Collecting and Investing Straits Chinese Peranakan antique Porcelain

Collecting and Investing Straits Chinese Peranakan antique Porcelain

By Glen Chee

A pair of rare and highly desirable Chupus, with Zhou Shun Ding Zhao marked. I would grade them as investment grade. Courtesy of a Private Collection from Kuala Lumpur.

The Issues Encountered

Most Straits Chinese antique porcelain collectors are primarily collectors and to a lesser extent investors, it is habitual to collect/hoard but not habitual to sell for a profit.   New collectors investing in Straits Chinese antique porcelain (aka “Nyonyawares”) frequently encounter obstacles and issues and some have learned the hard way by dishing out “tuition fees” to unscrupulous antique dealers or sellers. Not knowing if a piece of Nonyaware is authentic is a problem for all collectors wanting to buy an original antique and if a collector buys a reproduction or fake, the collector will lose all the invested money the very moment the transaction is completed.

Reproduction and “Vintage”

Reproductions only have antique value if they were made in imperial times to replicate earlier designs produced in earlier imperial periods, for an example during the Kangxi period some blue and white wares were made to replicate early Ming blue and white wares. This will not be possible for Nyonyawares because the porcelain made for the Straits Chinese Peranakan communities started in the 1850s and ended in the 1930s as such the period of production was very short as compared to Chinese porcelain, any Nyonyawares purport to be made after World War 2 are deemed as reproductions. Some dealers and sellers have tried to create a consumer market by labelling Nyonyaware reproductions as “Vintage Nyonyawares” and these were made in the late 1970s to 80s, although not antiques but the dealers are demanding a price much higher than recent reproductions made in the 1990s onwards…

Coral Red Nyonyawares are very rare and highly sought after by premium collectors. All three Kamchengs bearing Tongzhi period mark. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection

I would like to remind Nyonyaware collectors, an ‘’antique’’ Straits Chinese porcelain item has zero value if it is fake, or reproduction or “vintage”. Reproductions, vintage wares and fake antiques have NO value in the antique investment market. Genuine white based Nyonyawares that have been modified or repainted or over-painted hence converting white based wares into coloured based wares (e.g. 20th century) also have little to no value. Most serious antique collectors do not want these therefore pushing the value of authentic Nyonyawares upwards. There is one main reason that antiques are higher priced than equivalent contemporary items: a collector wants to own it and is ready to pay more for it than he would for a comparable modern item.

CategoriesEstimate PeriodCommentaries
Authentic (original)1860s to 1930sNyonyawares were specifically made for the Straits Chinese Peranakan communities at this period during the zenith of their economic wealth and power. Much of their wealth were obtained from business links and contacts with the British. The Straits Chinese Peranakan Chinese lost much of their economic wealth during the great depression, the decline of the British Colonies and World War 2, after which most porcelain orders ceased.   Another key factor was the porcelain industry was interrupted in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, when, in 1942, many kilns were destroyed in the Japanese bombing  
Reproduction1970s to PresentManufactured for modern use or for tourist souvenirs. These wares were not intentionally made just for the Straits Chinese Peranakans nor were they intentionally made to be sold as authentic Nyonyawares. However, many sellers and dealers are known to flog reproductions off as authentic wares. The later manufactured reproductions are of better artistry however they are easily distinguished by experienced collectors.  
Vintage1970s to 1980sDealers created a consumer market by labelling Nyonyaware reproductions made in the 1970s to 80s as “Vintage Nyonyawares”. These have zero value in the antique market and should be classified as reproductions.
Fakes, and Modified or Tampered1980s to Present DayFakes and Modified or Tampered wares are made with the intention to commit fraud with a dishonest intent. High end fakes are rare (though collectors swear they are rampant in the market, but few are able to produce one for examination) because commissioning high end fakes is an expensive process. Master forgers in Jingdezhen demand huge fees therefore applying logic the value of Nyonyawares do not deserve the attention of the master forgers perhaps until the day Nyonyawares fetches the valuation of Chinese Imperial wares. Most collectors inaccurately address reproductions as Fakes.   I have encountered authentic white based Nyonyawares modified and tampered by adding on enamel colours onto the white areas and/or reglazing, however these are also rarely encountered due to the tedious process.

