by Helga L. Zipser
All photos are by Randal A. Zipser, La Petite Galerie.
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1999

Imari - Japan's Export Porcelain
A rare "Black Ship" bowl from the Taisho period. Notice the Dutch figures. (Inset: Underside of the "Black Ship" bowl).

The term "Imari", for the Japanese export porcelain we identify by that name, is strictly generic. It covers many different porcelains, such as Arita wares which were mainly blue-and-white, as well as polychrome enamel porcelain made by an assortment of potters. The wares were shipped through the Northern Kyushu port of Imari, from where they derive their name. A Chinese porcelain design made during the Ming period, and known today as "Chinese Imari," was the inspiration for the Japanese potters.
Well-decorated bowel brom the Taisho period
An exceptionally well-decorated bowl from
the Taisho period. Notice the lavish use of gold decoration. (Inset: Inside view of the Taisho-period bowl).
The decoration was cobalt blue with touches of green, iron red, and gold, the Chinese pieces being more sparsely decorated on a predominantly white background. Most of the ware was utilitarian. We find plates, cups, serving dishes, and teapots decorated with floral designs, animals, and scenes of Chinese life. The Japanese adopted this decoration and made it uniquely their own, as they did with so many other art objects they took from the Chinese.

Japanese Imari is divided into five time periods: Momoyama (1615); Edo (1615-1868); Meiji (1868-1912); Taisho (1912-1926); and Showa (1926 to the present). The earliest Imari, or "Old Imari", was manufactured during the Momoyama period in western Japan, as the clay in that region was rich in iron, making it suitable for firing at high temperatures. This produced a hard and serviceable ware, perfect for utilitarian purposes. Most of these pieces were blue-and-white. During the Edo and Meiji periods, polychrome enamel decoration was favored by the Japanese aristocrats who were the main buyers of porcelain. There were five main colors: cobalt blue, iron red, blue, green, and gold.

As the Japanese masses prospered, they also demanded porcelain rather than the wood and lacquer utensils they used previously, and the high quality of Imari deteriorated to mass production.

Vase made by Koransha
Vase, made by Koransha. "The Company of the Scented Orchid." (Inset: Underside view of the Koransha vase showing the Fukagawa signature).
In the late 19th century, when the Japanese opened their ports to the West, porcelain manufacturers of Imari and Satsuma introduced their porcelain to the world at the Exhibition in Paris in 1867. A large jar decorated with birds and flowers in the polychrome design was the beginning of our fascination with Imari porcelains.

The Fukagawa Family and Their Porcelain
Koransha was founded in 1875. Ezaiemon Fukagawa started to produce porcelain for export to Europe and America. He named his company "Koransha," which means "The Company of the Scented Orchid."

Sei Ji Kai Sha, which stands for
"The Company of Pure Water," was founded in 1879 by members of the Fukagawa and other families in Arita
who were at one time associated with Koransha. The company made dinner ware for the Western market. In 1894, the Fukagawa Porcelain Manufacturing Company was founded. This company still exists today and manufactures some of the finest contemporary Imari. It is still being operated by the Fukagawa family.

Imari from the Meiji period
Three pieces of typical polychrome Imari from the Meiji period.
Imari And The Collector
What To Look For
Brilliant colors, clear designs and pleasing forms. Avoid “muddy” and poorly-painted pieces. Do not buy restored or damaged wares.

Choose from different designs: floral, animals, birds, tapestry, and people. Look for different background colors. Chocolate-brown is a rare and unusual color to collect. Buy a piece of Fukagawa--there is no finer Imari!

Unusual Shapes
Bird, fish, boat and fan designs are fun. Try to find a “Black Ship” piece, commemorating the Dutch traders and their sailing vessels. These are rare (and pricey)!

Imari porcelain is still affordable, although some of the unusual pieces are expensive. Small trays and plates, saki cups, and bowls can be purchased for under one-hundred dollars.

Rare piece of Imari made by Fukagawa
A rare piece of brown-background or "chocolate" Imari, made by Fukagawa.
When In Doubt
Its best to consult an expert. There are many reputable dealers who specialize in Oriental porcelain. They will be happy to assist you.

There are several good books on the market about Imari. “Famous Ceramics of Japan -- Imari”, by Takeshi Nagatake and “Imari, Satsuma and Other Japanese Export Ceramics”, by Nancy N. Schiffer, are my favorites. They can be ordered through any bookseller or try your local library.

Handle, Hold, and Fondle
There is no better way to get to know the “feel” of any porcelain.

Get Going
There must be an antique show, flea market or trip in your future! Buy just one piece and you’ll be hooked!

About the author:
Helga L. Zipser has been in the antiques business for over thirty years. She owns La Petite Galerie, Inc., in Tampa. Note: All Imari is from La Petite Galerie and my dear friend, Francie, who was the inspiration for this article.

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