A very long time ago, the Chinese royalty and aristocracy savored their precious tea in tiny jade cups. However, these were very expensive to make, which is why master potters developed a material that managed to surpass jade both in quality and handling. This material is known as porcelain. Also known as the white gold, porcelain is obtained from a fine clay called kaolin. Often referred to as simply "china", it is a high-fired, translucent, and vitrified ceramic material that is hard to scratch, more expensive and more durable than other type of pottery. Porcelain is usually hand painted, displaying landscapes, flower motifs, and human activities.
The art and technique of processing porcelain was developed and improved in China. During the Sun Dynasty, porcelain was painted for the first time, but it wasn't until the 17th century that chinaware was finally acknowledged as an artistic manifestation. Europe saw the first porcelain sets in the 17th century, brought by Portuguese sailors, which were sold at incredibly high prices, often for an equal weight in gold. However. the arrival of porcelain to Europe also encouraged cheap imitations. Authentic porcelain comes from a few rare families that can easily be distinguished from the rest through their perfect bodies, thermal resistance, translucent glow, and talented paintings in brilliant colors.
5 Joseon Porcelain: $1.2 Million
Also known as Joseon baekja, Joseon porcelain is a type of white porcelain that was produced in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, the longest lasting Korean Imperial dynasty which ruled the country between 1392 and 1910. During their five centuries of existence, white porcelain underwent numerous transformations.
Preferred and praised to any other type of ceramic during the 15th century in Korea, white ware also gained popularity in China during the early Ming Dynasty, between 1368 and 1644. Although the porcelain itself was white, use of color is not completely avoided. In fact, Joseon white porcelain was even more prized than unpainted white ware. A rare Unpainted Joseon White Porcelain Jar was sold for $1.2 million during a Christie's auction in New York. Dating from the 18th century, the extremely simple jar is 22 inches tall. The most expensive Joseon porcelain item ever sold was a White Ware Vase Painted in Cobalt Blue, depicting a bearded mountain spirit pulling a tiger's tail, which fetched $4.2 million.
4 Blood Red Porcelain: $9.5 Million
In Chinese culture, the color red stands for joy, auspiciousness, and happiness, which combined with porcelain, made this particular fine china very popular, and very expensive, as the demand was always greater than the supply. Red porcelain required expensive materials, and was very complicated and costly to make. In fact, the skills and technique used to make blood red porcelain have been lost since the Qing Dynasty. This lively colored red underglazed porcelain was discovered by accident when porcelain makers observed that different firing temperatures made some types of porcelain red.
The earliest red porcelain was made using copper red glaze during the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century. During the Sun Dynasty, the technique was improved, and during the Ming Dynasty, the red color became more brilliant. The technique reached its peak during the Qing Dynasty. A Red Porcelain Bowl decorated with two lotus flowers was sold for $9.5 million during a Sotheby's auction. The ruby-colored bowl dates from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) during the Qing Dynasty, and was purchased by a Hong Kong private collector.
3 Jihong Porcelain: $10 Million
Underglazed red porcelain flourished during the Ming Dynasty, and gave birth to another variety of red porcelain, even more flamboyant. Jihong porcelain was initially used for sacrificial ceremonies. Ji means to sacrifice, and hong means red. Its luster and color surpassed its previous blood red varieties. Vases and vessels made from Jihong porcelain were often decorated with jade, pearls, coral, agate, and gold. They were extremely hard to produce, using copper-red underglaze, and emperors often demanded Jihong porcelain.
Since the Ming Dynasty, the secret behind producing this porcelain has been lost. Many have tried to reproduce this special red porcelain, but have not succeeded. In the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum, there are only ten Jihong porcelain items. Throughout the world, there are no more than 100 Jihong porcelain pieces. A rare Copper-Red Underglazed Ming Dynasty Vase fetched $10 million during a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in 2006. Dating from the early Ming Dynasty period (1368-1644), the lovely pear-shaped vase was donated by the buyer to a Macau museum.
2 Blue and White Porcelain: $21.6 Million
Cobalt blue porcelain dates back from the 9th century in the Henan Province in China. But it wasn't until the 14th century that fine and translucent blue and white porcelain began being produced in Jindezhen, which became the Porcelain capital of China. Cobalt blue oxide was the pigment used to underglaze the chinaware, but it was an extremely precious product, with a value almost twice as much as gold. Blue and white porcelain in China reached the height of its excellence during Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, between 1661 and 1722.
In Europe, blue and white porcelain was produced from soft-paste, or French china, a type of artificial porcelain made from glass fused with clay to make an opaque material, an imitation of authentic hard-paste porcelain. All the while, authentic hard-paste porcelain is extremely durable, and only the finest cobalt blue was used to decorate it. During a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong, a stunning Blue and White Porcelain Imperial Vase sold for $21.6 million to an anonymous telephone bidder. Dating from the Ming Dynasty period, the 500-year-old Chinese vase is the most expensive piece of blue and white porcelain ever sold.
1 Qing Dynasty Porcelain: $84 Million
The finest porcelain wares are made from hard-paste, the authentic Oriental porcelain, obtained from two main ingredients, china clay and china stone to form an extremely durable, white and translucent material. If chipped, this type of porcelain presents a moist-looking and shiny fracture. Soft-paste porcelain has its roots in the Europeans' attempts to imitate authentic hard-paste porcelain from China. What resulted was a material of a much lower quality, less resistant, and when chipped presented a granulated fracture.
While the Europeans did manage to produce their own hard-paste porcelain in the 18th century, it still didn't come near to the authentic china's qualities. During the 18th century, Chinese porcelain was under imperial rule. Between 1644 and 1911, the Qing Dynasty succeeded the Ming Dynasty in China, and was a time of peace and economic prosperity, which reflected in art works too. Qing rulers were patrons of the arts. During their rule, Chinese porcelain became more colorful, in that it received a wide range of opaque overglaze enamel colors, which allowed wide variations of shades. Perfect bodies, wide variation of colors, and skillful decoration techniques characterized the period. An elaborately decorated 18th century Qing Dynasty porcelain vase was sold for $84 million to a rich Chinese industrialist, making it the highest price ever paid for a porcelain item and a piece of Chinese art.