Imari: Beautiful at any age.

Both serious collectors and “dabblers” have enjoyed Imari porcelain for hundreds of years. And there’s a good reason for it – Imari’s timeless design just never goes out of style.

A noble history.
Imari is named for the port where porcelain made in nearby Arita was exported by the Dutch East India Company. At the time, Dejima Island in the bay of Nagasaki was the only port open to Dutch, Korean and Chinese traders under the isolationist Sakoku policy. Because the shipping containers were stamped with the name of the port, the porcelain they carried became known as Imari.

Traditionally, Imari began in Japan when Ri Sampei, brought to Japan from Korea, discovered kaolin clay. Made into white translucent porcelain, it was then underglazed in a lovely cobalt blue. It further evolved as Japanese artisans began to overglaze with iron red, green and gold.

Japanese Imari became extremely popular throughout Europe in the 17th Century, and soon the Chinese began to copy the style and, according to some experts, surpassed the original Japanese exports. By the late 1700s Imari’s popularity in Europe started to wane.

Early 18th Century Imari.

Early 18th Century Imari.

Photo Courtesy of Treehouse Antiques, Cape May, NJ

Plates or bowls typically have a circular design in the center, surrounded by repeated panels of complementary designs that divide the rest of the space. Authentic colors are iron red, cobalt blue, green, gold, and sometimes, black. (Of course, the older pieces are often blue and white.)
Some pieces will have a Japanese character on the bottom. This is often a symbol for long life or happiness – meaning that the piece was probably made as a wedding gift.

Late 19th Century and early 20th Century Imari is also very beautiful and collectible.
That’s because, whether the piece is from 1733 (antique) or 1933 (vintage), Imari is so lovely that it really doesn’t matter how old it is. Just be sure that you know what you’re getting. Unscrupulous dealers have been known to pass of more modern pieces as “rare antiques.” While it’s common to see pieces listed for several hundred dollars, lovely items can still be had for less than that.

Vintage reproduction Imari plates, made in Arita

Vintage reproduction Imari plates, made in Arita

Photo courtesy of Silverbeevintage on Etsy

Tips for collectors.
Consulting an Imari expert is always the best way to build your collection or evaluate pieces you already own. However, there are some things anyone can look for when scouring yard sales, flea markets or antique stores:
NO truly antique pieces are marked “Imari” in English. If such a mark is on a piece, it was made in the mid to late 20th Century.

Genuine early 18th Century Imari. Note the lack of a mark on the underside.

Genuine early 18th Century Imari. Note the lack of a mark on the underside.

Photo courtesy of Treehouse Antiques, Cape May, NJ

“Gold Imari, Hand Painted” appears on modern items made in Arita between 1959 and 1984. These pieces can be collectible.
– To be on the safe side, avoid any “Imari” pieces from China or being shipped from China unless you have expert authentication.
Toshio Mitimura reproductions of 16th Century Imari are clearly marked as such, and are collectible.
– Japanese and Chinese porcelain often have different marks, left by their kiln supports. It pays to know the difference.

So go out and have fun starting or building your Imari collection! Antique or simply vintage, its history and eternal beauty will make it a lovely focal point for any decor.

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
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8 Responses to Imari: Beautiful at any age.

  1. Ann Akimi Lofquist says:

    A few editing suggestions:
    The dishes in the photograph identified as “early 18th century” look to be Meiji Period (1868-1912) wares — certainly the large plate and possibly the other two as well (they’re hard to see). Also, porcelain production began in Japan after Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea (1592) and basically kidnapped a number of Korean potters and brought them back to Japan. Just last year (2016) there was a big celebration in Arita marking the 400th anniversary of the birth of Imari porcelain. (Tradition holds that the Korean potter Yi Sampyeng discovered the kaolin deposits near Arita in the year 1616.) Thus, there is no such thing as “16th century Imari porcelain”.
    good luck,

  2. Ted says:

    “NO truly antique pieces have an Imari mark. An “Imari” mark means that it was made in the mid to late 20th Century.”

    This is not true. Many original pieces of Japanese Imari have Japanese marks, one or more of which translate to “Imari” or “Arita”. However “Imari”, written in English is absolutely an indication of modern production.

    • sarathurston says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ted! Maybe I should make it clearer that I was referring to the English word “Imari.” 🙂

      This is just one example of opinions that I’ve found. There were so many sources that said that “Imari” is not on antique pieces that I included it in the article:

      “Dear N.J.D.: Let’s get the bad news over with right away. All pieces of porcelain that are marked with the word “Imari” in English are mid- to late 20th century giftware. They are not antique, and they are “hard to find” because most of this type of ware still is in the possession of its original owners and has not yet moved onto the secondary market.

      The hard facts of life are that the vast majority of all authentic, antique Japanese Imari is completely unmarked. Occasionally, there may be some sort of symbolic mark that may mean something like “good luck,” and on even rarer occasions an artist signature in Japanese characters might turn up — but no authentic piece made in the 17th, 18th, 19th or even early 20th centuries has a mark on it that reads “Imari.”

      • Wendy Br says:

        I have a lovely porcelain dish that I believe might be Imari, but I have no idea how to authenticate it. I have read many articles on Imari and there are several distinguishing features on this piece. There are no markings on the bottom, but there are blue rings around the base, which I have seen on a picture of an antique piece. It also has a very gritty base. It has some gold on it which is quite worn. It does not have the circle in the center of the plate which seems to be commonplace with Imari. It does, however, have four distinct inset pictures, and a starfruit shaped design with flowers in it. It is quite lovely and I would like to know more about it. Can anyone help me?

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