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Collection of W.H. Grindley "Argyle" flow blue china typical of the late style.  Photo courtesy of the Flow Blue International Collectors Club, www.flowblue.org

Collection of W.H. Grindley “Argyle” flow blue china typical of the late period. Photo courtesy of the Flow Blue International Collectors Club, http://www.flowblue.org

First, what is it? To a connoisseur, flow blue is a generic term that refers to the ironstone china manufactured in England from the 1830s to the turn of the next century.  The Flow Blue International Collectors Club classifies patterns in three phases: early (1835-1860), middle (1860s-1870s) and late (1870s-early1900s). Modern flow blue refers to pieces made after 1910.

Favorite subjects include historical scenes, English landscapes, Asian-inspired floral motifs and famous buildings.  The term emerged to describe the process of cobalt coloration overflowing its borders during firing (a popular legend says it resulted from a happy accident but in fact it was a carefully executed transfer process).  It’s a bit of a misnomer, too, because the genre can encompass green, sepia and purple (mulberry) wares.

That’s what the term means to a connoisseur.  But it is widely and casually used to refer to any smudgy blue and white china, whether antique or contemporary.  Fakes are common and reproductions are legion, so it’s important to know which you’re looking at before assigning a value. For example, every spring I force bulbs in a little flow blue bowl that’s worth every penny of the four dollars I paid for it (it’s a reproduction made in Taiwan).

Moreover, flow blue is a perfect illustration of the maxim, “what goes up must come down.” From its origins in the 19th century, flow blue has enjoyed many ebbs and flows in popularity.  It was the rage in the late 1800s and again in the late 1900s.  A hot collector’s item a few decades ago, today’s values for flow blue china suggests that new buyers consider it passe.

If you like it, now is a good time to buy, as prices have come down considerably in the past decade.  And if you own it, don’t despair: if history is any guide, your grandchildren are going to love it (and pay dearly to buy it back).

Flow blue prices vary widely, depending on date, maker, pattern, condition and piece.

"Savoy" pattern lidded tureen by Johnson Brothers. $1,499 on replacements.com

“Savoy” pattern lidded tureen by Johnson Brothers. $1,499 on replacements.com

Unusual serving pieces command the highest values, of course.  At the time of this writing, prices on replacements.com for good quality flow blue patterns range from $1,500 for a Johnson Brothers “Savoy” pattern blue and white gilded lidded tureen to just $13.99 for a “Mongolia” pattern salad plate. In general, though, you can currently expect between $60-70 retail for a dinner plate.  Local auction prices will be lower: right now on LiveAuctioneers.com you can find a 30-piece serving set dating to ca. 1900 by an unknown maker with a starting bid of $150 (estimate $300-500).  Of course, all the pieces mentioned here are among those commonly found on the market and in private homes, not the very rare or unusual piece a dedicated collector might seek.

For a couple of good, short articles on flow blue’s history, identification and values, check out: