A PASSION FOR COLLECTING PORCELAIN

Collecting is a passion. What we collect says a lot about us as individuals; it is a visual record made up of objects that contains the stories of our lives - our travels, our families, history, and culture. And for some, collecting goes from passion to obsession. 

The obsession with collecting porcelain dates back hundreds of years. It may be hard to understand, from our perch in the 21st century that in the 18th century porcelain went by its other name, white gold. It was the status symbol of the day only available to the very, very wealthy. Chinese and Japanese porcelain was coveted by the kings and courts of Europe who had it shipped from the Far East; eager collectors awaited the arrival of each new prize after its long journey by boat. 

The foremost collector at the time was Augustus II (1670-1733), otherwise known as Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. At that time, Europe lacked the technology to make true porcelain, and Augustus desired to leave as his legacy a national factory for porcelain that rivaled examples coming from the Far East. He was so obsessed with this idea that he imprisoned a chemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger, in hopes of being first to discover the formula for true white porcelain, which at that time was a secret known only in China and Japan. Augustus’ collection numbered approximately 21,000 pieces by 1719, his affliction so acute that he was known to have traded 600 soldiers for a mere 18 vases to augment his collection of blue and white, and by the time of his death in 1733, the collection had swelled resulting in the kingdoms financial ruin. An obsession truly fit for a king. 

A modern interpretation of Augustus’ Japanese Pavilion, which was not realized in his lifetime, installed with the approximately 8,000 pieces that remains of his collection. Photo courtesy of the Gardiner Museum, Ontario, Canada

A modern interpretation of Augustus’ Japanese Pavilion, which was not realized in his lifetime, installed with the approximately 8,000 pieces that remains of his collection. Photo courtesy of the Gardiner Museum, Ontario, Canada

Ultimately, this passion led to the establishment of the Meissen factory, which went on to produce some of Europe’s finest porcelain. Other factories followed, including Sevres in France and manufacturing centers throughout Germany and England. As the decades progress, porcelain becomes much more widely available, and many factories across Europe as well as the kilns of China are all rapidly producing to meet a growing demand. 

Today, amid lifestyle changes and ultra-mass production it is easy to forget the importance of porcelain to collectors throughout history.  In a letter from one of the last emperors of China written in 1909, he laments that the once famous kilns at Jingdezen, the same kilns that set Augustus ablaze with obsession, no longer had the skilled artisans to produce pieces needed to fulfill an imperial order. For the seasoned collector and novice alike, it is easy to see why antique porcelain inspires a passion for collecting. 

The proof is in the object. Below are some highlights in our current DC Metro June sale, view the whole auction by clicking below.