Interpreting Makers Marks on China and Porcelain

Many experienced collectors and dealers of pottery say it is important to not only research the mark or backstamp but to consider the shape, decoration, and type of ware as well, before coming to a definitive conclusion as to maker. For example, if an item is said to be a Staffordshire pottery spill vase, circa 1850, yet the piece is made of hard paste porcelain – we know this is a fake because Staffordshire pottery was not made from hard paste porcelain. The importer who made the spill vase may have stamped it "Staffordshire Pottery," because a phony realistic looking mark or stamp is easy to produce, but an exact replica of an authentic antique Staffordshire pottery piece is not. For this reason, it is not wise to rely solely on a maker's mark.

It is doubtful that most people with a few pieces of pottery in their inventory will wake up one morning with a burning desire to become a pottery expert. Most folks simply do not want to spend what seems to them to be an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out who made what. They want to turn a profit, not turn an ankle trying to get a hefty load of pottery books up the front steps of their house for a boring hour, or six, of extended study. All too often people will look at one mark in one book and with this single bit of information will make, what they believe to be, a definitive ID for both the age and maker of their item. But, had they taken the time to consider a few other factors they would have ascertained they were wrong. Although becoming a pottery expert is not necessarily required, it is important to make every effort to adequately research an item and to verify your findings are correct.

In addition, the mark(s) may also exhibit certain peculiarities, making it not quite like the original, and subject to individual interpretation. What does this mean? Only that mistakes are often made in the interpretation of potter's marks and that taking an avenue of acceptance that begins with statements like, "It sort of resembles the mark on my vase," can sometimes be as much a problem for the uninitiated as that of having taken only the mark by itself into consideration to begin with.

When researching an item for identification purposes, and all you have for consideration is the maker’s mark, keep the following points in mind and you may avoid some of the pitfalls associated with item identification.

'Close' Doesn't Count

Examples of a company's mark seen illustrated in books on marks will be copies of actual marks taken from pieces known to have been made by that company. Of course, if a firm was in business for a number of years, they may have used hundreds of different marks or variations of marks through the years and a single book is unlikely to illustrate every example of every mark ever used by a company.
If the exact mark stamped on an item can't be found, it may still be possible to deduce by comparison to the marks that are illustrated that a mark was used by a particular company. But noting that a mark on an item 'looks sort of like' the mark illustrated does not mean it can used to 'date' the item or ascribe any other specific information about the item, other than its possible maker. Only an exact match should be considered useful for helping to determine specifics such as age. The dropping of even a single letter or scroll or dingle-dangle from a mark can be significant.

If, in a book on marks, it says a particular company's backstamp in red, was used from 1889 -1915, and you see that exact same mark on the bottom of your item, but it's stamped in blue - keep reading. You may find the company changed their mark in 1915. Even though the exact same device continued in use, the color changed to blue on that date and it is the color combination still in use today.

Of course, marks on reproductions can be identical to original marks. So, even if the marks you are comparing, item to illustration, are exactly the same, you still may not be able to correctly identify the item or to deduce it is authentic. This is the best reason for not relying on a mark by itself. Marks on the new reproduction Nippon and R. S. Prussia items often are identical or very nearly identical to the original marks. For items known to have been heavily reproduced other factors should be considered such as decoration, thickness of the body (is it translucent or opaque?), signs of age and anything specific to particular make of pottery, porcelain or ceramics.

If you are selling these types of items in an e-commerce shop it is to your advantage to offer a clear photo of the maker's mark. Providing photos of a makers mark is a good idea no matter what type of items you offer, but it is especially important for those items where reproductions are readily available. If collectors are given absolutely no opportunity to visually evaluate a mark for themselves they may decide it isn't worth the risk, choosing not to rely solely on the sellers judgment to determine if a mark is authentic.

