Inside the Archives: Chinese Ginger Jars

Lot 160, Group of three Chinese porcelain ginger jars, Auction Gallery of the
Palm Beaches
(September 10)

From fully functional storage vessels to dazzling decorative objects, Chinese ginger jars are universally recognized by their high shoulders and domed lids. They come in a remarkable range of colors, patterns, and dimensions, and as a result, antique ginger jars are a perennial favorite among porcelain collectors. Older examples, or ones with particularly spectacular color and decoration, sell for over $40,000; however, ginger jars range from in price. Some can be found around $500, making them approachable for new collectors.

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 Very often the original covers are lost and have been replaced by matching porcelain lids or finely carved wooden covers with intricate openwork decoration.

The ginger jar first originated in the days of the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE-207 BCE) as a means for storing spices ranging from salt to more specialized herbs, including ginger. These jars became an essential means of both storing and transporting spices, and thus when ginger became a chief export to the Western world, the vessels became known as “ginger jars.”

Though these pieces were originally intended as utilitarian objects, they often embodied the rich colors and vibrant patterns characteristic of Chinese ceramics. As time progressed, their beauty was increasingly celebrated, so much so that by the 19th-century ginger jars were more renowned for their design than for their deemed storage purpose. “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, Head of the Asian Art Department and Senior Specialist at Auctionata.

Since that point in history, the ginger jar has become a coveted collector’s item. Ranging from the more traditional blue and white patterns to the more elaborate multicolored motifs, today antique Chinese ginger jars can be found 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 is a list of realized prices for Chinese ginger jars from the Invaluable price database that highlights some of the most characteristic examples in a range of styles from the most valuable to the most accessible.

Yellow, Orange & Red Ginger Jars

Some of the rarest examples of antique Chinese 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 only the most luxurious creations. The rarity of such pieces in exceptional condition (and still accompanied by their original lid) has resulted in a bustling market among collectors. Some of these pieces even incorporate Chinese symbols, which suggests that such pieces might have served 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.

1: Antique Chinese Orange and Gilt Ginger Jar

Reeman Dansie (August 2014)
Estimated Price: £300-500
Realized Price: £33,000 (~$44,270)

2: Pair of Large Chinese Qing Da Ya Zhai Style Porcelain

Dallas Auction Gallery (March 2012)
Estimated Price: $3,000-5,000
Realized Price: $19,600

3: Pair of Chinese Export Iron-Red Ginger Jars

Christie’s New York (January 2012)
Estimated Price: $7,000-10,000
Realized Price: $17,500

Multicolored Ginger Jars: Imari Ware

Equally appealing to collectors are Imari ware ginger jars. Imari ware, which actually originated in Japan, gets its name from the port of Imari in Japan, which was originally its main port of export to the Western world. Chinese Imari ware was most prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries (although it also experienced a resurgence in the later 19th century as well). Characterized by its traditional glazes of blue, red, and gold, Imari ware pieces are often associated with the Kangzi Period (1654-1722) of porcelain production, but collectors must be savvy: in some instances “Kangzi Period” refers simply to the style, and not necessarily the date, of the piece.


4: Pair of Chinese Imari Ginger Jars and Covers, Kangxi Period

Christie’s New York (January 2004)
Estimated Price: $7,000-10,000
Realized Price: $31,070

5: Pair of Imari Porcelain Ginger Jars with Dome Lids, c. 1860

Northgate Gallery (January 2011)
Estimated Price: $4,500-5,000
Realized Price: $3,200

6: Imari Ginger Jar and Cover Qing Dynasty, c. 19th century

Lyon & Turnbull (June 2014)
Estimated Price: £200-300
Realized Price: £938 (~$1,258)

Multicolored Ginger Jars: “Family” Ware

On par with Imari ware in terms of quality are those that appear in the Famille Verte (“Green Family”) and Famille Rose (“Pink Family”) styles. Famille Verte designs date back to the Ming Dynasty, but became formalized in the 1500s into the five-color enamel process dominated by rich, yet translucent, shades of green. The Famille Rose style followed suit in the 18th century and was so named for its characteristic opaque pink shade. that is featured prominently. When comparing the two styles, 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 glazes – that is beyond compare.

7: Chinese Export Famille Verte Porcelain Ginger Jar, Kangxi Period, c. 1710

Alex Cooper (March 2015)
Estimated Price: $600-800
Realized Price: $11,000

8: Chinese Porcelain “Famille Rose” Ginger Jar (19th Century)

Alex Cooper (April 2013)
Estimated Price: £300-400
Realized Price: £8,500 (~$11,403)

9: Chinese Famille Verte Ginger Jar

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers (May 2011)
Estimated Price: $2,000-4,000
Realized Price: $10,980

10: Chinese Famille Verte Ginger Jar & Cover, Kangxi Period

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers (October 2009)
Estimated Price: $600-800
Realized Price: $7,000

11: Chinese Famille Verte Rose Ginger Jar & Cover, Late 19th Century

Lyon & Turnbull (June 2012)
Estimated Price: £300-500
Realized Price: £600

Traditional Blue & White Ginger Jars

Blue and white are the most traditional and plentiful style of antique ginger jars. This style is also one of the most historic, as examples date to as early as the 9th century. By the days of the Ming Dynasty (early 15th century), blue and white style 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 wares from China was a lucrative one, and thus the style became a standard for ginger jars as well.

“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 categories of ginger jars, the blue and white varieties can be difficult to date, in part because often historical eras are applied to pieces as a means of reflecting style, rather than the date.

“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.

12: Three Blue & White Ginger Jars with Covers, Kangxi Period

Christie’s New York (January 2006)
Estimated Price: $8,000-12,000
Realized Price: $31,200

13: Chinese Blue & White Glazed Porcelain Ginger Jar

Doyle New York (September 2011)
Estimated Price: $5,000-7,000
Realized Price: $12,500

14: Pair of Chinese Export Ginger Jars with Covers, 18th century

Sotheby’s (April 2006)
Estimated Price: $7,000-10,000
Realized Price: $12,000

15: Two Chinese Blue & White Ginger Jars, Kangxi Period

Sotheby’s (October 2009)
Estimated Price: $600-800
Realized Price: $11,000

16: Chinese Blue & White Ginger Jar and Cover, Kangxi Period

Martel Maides (October 2014)
Estimated Price: £1,000-1,500
Realized Price: £6,500 (~$8,727)

17: Pair of Chinese Export Blue & White Ginger Jars

Hampstead Auctions (July 2013)
Estimated Price: $600-900
Realized Price: $1,353

See more Chinese ginger jars and other Asian art & antiques in upcoming Asian art auctions this fall, including Freeman’s Asian Arts (September 10), Doyle New York’s Asian Works of Art (September 12), 888 Auctions’ Chinese Works of Art (September 15), Oakridge Auction Gallery’s Fine Asian Art & Antiques, Day 1 and Day 2 (September 17-18), Auctionata’s Sensuous Aesthetics – Early Chinese Ceramics and Exquisite Asian Paintings and Works of Art (September 21), Altair Auctions’ Asian Art & Antiques – California Sale (September 17) and Fine Asian Works of Art (September 24), and more.