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Evaluating Korean Celadon - Old and Modern

    Praised by the 8-12th century Sung Chinese for its "kingfisher" blue-green color, lost as an art form after the Koryo Dynasty, and then rediscovered and collected aggressively by the Japanese, Korean celadon has never lost its inherent value, beauty, or appeal. While the most valuable celadon is generally the older, Koryo Dynasty celadon, modern celadon is often better made, and frequently has a great value all its own.
    The golden age of celadon in Korea was during the middle and latter part of the 11th century when the influence of Buddhism increased the need for fine vessels to be used during religious ceremonies and more celadon was produced to meet the need. By 1231 AD the influence of Buddhism and the flourishing culture began to decline, and along with it, the quality of the pottery being produced. By the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) most of the delicate manufacturing techniques for celadon had been lost. There was a re-birth of celadon in the 1950s when a group of Korean artisans set out to discover the lost art of Koryo celadon. Since that time, they have made great progress in rediscovering the secret techniques and much of the celadon made today is of better quality than that of the Koryo Dynsasty. Learn more about the History of Korean Celadon here.
    The value of older celadon (pre-1950) is based primarily on its age, uniqueness, skill used in making it, and its level of preservation. More modern celadon - that which was made after the re-birth - it primarily valued by its beauty, uniqueness, and the fame of the artisan who made it. Preservation is generally not an issue since most modern celadon is in good condition.

Old celadon:

    Appearance

    In most cases, old celadon is easy to distinguish from modern celadon even by casual observance. The majority of Koryo era celadon was recovered from tombs in the early 1900's where it had been buried for hundred's of years, and so it tends to appear as if... well, as if it had been buried in the ground for hundreds of years. That is, the color is often faded from its original vibrancy, the glaze is often pockmarked from water damage, and it frequently has some physical damage to it - either repaired or not. Additionally, the pieces that have made it down through time to the present, are not necessarily the best or most beautiful of their era, but are more of a hodgepodge of pieces, many of which were good enough for burial, but not much more. Those pieces that were exceptional, have mostly made their way into museums. Therefore, a good deal of the old celadon today, is less than spectacular and often appears malformed, damaged, or severely weather-beaten.
    Another telling mark of a piece's age, is its base. Kilns used during the Koryo Dynasty were made of earth and generally had sand or earthen floors. The pots were placed on the bare floors and so tended to pick up residue from the floor or have their bases deformed by contact with the floor. In order to keep the piece off the floor of the kiln, potters would place three small pieces of sand, pebbles, or shells under the piece to prop it up off the floor. After the firing, the pieces of sand were broken off but left telltale marks on the bottom of the piece called "spur marks". Modern celadon is made in neat, sterile kilns and has no spur marks.
    Modern celadon nearly always has the mark of the artisan who created it written in Chinese characters, but old celadon mostly did not, or if it did, the mark is so faded as to be unrecognizable. Glazed bottoms, which are common on all modern celadon, were sometimes not used on older celadon due to the difficulty in keeping the base debris free.

Damaged dish with inlaid floral decoration Plain bowl, with spur marks on base Mae-byeong (vase), with perfect, glazed base
Damaged celadon dish with inlaid floral decoration, even so, it is displayed in the National Museum of Korea.
12th century, Koryo Dynasty
Plain celadon bowl, with spur marks on the base.
11th - 12th century, Koryo Dynasty
Modern celadon Mae-byeong (vase), with perfect, glazed base, and the artist's mark, written in Chinese characters - the red mark is a personal stamp used by some artisans which is the equivalent of a signature

    Value

    The value of old celadon can range from $500 for a poorly preserved, deformed bowl, with damage, to priceless for a perfect specimen such as many of those in the National Museum of Korea. For the most part, all old celadon is quite valuable and even pieces that are incomplete due to damage, generally have value. Determining the exact value is where things get difficult. As mentioned above, the general guidelines for determining a piece's value are age, uniqueness, skill used in making it, and its level of preservation. As with most antiques, the age of a piece has a great influence, as the older a piece is, generally the more valuable it is. This is usually true for celadon as well, however there are some exceptions to consider. Items from the golden age of celadon tend to be more valuable than those that were produced earlier or later, because of the excellent craftsmanship employed in works of that era. However, works from an earlier or later period that belie the craftsmanship of their era could be equally, or more valuable. For example, a shard of white porcelain with inlay from a period in which it was thought that inlay was not used, may be more valuable than a complete - but more common piece from another time.
    The criteria above also ties in with its uniqueness. While bowls, Ju byeong or mae byeong [link] may be quite common, a more unique piece, or one of a kind piece, would have a much greater value.

White porcelain shards with inlaid decoration, from the 12th or 13th century - inlaid white porcelain is quite rare.
Unique celadon water dropper in the form of a duck
12th century

    The level of preservation of a piece is likewise important and in general, the less color fading or other damage to the celadon glaze, the more valuable the piece will be. The same holds true for exterior physical damage, like missing handles and such - the more complete, the better. In summation, a common piece of which a great number were made, with some fading of the glaze, and pockmarked from water damage with a few chips out of it, may fetch little more than a few hundred dollars. But a well preserved piece with good color, no damage and of a nice design may be worth $30,000 or more, such as a small celadon cosmetic box (hyang-hap) which was recently evaluated on a Korean antique show.

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Modern celadon

    Appearance

    Modern celadon (that which has been made since the re-birth of celadon in the 1950's) varies in appearance depending on when it was made. The skill of celadon artisans has increased over the years, so it follows that the earlier works would generally have a less vibrant or uniform color of glaze, less symmetry in their shapes, and less detail in the inlaid designs. Pieces made more recently all have a mostly symmetrical shape, uniform color and and fairly well detailed inlay. Most modern celadon also has a glazed base, with the name of the artisan who created the piece written in Chinese characters.
    The difference between modern celadon of high quality, and that of lesser quality can be seen in the detail of the inlay or painting, and the uniformity and color of the glaze. Upon close inspection, the inlaid and painted portions of a lower quality piece will appear somewhat blurred and indistinct, while those of better quality will be clear in detail and form. The depth and color of the glaze are another telling feature. The deep jade-green glaze of quality works has a rich color, and clarity that far surpasses that of lesser works.

    Value

    As with old celadon, determining the value is where things get tricky. As previously mentioned, there are three factors, that contribute to a modern piece's value: beauty, uniqueness, and the fame of the artisan who made it. The more beautiful a piece is, to include the level its craftsmanship, uniform color of glaze, and detail in the designs, the higher its value will be. A more detailed work also takes more time to create, and so there are likely fewer copies of that piece, which further adds to its value. Therefore, uniqueness, generally accompanies quality. Artisans of some renown, make better quality pieces, which take more time, and therefore, they create fewer of them, so they end up being more unique.
    We receive numerous letters inquiring about the value of celadon acquired years ago, either during the war, or the decades following it. The following guidelines are generally true about pottery acquired since the war. Celadon pieces that were acquired during the Korean war or shortly after, are likely to have some increased value over its intrinsic value, since there was virtually no celadon production during the war and those pieces that were available, were probably from an earlier age. Works that were acquired in the 60's through 70's were either from the budding celadon industry of the time, or were earlier works. That determination can be made by the way that the piece was acquired. A piece that came from a shop in Seoul, with dozens of other similar pieces and was purchased for a low price, was probably produced by one of the pottery shops of the time and may or may not have increased value. A work that was purchased from a specialty shop, that looked like an antique at the time of purchase, was unusually expensive or unique looking, may have been one of the many antiques that were sold during that era for financial gain. It should be remembered that Korea did not become the  economic powerhouse that it is today, until the mid 80's and in the years after the war, life was difficult. Many people had to sell priceless family heirlooms simply to survive. Works purchased in the 80's to present, are most likely from the modern celadon industry and their value can be determined by the other factors mentioned above - beauty, uniqueness, and fame of the maker.

    It should be noted that the above guidelines are designed to serve only as a guide. Please do not base an evaluation of a piece of celadon on the guidelines above. If you feel a piece is monetarily valuable, it may very well be. Do not dismiss a work based on our very broad guidelines. Ultimately, the monetary value doesn't really matter. As with all art, if the piece is beautiful, and you enjoy it, then it could not possibly have a greater value than that.

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Comparisons

    In order to help differentiate between old and modern pieces, we have compiled some pictures of comparable celadon pieces from the Koryo Dynasty, and modern pieces below.

Old Celadon

Modern Celadon

The bottle on the left is Korean celadon from the early 12th century, Koryo Dynasty. The bottle on the right is late 11th to early 12th century Chinese celadon. Mu-ji (plain) Vase & Bottle
The bottle on the left is Korean celadon from the early 12th century, Koryo Dynasty. The bottle on the right is late 11th to early 12th century Chinese celadon.
Mu-ji (plain) Vase & Bottle

 

Sculptured incense burner, 12th century Lotus & Rabbit Incense Burner
Sculptured incense burner, 12th century
Lotus & Rabbit Incense Burner

 

Inlaid and underglaze painted Mae-byeong vase, 12th century Pink Peony Vase & Bottle
Inlaid and underglaze painted Mae-byeong vase, 12th century
Pink Peony Vase & Bottle

 

Inlaid celadon oil bottle, 13th century Chrysanthemum & Lunettes Oil Bottle
Inlaid celadon oil bottle, 13th century
Chrysanthemum & Lunettes Oil Bottle
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Links

    Unfortunately, Korean-Arts does not offer an appraisal service at this time for Korean celadon. In our opinion, appraisal by any other means than direct contact with the piece is not appropriate, and our location here in Korea, while fine for viewing local wares, prevents us from viewing items in the US or Europe.
    Below are listed several sites of interest that may be helpful in the evaluation of a piece of celadon or Korean art. The first is an auction site that has a section dedicated to Korean art, and may be helpful for viewing items similar to one you are trying to evaluate, and the second is a dedicated appraisal site. Korean-Arts has no business relationship with either of these sites, and we cannot vouch for their business practices, or level of expertise. We are providing these links simply as a source to find more information about the art of Korea.

Trocadero: Antiques: Regional Art: Asian: Korean: Ceramics 

Van Weyenbergh Fine Arts Inc. Art Appraisal

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