Pricing Guides & Dictionary of Makers Marks for Antiques & Collectibles

HOW TO IDENTIFY ANTIQUES
The value and importance of makers' marks

Antique Russian Lacquered Jewelry Box, signed or initialed by the artist
Antique Russian Lacquered Jewelry Box, signed & initialed by the artist

Nowadays, properly identifying antique or collectible items and Fine Art is more than just the proverbial Art and Science. It is a business.

Projecting a pleasing aesthetic value or provoking a challenging idea, remain the primary purpose of the creator of any artistic object. Yet this is just one aspect of appreciating it, while we may be ignoring that there is also a lot of science involved in its making, including the specific choice of materials (medium), tools (technique), the method of production (process) and other considerations that depend heavily on the artist's conceptual planning. However, we must not underestimate the cold fact that many potential buyers of someone's work, whether directly from the artist or through the secondary market, is that it may prove to be a solid investment. Collectors often pride themselves in how a particular item was bought at a certain price some moons ago but has now appreciated in value immensely.

This applies to items beyond the traditional Fine Arts. For example, most homeowners that keep a collection of antiques at home, and certainly all reputable Auction Houses, purchase insurance on their inventory to full market value. This is standard practice for most business-minded and prudent collectors and dealers as they recognize that any of these objets de vertu can be converted to cold hard cash very easily, in some cases at a higher return than stocks or bonds.

For these reasons, it is important to recognize that understanding the history of an item is part of doing business. As is evident, it would be a waste of money to insure or care for a reproduction recently mass-produced at a factory in Asia. Additionally, placing a price on an item, especially when it's for sale, may define a dealer's reputation and potential for future sales. Of course, the reverse is also true since as a buyer, you never want to pay an unrealistic price for a falsely identified item.

Bronze of Mercury and Pandora with Gold & Silver patinas, French, early 20thC
Bronze of Mercury and Pandora with Gold & Silver patinas, French, early 20thC

It is therefore essential that a dealer or collector has the ability to identify their items with precision. Knowledge of the maker and age of an item, along with its condition, are the most important criteria used in determining its value. Most items bear a signature or some sort of logo, which tell a significant story of its making. It is highly advisable to discover what these marks mean and how to interpret this information. For example, identifying a maker's mark on porcelain is vital to its proper authentication and appraisal. This is why most professional personal property appraisers always need to know how or when an item was acquired and of course check for any makers' marks or back-stamps that may reveal the manufacturer. As expected, the manufacturer's legacy also comes into play to determine, amongst other things, quality.

Some makers used different marks during different periods and this helps in determining the year or general timing an item was made. Even if a company marked logo was used for a long period or throughout their operations by a factory or artisan studio, the style of the piece often gives us clues as to when it was made. Other than style, an experienced appraiser can also check for signs of wear and tear, such as crazing, oxidation, shrinkage, the method of manufacturing etc, to arrive at a usually fairly accurate assessment as to its age. Of course, the specific actual provenance of an item in terms of who and when owned it before, whether within or outside the family, provide for a general time scale and a good starting point for more research, but unfortunately and unless reliably documented, such stories are often based on faded or exaggerated childhood memories that can be difficult to verify.

Antique Silver and Garnet Brooch, 18th Century
Antique Silver and Garnet Brooch, 18thC

Antiques and collectibles come in a huge variety of categories or genres, some based solely on the material used to make them and some according to their style or period they were made. Material-related categories include Ceramics (porcelain, pottery, chinaware), Silver or metalwork, antique furniture, Fine Art (paintings, lithographs, engravings etc), Antiquities (ancient artifacts), Militaria (antique firearms or US Civil War items), Rugs and Linen (carpets or older Samplers and needlework), vintage Toys or Games and many others. View more examples of related terms here.

In addition to period styles whose names are derived from concurrent personalities such as Georgian, Victorian, Queen Anne, Federal American etc, most antiques and collectibles can also be classified by the aesthetic movement they represent, as in the case of Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts, Art Deco, Modernist etc. Furthermore, certain styles can be associated with places where a certain manner of their design was first introduced or was most prevalent, including examples of Limoges porcelain, Dresden figurines, Paris Porcelain, New England antique furniture, Delft pottery and others. In some instances, a secondary attribute such as the “finish” (in porcelain that would be the glaze) is of importance as in the case of Majolica or Faience ceramics and Blue & White chinaware.

ANTIQUE ENGLISH CHINESE-STYLED CHIPPENDALE MAHOGANY TABLE
Antique English Chinese-styled Chippendale Mahogany table

These material and period or style classifications are important to recognize since they may reveal reasonable clues of where to begin a fruitful research to identify them. It is a commonly accepted convention, that the term "antique" is reserved for items that are at least 100 years old, except for old Carpets or Rugs where that distinction applies for those made 65 years or more.

However, many times, the general style or period of an item does not match its estimated “age”. This requires careful consideration of all elements as described above, which must be considered in order to tell whether an item is indeed an “antique” or a generic reproduction or simply a decorative copy of an original masterpiece. For example, many recent mass-produced imports from Asia and elsewhere of items in recognizable and desirable styles, are marked using forged copies of older companies' logos, which sometimes are now extinct or have a tremendous reputation for quality. These pieces are nice decorative or utilitarian items, but are not “antique”.

Therefore, in order to identify antique items or valuable collectibles, it is advisable to begin by recognizing, at least in principle, the overall genre or style that they reflect or represent. This is the first attribute that must be assessed to allow for a more focused approach towards proper identification and authentication using any makers marks or symbols on each piece.

Check our research guides to help you in identifying and appraising your own collection at marks4antiques.com.