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A Pet Peeve

As both a collector and a dealer I have always been concerned with the condition, history, and provenance of a piece, whether buying for myself or for inventory. I have also focused on its decorative qualities as well. I’ve gotten many compliments for the former, but a surprising number askance looks for the latter.

This came up recently when I pointed a Chinese export porcelain collector friend to an e-letter I subscribe to from the prominent decorator Holly Holden. Her March letter was entitled “Enhancing Art with Porcelain” (, and included the first two photos above.

My friend’s response, surprisingly, was negative. The essence of it was that focusing on the decorative qualities of his Chinese export porcelain diminished its importance (and, I inferred, its and his seriousness.)

My response to him and to others who have responded this way over time is that if the original owners didn’t care about their porcelain’s decorative qualities, it would all have been plain white.

While I believe that condition, history, and provenance of a piece of Chinese export porcelain or other antique ceramics are very important, we shouldn’t fail to recognize its decorative and artistic qualities– the design, brushwork, the colors of the enamels, the glazes and the like.

While I’ve noticed that collectors of modern ceramics often do this when looking at a piece in isolation, collectors of antique ceramics tend to leave this to the comparison of two pieces to decide which is the “better”.

If we begin to understand that the ceramics collections were originally acquired for their beauty, then the idea of mixing them with other genres (that is to decorate with them) makes sense. For me one of the greatest exponents of this was the collector Alfred Barnes. His collection is housed in the Barnes Foundation’s Museum in Philadelphia and is displayed as it had been in his home.

He was an avid and eclectic collector. He acquired not just remarkable paintings, but furniture, metalwork, and ceramics. The third photo is of one of his rooms in which all of these are brought together.

This brings me back to Holly’s letter, and to continue thinking about my own collection and the inventory I acquire as beautiful pieces that can be placed in beautiful settings.

A last thought…. If I can get a client interested in a piece because they like the way it looks, I may be able to get them interested in its history and provenance and create a new “serious” collector.

R.J. Ruble, Ericsson Street Antiques

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