Published: September 29, 2015
Gail and Rich Mellin have been buying and selling Canton since the 1970s. For many years, their customers have begged them to write a book about this much loved but little understood Chinese porcelain decorated in a distinctive — and, as it turns out, richly symbolic — blue and white pattern. The Redding, Conn., dealers recently obliged by publishing Collecting Canton: In Pursuit of the Best. Written with their daughter Erica Mellin Scioscia, the heavily illustrated volume features 92 different Canton forms identified by the experts and offers a glimpse into the private collections of some eminent China hunters with whom the Mellins have worked. Also included is a guide to identifying and interpreting Canton’s signature design elements, dating Canton, spotting fakes and forgeries and a discussion of the historic shipwrecks that have yielded clues to age of the wares that were exported in quantity to western markets in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
What are some of the biggest myths about Canton?
Two common bits of fiction are that Canton was so plentiful as to be disposable and that it was intentionally used for ballast in ships. Another popular misconception is that Canton is “better” or “older” if the color is deep blue. In truth, the color of the decoration has no bearing on the quality, age or value of the porcelain. Color — which ranges from faded light blue to deep navy blue — varies greatly and has always been a matter of personal preference.
Have you been able to identify different factories?
Yes and no. We have not been able to identify the names or specific locations of the factories that manufactured Canton. However, as you examine different pieces of Canton, you begin to notice stylistic variations in the way that decorative elements are presented. This is because each factory had many painters whose job it was to paint the same design over and over again. Each painter had his unique interpretation of an element. We have been able to identify distinct similarities in the elements of the decoration that would have come from a specific factory.
Why is dating Canton so difficult?
Much Canton on the market today is misdated. Period accounts such as factory logs, reports of shipwrecks or domestic inventories of Canton are relatively rare. Family histories tend to be less than reliable because Canton porcelain was so common. The often-heard tale about grandma having Canton in her pantry proves the popularity of this porcelain, but not its age. There is, in fact, no magic formula when it comes to dating porcelain. Part of the process includes using relevant historical facts. Then we ask three main questions: 1) When was this form made in other decorations? 2) What is the quality of the porcelain as it relates to other known early porcelain forms? 3) What is the quality of the decoration?
What is clobbered Canton?
The term clobber, as it relates to Chinese Export porcelain, refers to enamel over the glazed surface. Flowers, birds, elaborate borders and other designs of pink, yellow, red, orange, turquoise or gold gilt were added to enhance the piece’s appearance in almost complete disregard of the blue design. Clobbered Canton is quite rare.
Do you have some great stories about collectors?
Many of our customers have become wonderful friends over the years. They come from varied walks of life and all have interesting stories to tell about their quest. The collectors we’ve included in our book are all passionate about Canton but each has a different tale to tell.
Have the book and the business been family affairs?
Oh, yes. Our daughters grew up in the business, developing appreciation for antiques by attending shows and auctions with us. Even our two young grandchildren have gotten in on the action. They’ve accompanied us to shows and sales since before they could even walk.
Speaking of shows and sales, what’s on your calendar?
We are signing books at the ADA Historic Deerfield Antiques Show on October 10. In conjunction with a long-term exhibition of Canton porcelain at the Weston Public Library in Weston, Conn., the Weston Historical Society is hosting a cocktail event and lecture by us on November 14. Our upcoming show schedule includes the November 5–8 Delaware Antiques Show, the January 8–10 Washington Winter Show and the April 15–17 Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show. Most of this information can be found on our website.
To order Collecting Canton: In Pursuit of the Best, go to www.mellinsantiques.com or call 203-938-9538.
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