special kiln in the city of Jingdezhen.
Study the marks. Imperial reign marks can help date a piece, and there were 16 emperors (one reigned twice) during the dynasty's nearly three centuries. For starters, if the vase says "Made in China," it's from the 1970s or later. Before the 1890s, almost all marks were in Chinese characters -- read them in one, two or three columns, top to bottom and right to left. (If they are in a horizontal row, Nilsson says, that's a tipoff it's either extremely early, museum worthy Ming -- or, more likely, a fake.) As a very general rule, marks from the 19th century and later are in red, Nilsson says, while earlier ones are in blue. One inscription on folk wares reads "fu gui jia qi": Beautiful Vessel for the Rich and Honorable.
While blue-and-white patterns have become popularly known as Ming, works from the Ming Dynasty were made in other colors, too.