Dear Helaine and Joe:
I inherited this 7-inch-tall enamel bowl. There are no markings on the piece, and it is approximately 75 years old, or perhaps older. Have you any idea of the value?
Dear S. B.:
The image of a dragon around the shoulder of this vessel is quite dramatic and bold, but the rest of the design is rather simplistic and poorly done.
The bowl, which was probably intended to be a jardiniere, is decorated with an ancient technique called cloisonne. In some form this type of decoration goes back to the ancient Near East with several cultures, including the Egyptians, using it.
Chinese cloisonne has been made since the 16th century, but most pieces found in the United States are from after 1850. Although Asian cloisonne work can be found on ceramics, wood and lacquer, this decorative technique is most often associated with metalwares.
Chinese cloisonne is created by soldering metal wires (sometimes these are silver or, rarely, gold) onto a metal body until little pockets or cells are created. In French, these little cells are called cloisons (thus the name of the ware, cloisonne).
These cloisons are then filled with colored enamel (powdered glass) of various colors that form a pattern such as the dragon seen on the piece in today’s question. After this is done, the object is fired to fuse the enamels, and finally, the surface is polished to make it uniform height and to make the enamels gleam with the richness of their coloring.
The fact that the piece belonging to S. B. has no marking suggests it may have been made prior to 1891. A large portion of the cloisonne found today will be marked either “China” or “Made in China,” with the pieces marked “China” having been made post-1891, and those labeled “Made in China” crafted after 1921.
This is kind of a loosey-goosey frame of reference, because pieces bought in China and never officially exported to the U.S. may not be marked at all, and the marking system referred to above was not always followed to the letter. The “China” and “Made in China” markings were placed on items to conform to the McKinley Tariff, which went into effect in 1891, but the Chinese did not always play by the rules.
We feel the piece is either late 19th or early 20th century, and the decorations make it very interesting. But, there is one little detail that S. B. failed to mention in her letter that we discovered while examining the picture, and what we saw greatly impacts the monetary value.
Cloisonne is very easily damaged, and while we were perusing the photo, we discovered a large chunk of enamel missing from the border below the image of the dragon and off to one side. In addition, we saw other small defects that might raise a buyer’s eyebrows.
These are major defects and would cause most collectors to pass on this item, which otherwise would be worth several hundred dollars. But in its seriously damaged condition, this piece has an insurance replacement value of less than $50.