Demand and Supply vs Rare

It is basic economic theory of demand and supply that governs alternative investments such as antique porcelain and art. The more collectors want an item, the higher its value gets. On the other hand, if a specific antique Nyonyaware is considered rare, but the number of people wanting to buy or collect it is low, then its value, both for collecting or investing, can be low or stagnant. I have personally seen rare and beautiful Japanese Kakiemon Kamchengs with fewer takers as compared to their less rare China made counterparts, as such their value or sold prices do not commensurate with the item’s rarity. Another example relates to rare coloured Nyonyawares made for ancestral and religious, these exquisite items are shunned by many collectors as such there is a limited demand for religious wares which considerably affected their value.

Melaka Brown Kamcheng, such brown based Nyonyawares are rarely encountered as compared to green based items. In the 1990s brown based wares were not preferred by the majority collectors, however collecting tastes have changed over the years and I have observed in the last few years brown based wares listed on the sale market are being snapped up immediately.  Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Highly sought after coloured Nyonyaware Spoons commanding significant investment value as compared to white based spoons. Both spoons photos Courtesy of a Private Collection from Kuala Lumpur

White based spoons are good entry level items for beginners

Table 1 depicting estimate value increment for white based spoons from 2003 to 2019

Period2003 to 20092010 to 20162017 to Present
PricesSGD$23 to SG$50SGD$50 to SGD$120SGD$120 to SGD$250

(All values are estimates and should not be taken as final value. Tracked from local/foreign auctions, private sales and eBay listings) 

I do not advise buying antiques as an investment unless you either understand their value or have sufficient knowledge in that area, alternatively have a knowledgeable friend or other party that knows it, and whom you can consult beforehand. Knowledge cannot be obtained entirely on Facebook or by internet trawling. Potential collectors/should visit museums, specialist dealers, curators, senior collectors, read academic references and feel and see as many authentic pieces as possible. This should include consultations with others, attending auctions etc. Doing your own research may include paid appraisals or valuations. 

Very desirable Butterfly series Chupu, probably a commissioned item and a similar Chupu was sold for approximately RM$18,000 at Henry Butcher Auction 2016.

 I reiterate again, authenticity is the precondition for collecting value of any Straits Chinese antiques. Something that is a reproduction (including “vintage) can simply not have antique value. The majority of antique dealers whom you purchase do often not know much about Nyonyawares, or whether they are authentic. Opinions about authenticity are just a view regarding an item’s authenticity, no more. Even if you pick someone experienced, he or she may not always be informed about a specific type of item’s potential value. I once sought out an opinion from a UK based Chinese ceramics expert (not an Nyonyaware expert) and I was given an opinion with regards to authenticity which I already knew, he was unable to provide a valuation however he identified accurately the Kamcheng was made in the late 1890s. 

Rare Porcelain Garden Stools acquired from a Melaka family. These stools depict all the traditional Straits Chinese Peranakan motifs i) Buddhist Symbols ii) Peonies and iii) Phoenixes. In addition, the motifs are positioned in the classic manner with panels encasing the phoenixes and peonies as such indicating beyond reasonable doubt they are made from the Straits Chinese Peranakans and not for the export Chinese markets. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Various unusual shaped tea pots decorated with peonies motifs, stamped with Tongzhi and Hongxian mark. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Important factor to note is an item value can be different from region to region and depends much on sales venue and demand. If a Kamcheng was sold in United Kingdom the value would be considerably lower than Singapore or Malaysia due to the demand and supply economic theory.  If your main purpose is not the investment part of a purchase, but rather the collecting experience, one of the most required preconditions is basic experience, theoretical knowledge and authenticity.

White based Nyonyawares

It is not uncommon to encounter veteran collectors scoffing at white based Nyonywares, however the supply of white based wares has decreased significantly due to rising demand from new collectors and perhaps some season collectors have started to appreciate the contrasting artwork on white based ground. Empirical auction data suggests a relative steep hike in value for white base wares over the last decade (refer to Table 1), a humble white base spoon estimated value of SGD$50 in early 2000s and SGD$250 in present times is a significant increase. A white based 7.9-inch classic standing phoenix plate could be bought at SGD$150 in 2003, the same plate would sell for SGD$450 today, as such the numbers clearly proves white based Nyonyawares do have some investment value and these wares are becoming scarce over the years due to demand and breakages. I would encourage novice collectors to take these wares seriously as a long-term investment strategy and as study pieces for the purpose of Nyonyaware familiarisation. 

