Trash or Treasure: Asian vases from World War II

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News
Valerie Panosian shows off a few vases, which were possibly made several decades ago .

“My dad brought two of these vases back from his WWII Marine duty in the Pacific,” Valerie Panosian wrote in an email to the column hoping to find out more information about some pieces she had inherited. “I think they are brass. They were in a wooden box and the inscription below appeared on the inside of the box top. I have no other info. Are they trash or treasure?” she wondered.

She recently brought the two works into an in-person appraisal at the Michigan Design Center in Troy, where she filled expert Brian Thomczek in on a little more background. “My dad had these sent back to my mom while he was away,” she explained. “They sat on a ledge in our home for years. Our cat knocked them over a few times, so there are a few dents.”

The box top has two flags and a number of Chinese letters and symbols. “Can anyone read Chinese?” the appraiser hopefully asked the crowd gathered at the event. Unfortunately, no one could.

Panosian said she had seen comparable things on eBay and other online sites and long wondered about their worth. “Are they just common souvenirs?” she asked the appraiser.

He gave her some insight into the design and origin. “These are definitely Chinese,” he answered. “They are cloisonné and brass with painted flower decorations. You see floral motifs a lot in Chinese art. Japanese works usually have more animals.”

He praised the pair, adding the fact that she has the original box and a pair increases their value, which he said would be $200 to $300 at auction. “There are other works similar to this that are beaded and hammered and those are worth more,” he explained. He thought that her vases probably dated to the 1930s. Panosian said that would fit, as she thinks her father acquired them about 1945 or 1946.

“I’d be curious to find out what the writing on the top says,” the appraiser added. “If you know anyone who speaks or reads Chinese they could tell you.”

The fact that there were few marks made it hard to tell her much more. “They may have been mass produced, maybe as export souvenirs, but they are of nice quality. Even the box has value,” Thomczek said.

The appraiser said Chinese collectors are buying back the best Chinese pieces that have been exported. Hers probably wouldn’t be at that level, but are still very decorative. He advised her to be gentle in caring for them if she wants to keep them in good condition. “Don’t do anything crazy like taking Windex to them,” he told her. “If you want to have them restored, you can call Ken Katz downtown at Conservation and Museum Services for advice.”

“The blue color is very nice,” said Panosian after the appraisal. “We will probably keep them.”

About this item

Item: Vases

Owned by: Valerie Panosian

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $200 to $300 at auction