It's no accident that the generic name for ceramic products is "china". Even in the ancient world China was noted for the fine pottery it produced, and Chinese artisans produced exquisite porcelain during the Sung Dynasty (960- 1280 AD), long before Europeans discovered the secret.
The brilliant blue and white wares of the Ming Dynasty are preserved in noted museums; only super wealthy collectors can aspire to own an example today. It was during this period (15th-16th centuries) that Portuguese traders based in Macao began to export it to Europe. Later, the Dutch became the major traders in this marvelous ware and Europe fell in love with it.
Shipload after shipload of blue and while later colored enamel porcelain found in homes in the West. European nobility, in particular, collected roomfuls, some of which are preserved today. Ming porcelain traveled to America, to Spanish colonists living in California and Mexico and English settlers on the East Coast.
Traders often commissioned Chinese potters to produce porcelain in the European taste, embellished with coats of arms and Westernized decorations. It is this type of porcelain that today is known as Chinese Export or Chinese Trade porcelain.
Shortly after the Revolution, American ships began trade with China, bringing back tea, silk and cotton fabric as primary imports and often using porcelain as ballast. The first American ship in the China trade was the Empress of China, which left New York in February 1784, returning over a year later. Her cargo to China consisted mainly of ginseng, considered an aphrodisiac by the Chinese, along with coinage and some furs.
The bulk of the return cargo consisted of various kinds of tea, but also included yarn goods, Chinese cinnamon and porcelain. The latter included a porcelain bowl decorated with a ship bearing the words, “Empress of China, Captain John Green,” the first piece of porcelain custom made for the American market.
The fledgling United States government encouraged China trade by maintaining a favorable tariff policy and this commerce grew rapidly. In the first 40 years of the 19th century between 30 and 40 ships a year traded with China, and a flourishing business in the special order china sets developed. Standard patterns such as Canton, Rose Medallion and Fitzhugh were shipped in quantity, but many families ordered special decorations around patriotic themes prior to 1850.
Examples of Chinese Export porcelain are still readily available, particularly on the East Coast. Pieces bearing distinctly American decorations, such as American eagles, flags or ship portraits are rare and costly, however. This area of collecting is fascinating, combining both history of porcelain and of China-Western trade relations (including the US involvement in the opium trade), but it is best to purchase any examples from a knowledgeable dealer. Not only are the Chinese themselves skilled at reproductions, there’s a flourishing factory in Taiwan that produces Ming pieces that have fooled experts- but Europeans also did. Samson, a factory in Paris, in business from 1845 to 1964 made hard paste reproductions of French and English china as well as Chinese and Japanese pieces.
An interesting book detailing the trade between the US and China is China for America by Herbert, Peter, and Nancy Shiffer, with illustrations of porcelain from many famous American sets. It’s a good place to start your investigation of this intriguing area of collecting
Shop for Chinese Porcelain and 16,500 other antiques on our website: