Next time you’re in a shop that sells Chinese blue and white porcelain, pick up a piece and turn it over. Chances are good it will carry an inscription in blue on the bottom. Called a reign mark, it tells you which emperor ruled when the piece was made. As the last reign ended in 1912, the dish you’ve picked up should logically be at least a century old. Hundred-year-old porcelain selling for £2? Not likely, but hold that thought.
When you buy a Chinese dish today, you are doing what collectors have done since porcelain started arriving in London in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare mentions this marvel in Measure for Measure, when Elbow’s pregnant wife asks Mistress Overdone for stewed prunes. The brothel-keeper happens to have some in a threepenny dish, a fine dish but not, Shakespeare tells the audience, a ‘China-dish’.