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Chinese Cloisonné tray, early 20th century.  PHOTO CREDIT: Skinner Auctions, Boston, MA

Japanese cloisonné vase. Late 19th century. PHOTO CREDIT: Skinner Auctions, Boston, MA

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Cloisonné Prices Depend on Age and Design

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, February 2008

As the April 14 Skinner Asian auction proved, big prices can come in small pieces. Just 4 inches high, a Ming period(1368-1644) Chinese vase zoomed past the estimated $500/700 to sell for $4,700. At the bottom end was a beautiful, late 19th century Japanese cloisonné vase that fetched $206. The colorful 4 ½” high vase had an estimate of $200/400. Highly popular with American collectors from the late 19th to the early 20th century, when it was often turned into lamp bases, until recently it was out-of-fashion.

The many inexpensive pieces contemporary pieces now being imported from China are finding a new generation of collectors. Unfortunately many are sold to unknowledgeable buyers as old.

Historically, it was during the Ming dynasty(1368-1643) that Chinese artisans began adapting the techniques used in the Mid eastern nations for making cloisonné. The Chinese used cast bronze forms, ribbons and wires. By the 15th century copper replaced bronze since it was easier to work with. Though the early colors were limited, the turquoise that came to be known as “Ming Blue” was used from then thru the 18the century. Other colors included Ming pink, green and yellow. Among the designs were five-clawed dragons, ho-ho birds, animals, human figures, landscapes and water fowl. By the 17th century designs became more formal and scrolling was used.

By the mid 19th century cloisonné became a popular American import. As a result, and nearly mass production, the quality was poor.

Some of the finest cloisonné was made in Japan around 1830. The earliest used Chinese motifs often with a reddish brown sprinkled with gold backgrounds. By the late 19th century they had refined the use of transparent enamels over silver or aluminum foil, with backgrounds of pressed designs. By using fine wires the effect was of an unbroken painting.

Similar in appearance is Champlevé. It creates the patterns by casting or chiseling then filling them in with enamels. In yet another technique, “plique-a-jour” transparent enamels are poured into honeycomb pattern wires. The effect is similar to stained glass.

CLUES: Among the new fake cloisonné are mass-produced plastic products. They are made out of a proxy resin instead of glass and the bases are metal instead of copper. They are lighter in weight and scratch easily.

Other earlier fakes abound, dating to the 19th century. Most typical are shallow trays and plates with bird designs. Faked incised marks that aren’t enameled could have been added at any time.

Japanese cloisonné is often signed by the artist or has maker’s marks. Considered one of the known masters of Japanese cloisonné is Namikawa Sosuke (1868-1912). Examples of his work can sell for thousands of dollar.

Best advice: see authenticated examples before plunging into collecting.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at

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