13.5-inch Monster Kamcheng compared to a small Chupu. Courtesy of G.C Art & Heritage Collection.

Older may not always mean more Value

In some cases, older does not always mean an item is more valuable either. To give an example, some earlier made 1860s Bamboo or Cricket series Nonyawares may have less value than some early 20th century Nyonyawares, despite being more than 60 years older. They are too common, or too unattractive, often the beauty of the more recent item is much better. I have also noted that items made by the more famous kilns may have a slightly higher value than comparable items made by inferior kilns during the same period. Items that looks unappealing are also not desirable for many collectors, thus it should not be collected for investment.

Other Important Considerations

  • Size
    Big size items are a favourite among veteran collectors, I love big wares mainly because of the visual impact during display. Huge items mainly consist of Monster Kamchengs, Chupu Kings, Floor Spittoons, Garden Stools, Giant Teapots, Big Plates and huge Lidded Bowls, and these big items being highly desirable and very rare would usually fetch a premium value.
  • Beautiful Artwork
    Discerning collectors will target pieces with overall fine artwork and sometimes cleanly affixed period and shop marks may indicate well-crafted pieces         
  • The rarer the item the more tolerant for defects however the opposite for common items (white based wares). Decision to not collect a very rare defective item may be regrettable as very rare items may not be encountered in the future. In the antique investment market rare pieces do fetch significant prices, for an example in 2018 a Qing damaged vase bidding took off and the hammer eventually fell at £70,000. With all the fees added on the total price paid by the German buyer was £87,000! Therefore, if you encounter a rare Nyonyaware form or series do consider offering a 30 to 50% reduced value.

An exquisite classic green Kamcheng depicting fine artwork and stamped with Xu Shun Chang Zhao mark, considered the most common among the array of kamchengs and entry level for Kamcheng lovers. Courtesy of Mr. Lim Chee Kuan’s Collection, Ipoh.

Table depicting estimate value increment for a green 6-inch (diameter) Kamcheng from 2003 to 2019

Period2003 to 20092010 to 20162017 to Present
PricesRM$4000 to $5500RM$5500 to RM$12,000RM$12,000 to $16,500

(All values are estimates and should not be taken as final value. Tracked from local/foreign auctions, private sales and eBay listings)

Fake Information

Collectors should take note that reliance on internet information only is a dangerous thing. There are just too many websites out there providing incorrect information or showing images of fakes or inaccurate items. Collectors may end up learning from the wrong source. I once hear some preposterous statement from some collectors “all Kamchengs and Teapots without the metal handles are Fake”, apparently the collectors were advised wrongly by another collector. Such a presumption is ridiculous and can easily be rebutted by visiting the museum which displays an array of rare Kamchengs and Teapots without metal handles, besides metal handles are easier to replicate than antique porcelain! Good resources that get you into identification, authentication, and recognition of fakes are almost none in existence. Most newbies probably just start by buying items, books, and paying tuition in the form of the cost of reproductions or fakes or over paying for a lesser item. The recommended way for a newbie is to get some genuine white based affordable standard Nyonyawares as study examples, so that you can compare with the multitude of reproductions out in the market.

Master Wong LM and the author evaluating and appraising various Nyonyawares during an auction pre-view

Nothing surpasses the opportunity of seeing or inspecting the original thing. It would be better to spend a few thousand upfront for confirmed, authentic ones, and then start looking by yourself for more, using these items as reference for comparing the look of those and comparing with others. Unfortunately, many novice collectors of Straits Chinese porcelain just give up after some time, because they cannot get original items.  The difficult part is understanding how authentic old porcelain feel and really should look. This is a prerequisite to differentiate old porcelain in good condition from reproduction or tampered porcelain, which often are artificially made to look old.

In Singapore and Malaysia Straits Chinese porcelain is one of those categories that hold their value over time. Nyonyaware will never go out of style because of its cultural links with domestic collectors and the Straits Chinese Peranakan culture is extensively promoted by both countries for the tourist industry. This domestic allure is one of the reasons why it is worthwhile to collect Nonyawares other than the benefits of enjoying its artistic beauty and historical links.