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Treasures: Ginger jar’s floral design makes it a highly desirable piece

The gold on this Chinese cloisonne is the color of the brass wires with perhaps a little gilding.
The gold on this Chinese cloisonne is the color of the brass wires with perhaps a little gilding. TNS

Q: I received this ginger jar from an elderly neighbor years ago. She said it had been brought to the United States through the Panama Canal when it first opened around 1914. It is quite heavy and from the feel of the paint, it is hand-painted. The gold, however, is not hand-painted on and adds to the weight of the jar. It was valued in excess of $900 back in the 1990s, and I am wondering what you think the value might be now.

M. S., Brick, New Jersey

A: It is difficult to value an item unless we know its size. In the photographs, we see a picture of the piece against a sofa, and it appears to be what is often called “palace size” — in other words, massive.

Unfortunately, photographs can be very deceiving. But for the purposes of this answer, we are going to assume the piece is in the neighborhood of 25 inches tall and will do our pricing based on that size.

Although it is possible this covered jar was brought to the United States through the Panama Canal, we have our doubts. This piece was made in China some decades before 1914, and it could very easily have arrived on these shores through a port on the West Coast that did not require use of the canal.

Interestingly, the piece is indeed handmade, but it is not hand-painted, per se. The covered jar is a type of ware called cloisonne, which is a term that is applied to pieces decorated with colored enamels — think powered colored glass — applied to a base such as metal, pottery or lacquer, then fused in a furnace.

The powdered glass is placed in little cells enclosed in wire (usually brass or bronze) that have been soldered or glued to the base material. These enclosures are called cloisons in French, thus the name “cloisonne.” The cells with their colored enamels are arranged to make a picture, and after the enamels are fused, the uneven surface is ground down and polished to make everything smooth.

Chinese cloisonne has been around since the 16th century, but most pieces found in the United States were made after 1850. Most pieces found in this country are marked “China” or “Made in China,” meaning they were made after the enactment of the McKinley Tariff Act, which passed in 1890 and went into effect in 1891.

We feel the covered jar was made a tad earlier than 1891 — say, 1885 — and its size and magnificent floral design make it a highly desirable piece. Since the 1990s, however, the popularity of cloisonne has declined a bit in this country, and the blue, green and yellow color scheme is a little less vibrant than some collectors might like (a broader spectrum of hues is often preferred). Together these two factors could decrease the price a bit.

For insurance replacement purposes, we feel the jar should be valued in the $1,000 to $1,200 range and would sell in the neighborhood of $500 to $600 at auction.

Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email treasures@knology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.