Personal Finance: True blue investments

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Prices at auction are rising as the British love affair with blue and white china is rekindled, writes John Windsor

You can buy a transfer-printed copy of a Chinese blue and white tea bowl, made in Staffordshire in about 1815, for pounds 60-pounds 80 at auction. What would be the cost of an original - made in China in the mid-18th century and with the pagoda design painted by hand?

Answer: about the same. Increasing demand for British blue and white china is pushing prices steadily upwards, leaving the real thing undervalued. Both are worth investing in.

Even boring old transfer-printed willow pattern, the pastiche Chinoiserie said to have been dreamed up by Thomas Minton, is rising in price. Big willow-pattern meat serving dishes dating from Minton's lifetime (he died in 1836) that might have sold for pounds 60-pounds 80 five years ago, now fetch pounds 100- pounds 150.

The British love affair with blue and white china has blown hot and cold over the past four centuries. It is now being rekindled. In the 16th century, rare blue and white Chinese imports were mounted in silver gilt by aristocrats and royalty, partly because the cobalt blue pigment was thought to be a mixture of alabaster and sapphire.

Output had increased and prices had dropped to affordable middle-class levels by the mid-18th century, when one tea ship, the Prince George, brought back in a single cargo 26,000 cups and saucers, the same number of plates, 200 tea sets and 462 dinner services. At that time, some British- made porcelain was unable to withstand boiling water.

After Meissen and Wedgwood cracked the technology, it was Britain and not China that supplied most of the world's blue and white. After 1815, little was imported from China. And by 1840, no Brit with any taste would invite friends to dine off it. It was given to the servants. By the turn of the century, even the poor were fed up with it.

But in the course of the decline there had been a brief but ardent revival - the "Chinamania" craze - from the 1870s, coinciding with the orientalism of the Aesthetic Movement. Chimney pieces were stacked with blue and white Chinese vases, much of it supplied by theLondon shop Liberty.

Pairs of those vases are still relatively cheap - but are unlikely to remain so for long. They are the interior designer's post-minimalist dream.

At Sotheby's Billingshurst saleroom last month a 14in tall pair of blue and white Chinese vases of about 1880 sold for pounds 402 (including 15 per cent buyer's premium), well within the estimate of pounds 300-pounds 500. The pair shown here, 11.5in tall (one cover cracked), are of similar date and carry the same estimate in the 17 June sale (10.30am). Prices for such wares have so far risen gradually - four years ago, the estimates might have been only pounds 100 lower.

Bigger price rises are occurring in blue and white transfer-printed wares, for which the 300 members of Friends of Blue are enthusiastic bidders. Members' published research, including a two-volume dictionary sourcing print patterns and makers' marks, has boosted values, especially for interesting patterns and unusual shapes such as ladies' shoes. Examples from Britain's years of peak production, 1795-1840, are becoming highly collectable.

Prices for some choice printed pieces have practically doubled in four or five years. In the 17 June sale, a 19th century Spode meat plate, with an unusual design showing hunters on an elephant shooting at a leopard in a tree, is estimated pounds 450-pounds 600. A similar piece, estimated pounds 200-pounds 300 five years ago, fetched pounds 540.

The really big prices for British blue and white are for British painted Delftware, brought to this country in the mid-17th century by Dutch potters who put tin oxide in the lead glaze to add whiteness. A British Delftware dish, hand-painted with a cat playing a fiddle and dancing mice, fetched pounds 74,750 at Sotheby's London last year. A Bristol Delftware blue and white dish of about 1760, estimated pounds 250-pounds 350 in the 17 June Billingshurst sale, would probably have fetched only pounds 150 four years ago.

Prices will continue to rise as more collectors, both here and abroad, are attracted into this increasingly well-researched field. The United States already has a Blue Willow Society.

The Friends of Blue's 25th anniversary is being marked by an exhibition of transfer-printed pottery at the Wedgwood Visitor Centre (01782-204218) in Barlaston, Stoke-on Trent, Staffordshire, until 12 July. 'True Blue' by Gaye Blake Roberts contains an illustrated catalogue of the exhibition. It is pounds 11.50 (plus pounds 1.95 p&p) from The Secretary, Friends of Blue, PO Box 122, Didcot D.O, OX11 OYN.

Sotheby's Summers Place, Billingshurst, West Sussex RH14 9AD (01403- 8335344). Christie's South Kensington sale of oriental ceramics, Thursday, 10.30am (0171-581 7611).

'Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780-1880' by AW Coysh and RK Henrywood is available from the Antique Collectors' Club, 5 Church Street, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 1DS. Volume I pounds 29.95, vol II pounds 25, plus pounds 3 p&p for one or both. (01394-385501).

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