Back Stamps Change

Sometimes when using reference books that illustrate makers marks, readers, in the process of matching the mark on an item to the backstamp shown on the page, fail to note the accompanying text which tells of slight variances in that maker's marks that may have occurred over the years. Take Wedgwood ceramics, for instance. MADE IN ENGLAND (with serif characters) was added to the Wedgwood mark after about 1898. A very similar mark is still in use today. In 1929, the mark was changed to san serif characters as opposed to serif characters, which looks very much like the previous stamp. The new sans serif character mark was used from that point on, and the serif character mark was also used on some items for a short while after the change to the san serif was made. What does this mean? An item that is actually much older may be assumed to be newer, or vice versa, simply because the older and the newer WEDGWOOD MADE IN ENGLAND mark can look virtually identical to the casual observer, and because there is a short overlap of time where the two marks were both used.

And, just because the entire name 'Mintons' does not appear in the backstamp, does not mean an item marked with only the initial "M" was not made by the same company, Mintons. Printed marks of the 1820's and 30's only included the initial 'M'. The name 'Minton' (not plural) began to occur in some of that company's printed marks from 1851 to 1873. The globe and banner with 'Minton' across the center of the globe was used from about 1863-72. But, from 1873 onwards the plural form of 'Mintons' was used in all marks, including the globe and banner stamp. So, a backstamp with the plural 'Mintons', could be no older than 1873, when the plural form of the name began to be used in all company back stamps.

Marks Masquerade

Sometimes just looking at a mark can create an assumption of an association that never existed. For example, there are items with a mark that reads, "Carlton’s Fantasia Ware Burslam". They have no connection at all to real Carlton Ware, or Burslem, the name of a city in England, a name the overseas maker also misspelled when creating the backstamp.

Another example of marks intended to be deceiving are those that can be seen on the bottoms of heavy new imports with blue and almost white, or transfer-type, decoration. These modern Chinese imported wares are stamped with a fancy, very deceptive rendition of the English Royal Arms mark. The text in the mark reads 'Victoria Ironstone' and it may include two very British looking lions or, sometimes, the Lion and Unicorn. Although more Royal Warrants were granted during the long reign of Queen Victoria than ever before, the company who cobbled together this fraudulent mark was not the recipient of one.

A phrase that will never be included in a mark on an authentic piece of flow blue china will be the words, 'Flow Blue.' This is a familiar designation awarded by contemporary collectors to a particular type of ware. The original manufacturers who produced real 'flow blue' decorations did not name it that and they certainly did not include that term in their company's backstamp.

World Events Cause Changes in Marks

An example of this phenomenon would be Lomonosov figurines. The USSR was formally dissolved at the end of 1991 and from 1992 to 2001 the mark on Lomonosov porcelain reflected this change in the mark on their ware, which read, "Made in Russia."

A mark of 'Germany' can mean an item was made prior to World War II, or might have been made fairly recently. The country was separated into East and West Germany at the end of WWII (1945). From 1945 to 1949 manufactured articles in Western Germany would have carried a mark indicating 'U.S. Zone Germany,' with a 'West Germany' mark used from 1949 until 1990, when Germany was reunified.

A maker's mark, properly interpreted, can help to identify fairly accurately the maker of an item, its country of origin and the approximate date it was made. Taking a little extra time to learn when and how a mark changed over time may add value to an item, which may mean more money in your pocket, or, at the very least, a quick sale; if the knowledge gained prevents a newer item from being listed at an inflated price, assuming it is much older than it really is.

It can be virtually impossible to build a business selling antique and collectible items without first investing in a few good books on the subject of marks. This is true regardless of the type of inventory you plan to offer; be it jewelry, oil paintings, pottery, or glass. You can be assured that someone at sometime has produced a well-researched and usable book written for the sole purpose of assisting others in the accurate identification of a particular set of items.

We understand that those who offer a more generalized inventory cannot possibly gather enough books to cover everything. If you have an item or a backstamp that you are having difficulty identifying, you may want to search the Internet for sites who publish lists of makers marks complete with illustrations and company information. You can also visit online forums dedicated to a particular subject matter where individuals will gladly assist you in your search to identify a maker, deciphering a mark, and assessing the age of an item. Just remember to be cautious and when possible, verify the information with another source.

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