I am fascinated how much we can learn from history and how objects speak across the centuries, providing us with a narrative for our own times. In the first of these columns I will be exploring the extraordinary impact of a resurgent Chinese economy in the collectors’ market in recent years and how its roots are in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We in the West should perhaps be unsurprised by the growth in the Indian and Chinese economies. Together these two economies account for some 14.7% of the global economy’s gross domestic product (GDP). The extraordinary progress of the Chinese economy in particular has made it a major player in markets as diverse as raw materials and antiques. Values for all things Chinese and collectable has mirrored this growth, transforming markets as prices have soared.
In the 18th century an East India Company Indiaman ship would order 30 tons of china of a standard and repeatable pattern. These bulk purchases were often of standard blue and white but provided important ballast just above the waterline, with tea and silks being stowed higher in the ship. There were strict regulations connected to these official imports.
More important were the private trade pieces, purchased on behalf of the crew by the company representative. They were of finer quality and included specially commissioned armorial, crested and initialled porcelains. Private order pieces also depicted European figures, like this Qianlong period bowl (pictured above), circa 1750, depicting hunting scenes, which I discovered in a collection in the west of Sussex two or three years ago. These items were purchased either to fulfil private commissions or would be sold through the East India Company’s auctions in London.
It is still these refined pieces which carry most favour among discriminating collectors in the market today and they are still being sold at auction, like this pair of mid-19th century Chinese famille rose porcelain vases, which realised £20,000 last year. Today, however, these objects are increasingly returning to China.
Demand from China on collectors’ markets is already having a profound effect. Imagine if, together with India, they recover their historic economic position. Between 1500 and 1850 AD, China and India accounted not for 14.7% but between 50% and 60% of the world’s GDP. It will be intriguing to see how their tastes develop and affect our market in the future.
By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 20th March 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.