Porcelain is both beautiful and fascinating, so it's hardly surprising if you decide that you would like to have some of your own, and not just dinner plates and tea cups. But you have a feeling it could be tricky knowing exactly what you are buying and whether it is good value.
It is useful if you have an idea what you like, and what you are looking for. In China, some porcelain pieces were created to appeal to Chinese emotions, while others were created with foreigners in mind. The Eastern oriented pieces will have motifs such as dragons, Buddhist emblems, and local landscapes, while those designed for Western tastes will have more western designs.
Also be aware that there are varying grades of porcelain, and not all originated in China. Good quality porcelain has been fired longer, is more durable, thin, bright and colorful. While Japanese porcelain, for example, is thicker, has more muted colors, and has bubbles or stilt marks underneath from when it was in the kiln.
So when you visit China (which is a good idea, if you like porcelain), there are some places you should definitely visit to see amazing examples of fine porcelain work, and learn more about this remarkable commodity.
In Hong Kong you can visit the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware (and eventually the Hong Kong Museum of Art which is closed for renovations until mid-2019). Flagstaff House is a beautiful colonial house, built in 1846, and a popular background for wedding photos. The Museum of Tea Ware was developed in 1984, and, along with exhibitions of the famous Yixing Tea ware, holds regular demonstrations, tea gatherings, and lecture programs.
In Jiangxi province you can visit the most famous Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum which holds one of the world's largest collections of ancient porcelain. During the Song Dynasty, the Emperor Zhenzong selected Jingdezhen for imperial porcelain production, and it remained so for the next 900 years. At the museum there are modern porcelain pieces available, and you can watch masters at work to better understand and appreciate the process of porcelain production.
The port of Quanzhou is famous for export of the warm ivory-white Dehua porcelain from the Ming era when a law was made declaring that all idols and religious objects must be created in white porcelain. You will enjoy a visit to the Quanzhou Tourism Shopping Centre.
Foshan city, near Guangzhou, has a long history of porcelain production, and there are ancient kilns to tour and shops to buy souvenirs and investment pieces. Nearby you can tour the town of Shiwan and see the 500-year old Nan Feng kiln. The 34.4 meter (111feet) long kiln is named after the southern wind as its opening is oriented to allow the wind to enter. It has been modernized and refurbished, and a modern chimney added, and here you can also watch craftsmen at work.
No China visit is complete without a trip to the Forbidden City in Beijing, and, of course, a look at the collections in the Palace Museum where there are 340,000 pieces of ceramics and porcelain.
Likewise, the Shanghai Museum, in the Huangpu District of Shanghai, is a museum of ancient Chinese art, and is considered one of China's first world-class modern museums.
There is also the Southern Song Dynasty Guan Kiln Museum in Hangzhou, and the Yixing Ceramics Museum not far away outside Wuxi.
When you have learnt all that you can about porcelain from the museums, and you pick up the first piece that you are thinking about buying, how can you be sure about what you have in your hand?
Firstly, the shape of the piece can tell you where it fits in history, because particular shapes were popular at particular times. Secondly, the design will give you clues about its origins. For example, a dragon is likely to be Chinese. Landscapes were not depicted earlier than the 17th century, which can help you date an item. Thirdly, porcelain has a certain feel. It should be translucent, while other ceramics are opaque, even if they have a glassy look. Look at the bottom, or anywhere there might be a chip in an older piece, and you should not be able to see where the surfaces are fused together. Fired at a high temperature, Chinese porcelain clay has a smooth surface, even if it is chipped. Finally, in the likely possibility that there are blue colors in the design, compare with others and get a feel for the varieties of blue coming from different times and places.
As you turn the porcelain piece over to look at the bottom, you will likely see some identifying marks. Written vertically and read top to bottom, these were manufacturing certification, indicating the dynasty and reigning title of the emperor. (Nowadays manufacturers may simply put their brand and a good fortune message.) The marks were first used during the Ming era, but during the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Kangxi was concerned that broken ceramics bearing his mark might bring misfortune upon himself, and would not allow the marks to be applied, except two concentric circles in later years.
At this time, the record price on a single piece of porcelain was $84,000,000. Prices are not easy to estimate, and there are fake pieces around that are not always easy to identify. Learn as much as you can first, and rely on an expert if you are spending larger amounts of money. But if it is an affordable piece that you just plain love, well then maybe you should just buy it anyway.
Of course, if you can't visit China, or have already been there, there are many other places you can purchase your Chinese porcelain as it is exported all over the world. Even ancient pieces can be purchased at auctions, whether in person or online, from sellers on websites such as eBay, and from specialized shops. Porcelain has been exported from China for centuries, and - as mentioned above - a great many pieces are made specifically for export.