Canton Ware plate

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Chinese export porcelain or Canton ware is known by many names. You would recognize a piece of it if you had one from its characteristic blue and white color, so don’t let all the different names fool you. Shipped to the west from China from the 1600s to the late 1800s, this type of porcelain has been called China trade porcelain, Ballast ware because it was stored in the ballast or cargo hold of the transport ship, Canton ware china, and Chinese export porcelain.

Canton ware porcelain was manufactured in the province of Ching-Te Chen. After being molded and fired in kilns, it was sent to enameling shops near the port city of Canton and shipped to England and America.

In the late 1700s, the newly independent American elite and wealthy classes, mainly New Englanders, decorated their tables with this porcelain including George and Martha Washington. This blue/white china–not to be confused with flow blue or Staffordshire Pottery— was widely collected in American from the early to the mid 19th Century, circa 1800 to 1860. Production tapered off significantly from circa 1839 to 1860 as a result of the Opium Wars (First Opium War 1839-42 and Second Opium War 1856-60). By the late 1800s, Canton ware was still popular but not to the extent that it had been in the years before and after the Revolutionary War.

What to Look For

Canton ware plate

Canton ware had highly recognizable motifs of Asian tea houses, village scenes, bridges, streams, trees, mountains, and very few figures featured on the center of each blue/white porcelain piece. The more skillfully the motif is painted by the artist, the more interesting and valuable the piece is to collectors. Another thing to note is that Canton ware designs were painted on and were not applied using the transferware process of decorating ceramics. Learn how to tell the difference.

Pieces made before 1891, were largely unmarked. Canton ware arrived in the west through shipping trade channels with paper labels only. After 1891, pieces were marked in compliance with the McKinley Tariff Act of 1891, which required that imported items be marked with the country of origin in English, with “China” or “Made in China” on each piece.

Understanding pottery marks is vital to amassing a good collection and to determining authenticity when trying to sell your antique Canton ware or Chinese export porcelain.

Original antique Canton ware should have an ashen colored body. If your piece of Canton ware looks bright white in the body of the clay, then you probably have a newer reproduction. If you can’t tell, I can help you identify it.

Canton ware has asymmetrical ridges and indentations around the rim of plates and platters.

Canton ware patterns have an inner border of wavy lines and outside border patterns are decorated with lattice or criss cross.

Some Canton ware has cobalt blue decoration while others have a washed out gray-blue color. The higher the contrast and darker the blue color, the more desirable the piece of Canton ware.

Canton ware Market

The quality of the decoration on each piece of Canton ware will impact value. Unusual or unique forms of Canton ware such as soup tureens or covered serving dishes are more desirable than common forms like plates in the antiques market. Antique pieces of Canton ware can range in value from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for traditional, common forms like plates. Large pieces, unique forms like platters, family style serving pieces, covered dishes and the like regularly command $2,500 to $25,000 or more depending on age, motif, color, condition, rarity, and many other factors. Don’t be fooled by reproductions.

Get an online appraisal of your Canton ware china or Chinese export porcelain from Dr. Lori