Buying antique pottery, whether for one’s own personal collection or for resale purposes, is always a good investment. Throughout the centuries, pottery has been much sought after, mainly because the items are both useful and decorative. They have been produced in large quantities in every age, they are small, easily stored or transported and finally, the range of shapes, sizes and decorations offer tremendous choice.
The term “pottery” is often used to refer to ceramics in general. However, before purchasing any items, it is imperative to know the difference between the various types of material from which the items have been made.
Types of pottery and porcelain
Pottery has a coarse texture and is either called earthenware, which is porous, or stoneware, which is non-porous. Earthenware is fired at a lower temperature than stoneware and has to be glazed to prevent moisture, whereas stoneware does not need a glaze but it is often given a salt glaze, leaving it with an orange peel appearance. Types of earthenware (produced as far back as the Neolithic age) include pieces from the Chinese T’ang and Sung dynasties, various tin-glazed pieces from Europe known as Maiolica in Italy, Delft in Holland, Faience in France and Germany and Delftware in England.
Porcelain was first developed in the 7th century in China, where stone and clay were mixed to produce a strong, white translucent material. The difference between pottery and porcelain can be seen when a porcelain item is held up to strong light, it is translucent; it is also usually white or cream and when struck lightly, will give a bell-like ‘ping’. Earthenware, on the other hand, is opaque and depending on its place of origin, can be buff-coloured or red-brown. Stoneware, also opaque, ranges from off-white to dark brown.
Hard-paste porcelain contains kaolin (China clay) and petuntse (China stone). This type of porcelain is translucent, white and smooth with a thin, glassy glaze.
Soft-paste or “artificial” porcelain is made up of kaolin, crushed glass and quartz and has a grainy texture, usually with a thick glaze. It is more porous than hard-paste.
Bone china is a soft-paste porcelain developed in England, which also incorporates ground animal bones in its manufacture.
Deciding what to buy
The range of pottery and porcelain is vast and before purchasing it might be wise to decide what to focus on. Deciding factors may include: personal tastes and interests (personal collections); current trends in the antique market; price; availability and resale value. To get some idea of what is on offer, books such as Miller’s Ceramics Buyer’s Guide are invaluable as they give lots of information as well as prices. Whatever you decide on, whether it be decorative items, ornaments, table or dinnerware or perhaps you wish to concentrate on a particular manufacturer, settle on that and resolve to learn everything possible about your choice. Visit museums, enrol for courses or lectures, or subscribe to relevant newsletter – all are great ways to get to know your subject. However, the very best way to familiarise yourself with antique pottery is to handle it (with extreme care) as often as possible, so as to develop an instinct and feel for what to buy and to make good choices.
Where to look for antique pottery
Competition is fierce in the antique trade and one has to develop a keen eye for bargains. The first places to search for antique pottery are the antique stores themselves; however, the antique dealer also has to make a profit so the items will probably be expensive. Visit the fine art antique auctions but only after you’ve attended the “preview” and had a good look at what you wish to purchase – put a ceiling on what you’re willing to spend and stick to your budget.
Second-hand shops can often yield surprisingly good finds which can be most rewarding. Attend car-boot and garage sales – it’s amazing what can be found there.
Look in the “For Sale” column in the local newspapers. Ask around to see if anyone is moving house and wants to dispose of household wares. The old saying that a fortune can be made from ‘junk’ found in granny’s attic does happen, but very rarely; nevertheless, you might just be the lucky one.
Get to know the basics
Firstly, you must be able to distinguish between pottery and porcelain. This is the first basic to be mastered. Once that becomes clear, it is worthwhile getting to know the following:
Knowing basic shapes is a necessity, as it not only reflects the item’s usage but will also usually determine its date and place of manufacture.
Each period in history had its own style and it’s important to be able to distinguish between them. The major styles include the Baroque (Europe, 17th C); Rococo (Europe, early 18th C); Neo-Classical (Europe, approx. 1750); Empire (France, 1800-1820) and the Regency Style (England, 1790-1830).
Factory marks are usually found on the base of the item. Marks can be the maker’s initials or full name, a coat of arms, a monogram or a symbol. They can be incised, impressed, printed or painted. Printed marks first came into use about 1800. A mark with the word ‘Ltd’ or ‘Limited’ dates the piece from 1861 onwards. The ‘Made in England’ mark means that the item was produced in the 20th C.
What to watch out for
Copies and fakes do exist and one has to know antique pottery really well to be able to spot them. One cannot rely solely on marks as a means of authenticating a piece, as marks are easily faked. It is better to take into consideration all other factors surrounding the object (does the shape, decoration, glaze match the mark?) before deciding whether an object is a fake or not.
Crazing: this is a network of fine lines which appears on pottery and soft-paste objects. It is a sign of age but crazing can be easily faked.
Firecracks: Sometimes these occur when soft-paste items are fired – although a flaw, items with firecracks are still in demand.
If one finds a rare and good example of an item with some damage, it is worth buying. Most damage can be restored by a good restorer, but restoration always lowers the price and any restoration, no matter how good, must be divulged to prospective buyers. Nowadays, damaged pieces are often left unrestored as they are more authentic if left in their original, damaged state.
Some famous names to look out for
There are literally thousands of good pottery and porcelain manufacturers and it would be impossible to list them all. The following are a few of the most well-known potteries.
This began in Holland circa 1512. From the 17th Century, Delft pottery copied the Chinese blue and white porcelain and in the 18th Century it was influenced by the shapes and decorations of the Meissen potteries. Dutch Delft is usually associated with tiles and panels. English Delftware – a tin-glazed earthenware – was made as early as 1550. It is extremely rare to find undamaged pieces of Delft – Delft has also been extensively faked.
Josiah Wedgwood established his factory in 1758. The factory became famous for its creamware which was highly fashionable in the 1760s and 1770s. When Wedgwood was appointed potter to Queen Charlotte, he renamed his creamware “Queenware.”
In 1710 the Meissen factory was founded near Dresden, Germany. The name Meissen is synonymous with beautifully modelled and decorated fine porcelain. Unfortunately Meissen pottery has been extensively faked.
The Sevrés factory originated at Vincennes in France in 1745, its object being to produce soft-paste porcelain resembling Meissen ware. The predominant decoration of early Sevrés pottery was in the rococo style. Like Meissen, Sevrés pottery has also suffered from unscrupulous fakes.
Worcester pottery was established in 1751 and specialised in decorative tableware and tea and coffee services.
The Derby factory was established in 1750 and produced vases, plates, baskets and other decorative ware, all influenced by Meissen.
Spode and Minton
These were both established in the late 18th Century and were situated in Stoke-on-Trent. Spode specialised in items decorated with flowers or Imari patterns. Minton is famous for its soft and hard-paste porcelain, covered with a thin, glassy glaze.
Davenport and Ridgway
These were also situated in Staffordshire. The Davenport factory produced brightly-coloured dinner services but was also known for its blue and white tableware. Ridgway began manufacturing high quality bone china, earthenware and porcelain from the late 18th century.
Pottery and porcelain is a fascinating subject and one can spend a lifetime learning and still not know all there is to know, especially as new items become ‘old’ enough to be labelled antiques. However, whatever the reason for buying antique pottery, the main consideration is to enjoy the search and the resultant acquisition of knowledge. It can be a most rewarding experience and one which will make the past come to life in an intimate and familiar way.