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Ask MOA: What Is This Vase?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about an ornate porcelain vase acquired by the inquirer’s great-grandfather in Ireland.

Question from inquirer:

“My great-grandfather in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland owned a porcelain/crystal shop to sell Belleek china and other wares, along with several other properties. This was between 1890-1910. A tenant who couldn’t afford rent used this vase as collateral. It’s about 15” tall.”

Answer from Fuyubi Nakamura:

Thank you for your inquiry. The vase you have belongs to the group of Chinese porcelains known as Famille rose and known in Chinese as fencai (粉彩) or ruancai (軟彩 / 软彩), literally meaning “soft colours” or “pale colours,” and later called as yangcai (洋彩) or “foreign colours.” It was first introduced in the late Kangxi period (1662–1722), possibly around 1720 and was originally painted mostly in rose/pink colours. Many of such colourfully enameled wares were made for export.

Marks usually found on the base of Chinese porcelain commonly display the dynasty and the reign during which the piece was made. However, it is said when it comes to Chinese reign marks, most of them are not from the period they say. They were often added to later wares not necessarily as fakes or reproductions, but reign marks from earlier dynasties were often copied out of a respect for these earlier periods. Most marks comprise four or six Chinese characters written vertically.

 The mark on this vase reads大清嘉慶年製 (Da Qing Jiaqing Nian Zhi), and refers to “made during the Jiaqing reign of the Qing Dynasty” (1796-1820). The Chinese characters on the mark are done in seal script; thus, the mark looks more like an engraving rather than hand writing. The first two characters 大清 on the right refer to the “Great Qing” Dynasty, the following two 嘉慶 in the middle refer to the name of the Emperor/reign, and the last two on the left, “made for/during.” Given that your great grandfather acquired this vase between 1890 and 1910, it is clearly not a modern reproduction. I cannot tell whether it is of the Jiaqing period, but is most likely from the nineteenth century. It would be interesting to find out how the original owner acquired this vase!

The vase is decorated with a design of lotus flowers and peaches. The lotus flower is associated with Buddhism and is a symbol of purity and beauty while peaches represent longevity. Both are auspicious symbols commonly used in Chinese art.