Appreciating antique pottery (painting by KLEIN Sandor C. - American 1912-1995)
Most ceramics bear a maker's mark or backstamp. This is usually located on the underside, whether it is a figurine or pottery vase. These marks usually denote the studio or manufacturer and at times include the Artist’s initials or signature. Most Studio or Art Pottery is unique and rarely reproduced in large quantities unless they were made for utilitarian purposes, such as pottery jugs or ceramic cookware and tableware that are usually branded in the same pattern and perhaps modeled by a particular designer. Arts & Crafts pottery is often made in smaller numbers.
The vast majority of ceramics makers' marks can be classified by the manner they were applied. For example, the most common way to mark porcelain is to use an ink stamp (also referred to as a backstamp), whereas many items have Impressed (blind stamped) or Incised marks and symbols. Some, as in the case of hand-decorated figurines, are signed with handwritten initials or a simple logo of the artist or modeler. Additionally, most marks and backstamps are underglaze and some are overglaze. Overglaze porcelain marks tend to be those of retailers, distributors or exporters that had items made to order by one or more porcelain factories or potteries. In very few instances, some overglaze marks are large irregularly shaped smudges or at times resemble a certain shape, for example, a flower, and are usually in gold or black ink. These marks are called “overmarks” and are usually placed immediately prior to a sale by a trading company. Their purpose is to conceal the original manufacturer’s mark by the final seller, usually for reasons of marketability if the actual maker is of inferior reputation, but the item is in a famous style. Overmarks were very popular around 1880s – 1930s, mostly on European porcelain that was made by smaller or relatively unknown companies and destined for import to the US.
The Country of Origin notation was required to be displayed next to or near the maker's mark on all imports to the US since 1891 by Act of Congress (Tariff Act). This means that in general, porcelain and chinaware that include the country of origin next to or near or within their maker's mark, were made after 1891. However, many recent imports to the US and Europe, particularly those from Asia, usually place a sticker or label to satisfy this legal requirement. These labels are often subsequently removed or are lost once they reach their destination. Yet, these same items, particularly porcelain and chinaware, bear other stamped marks that resemble older companies' logos that can easily mislead a collector to believe they are proper antiques or of significant age. To make matters worse, some such old-looking items show signs of aging, for example crazing, but these have been induced artificially, usually by varying the temperature in the kiln that stresses porcelain while it is being fired and causes these thin lines to appear.
Antique & Reproduction Oriental Porcelain with makers' marks
The case of Nippon or Japanese porcelain marks is a bit more peculiar. The word “NIPPON” is the official name of the country of Japan and Japanese makers and trading companies initially marked their wares with the name Nippon. However, in 1921, the US Congress requested that Japanese Customs Authorities change the name to JAPAN. Because of this transition in the name of origin and in general, porcelain and chinaware that are marked “NIPPON” were made prior to 1921 and items that are marked “JAPAN” were made after 1921. Furthermore, most related imports from Japan were rarely marked with the actual manufacturer’s mark. Instead, they had the Exporter or Trading Company’s logo. Noritake is one of the most famous examples of this practice since they used nearly 400 independent porcelain factories to make items for them, either to order or selected from a catalog (they eventually began producing some of their own items, but this was after 1924). The same is true of all other major companies from Japan, each using different symbols to distinguish their products or during different periods. In essence, when a mark reads “Japan” or “Nippon”, and other than the time distinction mentioned above, these items were made by one of several hundreds of porcelain factories and were imported to the US and Europe by a trading company whose logo or backstamp is shown on each piece. Most Japanese porcelain marks are ink-stamped or have a label (sticker).
Several porcelain and chinaware importers and trading companies, whether American-based or from Europe, also employed this practice throughout the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries. As a result, many porcelain items imported from Europe show the trading company’s logo, either alone or near the actual maker's mark. This is especially true for items from Germany, France (mostly Limoges), Austria, Czechoslovakia etc. Many only have a country of origin stamp, like GERMANY, FRANCE, AUSTRIA etc and most such specimens date around 1890s - 1930s. However, practically all British porcelain and earthenware or Bone China, have the actual maker's mark printed or impressed and often a symbol to indicate the design's official registration (Rd Number or Registration Diamond cipher or some sort of a variation in the shape and color of the actual mark).
FULPER Cattail Pottery vase, Verte Antique glaze
In the case of pottery or clayware, especially Art and Studio Pottery, and since most items are made in very small numbers or just once and basically relatively uniquely, the country of origin is rarely shown or even required. Most such pottery was originally purchased directly from the actual artisan or sculptor and did not have to comply with Import & Export regulations. Very antique and very recent pottery pieces are the most difficult to identify, especially in the case of relatively occasional potters, whose items were made over a short period of time, perhaps as a hobby or an Arts School's project, or are simply Folk Art made for fun by an unknown craftsman. However, most pottery studios and artisans that worked during the 20thC are well-documented and their signatures, initials, and logos are included in our Ceramics section of our marks4antiques.com research website. Some of them were independent artists that just used a particular studio's facilities, either by invitation or because they did not have a studio of their own and who frequently paid tribute to that studio by marking their wares accordingly, or were actually employed by the company. Modelers and decorators on pottery that worked for major studios or factories such as Weller, Roseville, and other mostly Ohio Valley or California Potteries in the US, are also listed.
Check our research guides to help you in identifying and appraising your own collection at marks4antiques.com.