Why Chinese Ginger Jars are In-Demand

ginger-jar A matched pair of Chinese blue and white ginger jars and covers, 19th century. Sold for £1,500 via Christie's (July 2009).

From fully functional storage vessels to dazzling decorative objects, Chinese ginger jars are universally recognized by their high shoulders and domed lids. Ginger jars come in a remarkable range of colors, patterns, and dimensions. As a result, antique ginger jars are a perennial favorite among porcelain collectors. Older examples, or a ginger jar with particularly spectacular color and decoration, can sell for over $40,000; however, a ginger jar can range in price from around $500, making the object an accessible entry point for new collectors.

Ginger jars are often classified by motifs, including:

  • Blue and white ginger jars
  • Imari ginger jars
  • Famille verte ginger jars
  • Famille rose ginger jars

They will also likely be categorized by the time period in which they were created.

What is a Ginger Jar?

A classical ginger jar is characterized by its rounded ovoid shape and high shoulders. The term “ginger jar” is a Western invention. In China, the shape is simply called “guan,” or jar, and they were used to store herbs. Very often the original covers are lost and have been replaced by matching porcelain or finely carved wooden lids with intricate openwork decoration.

The Origins of the Ginger Jar

The ginger jar originated in the days of the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE-207 BCE) as a storage receptacle for spices like salt and ginger. When ginger became a chief export to the Western world, the vessels in which it was stored and transported became known as “ginger jars.”

What Were Ginger Jars Used For?

Though the ginger jar was originally intended as a utilitarian object, it often showcased the rich colors and vibrant patterns characteristic of Chinese ceramics. As time progressed, ginger jars became increasingly celebrated as decorative objects, and by the 19th century, the ginger jar was essentially collected solely for aesthetics. “Ginger jars became objects of interior design, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries when they were highly fashionable in Europe as luxurious export goods,” says Dr. Arne Sildatke, former Head of the Asian Art Department and Senior Specialist at Auctionata.

Since then, the ginger jar has become an in-demand collector’s item. Ranging from more traditional blue and white ginger jar patterns to elaborate multi-colored motifs, decorative Chinese ginger jars can be found today in museum collections as well as in modern living rooms. “Aesthetically speaking, ginger jars are great accent pieces and are very versatile in ways they can be displayed. They are well loved by interior decorators that are inspired by Asian art forms and motifs,” says Anna Swetland, Auction Coordinator at Oakridge Auction Gallery.

Below, explore some of the most in-demand types of ginger jars for sale in the market, including characteristic examples in a range of styles from the most valuable to the most accessible.

Blue and White Ginger Jars

The blue and white ginger jar is the most traditional version of the ginger jar. This style is also one of the oldest, with examples that date to as early as the 9th century. By the Ming Dynasty (early 15th century), blue and white porcelain had developed into its own industry, with European audiences clamoring to copy the style as soon as they could master it. This meant that the export market for blue and white ginger jars from China was a lucrative one, and thus the style became standard. “As with all Chinese porcelain, Imperial pieces are the most desired by general collectors and Asian art experts alike. Blue and white ginger jars are quite popular,” says Swetland.

Similar to the other varieties, blue and white ginger jars can be difficult to date, in part because styles that are synonymous with particular historical eras are often used long after the time period from which they originate.

ginger jar

A pair of blue and white porcelain lidded ginger jars, marked with four-character mark Kangxi, but 19th century. Sold for €600 via Zeeuws Veilinghuis (March 2018).

“Many of the blue-and-white ginger jars with Kangxi reign marks were commonly produced in the 19th century – not necessarily as fakes, but in order to honor the era of the great Kangxi Emperor. To determine authenticity, you’ll need experience in order to tell if an item is genuinely from the early Qing dynasty. Take a good look at the composition of the ceramic material and the stylistic details,” notes Dr. Sildatke.

One of the easiest ways to assess the age of a piece is its weight: early ginger jars (those dating to before the 19th century) are often extremely heavy. Though the rationale as to why these earlier pieces carried more weight has been debated – some have suggested, for example, that the added heft was to help balance a ship’s ballast during transport – it can be a good indicator of age, which often impacts the value.

chinese ginger jar blue and white

Image 1: Three Blue & White Ginger Jars with Covers, Kangxi Period
Christie’s, New York, NY (January 2006)
Estimate: $8,000-12,000
Price Realized: $31,200

Image 2: A Blue and White Ginger Jar, Qing Dynasty, Shunzhi/Early Kangxi Period
Sotheby’s, New York, NY (March 2007)
Estimate: $20,000-30,000
Price Realized: $27,000

Image 3: Chinese Blue & White Glazed Porcelain Ginger Jar
Doyle New York, New York, NY (September 2011)
Estimate: $5,000-7,000
Price Realized: $12,500

Image 4: Two Chinese Export Blue & White Ginger Jars, Kangxi Period
Sotheby’s, New York, New York (October 2004)
Estimate: $3,000-5,000
Price Realized: $12,000

