Originally used to store precious spices, Chinese ginger jars are beautiful decorative objects. You'll see vintage and antique ginger jars in online auctions and local antique shops, so it helps to have a few tips for identifying them. Some ginger jars can be very valuable, especially if they have certain features. Learn what to look for as you shop.
What Is a Chinese Ginger Jar?
Called a guan in China, a ginger jar has a characteristic urn shape. It's taller than it is wide and has gently slowing shoulders and a removable lid on top. These jars served an important function, allowing people to store spices and precious ingredients safely. According to Home & Antiques, the oldest ginger jars date back to the Ming period, which stretched from 1368-1644. Europeans saw these jars as they traded with China, and they were impressed with their elegance and beauty. Ginger jars became very popular in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, and they were also extremely popular in the 1960s as a home decor item.
Ginger Jar Shapes and Sizes
Ginger jars have a tall shape with tapered shoulders and a removable lid. They have no handles. In some cases, the lid has been broken, and people have replaced it with one made of wood or another material. Usually, though, the lid is the same pottery as the body of the jar. These jars can come in a wide variety of sizes - from only a few inches tall to over two feet.
Decorations and Motifs on Ginger Jars
You'll see vintage and antique ginger jars in a variety of color patterns and motifs. Common styles include floral patterns, chinoiserie designs, and lattice work. Color schemes can include white porcelain with multicolored designs, blue and white china, single-colored jars with texture, green Chinese ginger jars, and more. These are some of the most collectible:
- Imari - Imari porcelain has rich colors, often including red, gold, and blue. The designs can be very elaborate and sometimes date to the 1600s and 1700s.
- Famille rose and famille verte - The red family and green family are also popular color schemes for ginger jars. There are botanical patterns and other beautiful designs in these color schemes.
- Blue and white - Perhaps the most popular of Chinese ginger jar designs, traditional blue and white patterns have never gone out of style.
- Cinnabar - In bold, vibrant colors like red, cinnabar ginger jars are usually one shade all over with textural decorations.
Recognize Chinese Ginger Jar Markings
Many Chinese ginger jars are marked on the underside with Chinese characters or writing. Others may have a manufacturer's stamp. These markings are an important part of Chinese ginger jar identification because they offer clues about who made the jar and when it was made. These are some of the Chinese ginger jar markings you may encounter and how to understand what they mean.
Many Chinese porcelain items, including antique ginger jars, feature a reign mark that identifies the emperor at the time the piece was manufactured. According to Christie's, you usually read reign marks from top to bottom or right to left. You can find a great library of reign marks for Chinese porcelain at Gotheborg.
Another mark you may see is the manufacturer's hallmark or stamp. This is especially common for vintage ginger jars, which may have been made by notable china manufacturers. You can use the same tools you would to identify antique china patterns and the manufacturers who made them.
Figural Marks and Inscriptions
Ginger jars sometimes feature figural marks or inscriptions about their use. These can include fish, flowers, bats, insects, and others. You can see illustrations of these marks and their meanings in A Manual of Marks on Pottery and Porcelain, written in 1894 by W. H. Hooper and W. C. Phillips.
Factors Affecting the Value of Vintage and Antique Ginger Jars
Ginger jars can be worth anything from a few dollars to thousands. Like all antique Chinese art, it's important to verify the authenticity of any piece you're considering buying. If you're wondering whether your Chinese ginger jar is valuable, assess it for the following important factors:
- Age - Does the reign mark indicate you have a very old ginger jar? In general, older ginger jars are worth more. For instance, a pair of blue and white ginger jars from the 18th century sold on eBay in 2020 for about $2,700.
- Rarity - If you can establish the manufacturer of your ginger jar from the markings and find that the jar is rare, it may be worth more. Additionally, ginger jars by celebrated artists can be especially valuable, even if they are not old. For example, a signed and numbered ginger jar by glass artists Kelsey Murphy and Bob Bomkamp sold on eBay in 2021 for almost $4,000.
- Condition - A ginger jar in excellent condition will always fetch more than one in bad shape, all other factors being equal. The most valuable ginger jars have a glaze in good condition without cracks, crazing, or staining, and they also have their original lid.
How Do You Display a Ginger Jar?
If you enjoy decorating with antiques, you can put your antique or vintage ginger jar to good use as a display piece. These jars look beautiful in groupings of two or three, and they also make gorgeous focal points on their own. Display them on top of a bookcase, on your fireplace mantel, or anywhere else that's sure to attract attention. These are beautiful objects that deserve to be seen.