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Judging the Age of China 
Can Be a Fool's Errand

by Bob Brooke


China plate.Collecting china can be as challenging as collecting glassware. The myriad varieties of china, as well as the huge number of companies that produce it, make for some confusing times for collectors who try to judge its age. The Chinese first produced porcelain during the 14th century, but it wasn’t until 300 years later in 1604 that a Dutch ship captured a Portuguese carrack, the Catharina, returning from a voyage to China loaded with 100,000 pieces of porcelain. The Dutch East India Company auctioned them off in Amsterdam, calling them “Chinese porcelains,” which, over time, became shortened to just “china.”

In china as in glass, a collector must know the characteristics of the old wares in order to avoid mistakes. A collector of porcelain has to learn, for his or her own protection, when factories made hard-paste and when they made soft-paste porcelains if he or she is to be fairly sure that a piece is the age claimed for it. This information is equally important to anyone who has a piece of china to sell. The type and quantity of decoration, as well as the colors that were used and the changes that took place from time to time, are essential knowledge for judging the age of porcelain and pottery.

Using Marks for I.D.
A typical china mark. Potters' marks may be helpful, but aren’t necessarily conclusive. They can, and have been known to, be erased or altered. Crossed swords have been incorporated into the Meissen mark since that factory first made porcelain in the 1740's. From time to time the overall appearance of the Meissen mark was changed somewhat, although the company retained the two swords. But crossed swords-or what seems to be crossed swords, at first glance have been used by other factories for their marks. If the intention was to fool buyers into thinking they were getting porcelain of Meissen quality, it probably succeeded some of the time. A collector who likes Haviland china should become familiar with the various marks used by this firm during the 1800's so that he or she can date a piece fairly accurately.

Nippon cup and saucer.Some patterns of tableware have been made continuously or intermittently for 100 to 200 years. In the case of Meissen Onion, a popular pattern among collectors, it has been made by the same factory. However, the basic pattern differed slightly from time to time, as did the mark of the factory. Awareness of changes and of what they were is essential to identifying early and late-19th-century examples. The Willow pattern was made by many different potteries. Here again, the mark-or lack of one-can be important in judging the antiquity of the piece.

Graniteware, often called ironstone china, was popular in the United States between 1850 and 1890. Reproductions of many of the pieces that made up a set of tableware have been made during the last decade. The collector who comes across some pieces and would like to sell them cannot determine a fair price without consulting someone expert enough to decide whether they are antiques or reproductions. The collector also needs to learn enough about graniteware to be reasonably certain of buying 19th-century pieces.

Copies of Copies
Quite generally copied in china are the old figures, flowers, vegetables, and fruits, and tureens in the form of birds or animals. Sometimes the reproductions are made from old molds and the decoration done by modern methods. Antique gilding, for example, is a rich gold color, not brassy or bright. The handpainting on antique pieces is so skillful that details appear sharp when they're looked at under a magnifying glass.

Reproductions of figures and other ornaments are one thing--imitations something else again. The Delft of Holland has been imitated in other countries, and the copies may be almost impossible to recognize unless a collector checks the potter's mark or unless the country of origin is stated under the potter's mark.

Perhaps no kind of pottery has been more widely imitated than jasperware. The finest examples always have been made by the Wedgwood pottery in England, where this ware was perfected. The quality excels even that of jasperware made by European potteries during the 18th century, and, of course, the blue and white unglazed stoneware from Japan in this century is in no way comparable.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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