Image 5: Two Chinese Blue & White Ginger Jars
Christie’s, London, United Kingdom (November 2005)
Estimate: £700-900
Price Realized: £8,727

Image 6: A Blue and White Ginger Jar, Mid-17th Century
Lempertz, Cologne, Germany (June 2016)
Estimate: €2,000-3,000
Price Realized: €5,704

Yellow, Orange, and Red Ginger Jars

Some of the rarest examples of ginger jars are adorned in vibrant hues of yellow, orange, and red. Since yellow was originally a color that was associated with the Emperor of China, it was typically reserved for luxury goods. It is less common to find examples of these ginger jars in exceptional condition — and still accompanied by their original lid — which has driven prices up. Some of these pieces even incorporate Chinese symbols, which suggests that ginger jars might have given as gifts for private ceremonies, such as weddings.

“Ginger jars have been produced in a wide range of different qualities, from mass-produced items up to premium artworks for a courtly environment. The older and the higher the quality of the decoration, the more sought-after. Pieces from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) or the early Qing dynasty in general are regarded as very precious,” says Dr. Sildatke.

yellow orange and red ginger jar

Image 7: Antique Chinese Orange and Gilt Ginger Jar
Reeman Dansie, Colchester, United Kingdom (August 2014)
Estimate: £300-500
Price Realized: £33,000

Image 8: Pair of Large Chinese Qing Da Ya Zhai Style Porcelain
Dallas Auction Gallery, Dallas, Texas (March 2012)
Estimate: $3,000-5,000
Price Realized: $19,600

Image 9: Pair of Chinese Export Iron-Red Ginger Jars
Christie’s, New York, New York (January 2012)
Estimate: $7,000-10,000
Price Realized: $17,500

Image 10: A Pair of Yellow Glazed Ginger Jars and Covers, Late Qing Dynasty
Bonhams, San Francisco, California (March 2017)
Estimate: $3,000-5,000
Price Realized: $8,125

Imari Ginger Jars

Equally appealing to collectors are Imari ware ginger jars. Imari ware originated in Japan. The eponymous ceramic style gets its name from the port of Imari in Japan, which was the original export hub to the Western world. Chinese Imari ware was most prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, although it experienced a resurgence in the late 19th century, as well. Characterized by traditional glazes in blue, red, and gold tones, Imari ware ginger jars are often associated with the Kangxi Period of porcelain production, but may be from a later time period.

imari ginger jar

Image 11: Pair of Chinese Imari Ginger Jars and Covers, Kangxi Period
Christie’s, New York, New York (January 2004)
Estimate: $7,000-10,000
Price Realized: $31,070

Image 12: Pair of Imari Porcelain Ginger Jars with Dome Lids, c. 1860
Northgate Gallery, Brentwood, Tennessee (January 2011)
Estimate: $4,500-5,000
Price Realized: $3,200

Image 13: Pair of Export Chinese Imari Ginger Jars, 18th Century
Waddington’s, Toronto, Ontario (December 2013)
Estimate: CAD2,000-3,000
Price Realized: CAD2,880

Image 14: Imari Ginger Jar and Cover Qing Dynasty, c. 19th century
Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh, United Kingdom (June 2014)
Estimate: £200-300
Price Realized: £938

Image 15: A Chinese Imari Ginger Jar
Christie’s, London, United Kingdom (August 2008)
Estimate: £500-800
Price Realized: £688

Famille Verte and Famille Rose Ginger Jars

Ginger jars that appear in the famille verte (“green family”) and famille rose (“pink family”) styles are also in-demand. Famille verte designs date back to the Ming Dynasty, but became formalized in the 16th century into the five-color enamel process dominated by rich, yet translucent, shades of green. The famille rose style followed in the 18th century and was so named for its characteristic opaque pink shade. When comparing the two types of decorated ginger jar, it is safe to say that the color range of famille rose wares tend to be more varied and vibrant, yet the older famille verte pieces often have a unique iridescence – thanks to the nature of their respective glazes – that is beyond compare.

famille verte ginger jar

Image 16: A Large Pair of Famille Verte Ginger Jars and Covers
Christie’s, New York, NY, US (January 2009)
Estimate: $10,000-15,000
Price Realized: $22,500

Image 17: A Chinese Famille Verte Ginger Jar
Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, Chicago, IL, US (December 2010)
Estimate: $700-900
Price Realized: $9,760

Image 18: A Pair of Famille Verte Rose Enameled Porcelain Ginger Jars and Covers, Late Qing Dynasty
Bonhams, San Francisco, CA, US (March 2011)
Estimate: $1,500-2,000
Price Realized: $5,490

Image 19: A Famille Rose Faux-Bois-Decorated Ginger Jar, Qing Dynasty
Sotheby’s, New York, NY, US (September 2008)
Estimate: $5,000-7,000
Price Realized: $4,375

Image 20: A Famille Rose Enameled Porcelain Ginger Jar, 18th Century
Bonhams, San Francisco, CA, US (November 2009)
Estimate: $5,000-7,000
Price Realized: $4,270

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