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Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > It’s all in the Marks: Frequently Asked Questions about Makers’ Marks

It’s all in the Marks: Frequently Asked Questions about Makers’ Marks

by Mike Wilcox (10/09/12).

Patent dates on old hardware, like this rocking chair spring, can give the earliest date the piece could have been made, as well as a general window of its actual age.

As an appraiser who participates in a number of antique roadshow-type events and lectures regarding antiques and collectibles, I receive a lot of questions, both via e-mail and in person, regarding the marks found on metal ware, pottery, porcelain, glass and any number of related items. A great many of these questions seemed to indicate a lot of frustration at the lack of hard and fast rules regarding what some of these marks mean.

In some cases it’s just a matter of “a little knowledge being a bad thing,” such as a novice collector reading a bullet-point list of information on Staffordshire pottery online, then buying a Staffordshire platter based that list, only to find out later the piece is a 1980s reproduction. So, in this series of articles, I’m going to answer the questions I hear most often regarding marks on antiques and provide the straight scoop.

QUESTION: I have a platform rocking chair that has a spring mechanism underneath that has “Patented 1888” molded on it. I was told that means this chair was made in 1888, but we have a letter from the great-grandson of original owner stating that it was purchased new in 1899 as a wedding gift, which would be correct?

ANSWER: All the patent date indicates is the earliest date that fitting would have been found on that type of chair. Patents provide protection from other companies copying it for set period of years, each country having its own regulations for patents. In the U.S., design patents could run up to 14 years, so an item marked “Patented 1888” could have been made as late as 1902. So, in the case of this platform rocker, the family history of this chair being purchased in 1899 could be 100-percent accurate. A note to consider, though: there are exception to this rule. If there are any additional patent dates on the same fitting with a later date, for example 1896, that would be the earliest that fitting would have been used.

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Paper labels like this are often scraped off or simply fall off with age.

QUESTION: I purchased what I thought was a very old antique floor vase, based on what I’ve seen on antique shows for years on TV, where the experts said that really old china didn’t have much in the way of markings. Mine just had a red squiggle on it and no other marking. I didn’t pay a lot for it, but was very excited it might be valuable, so when there was a local appraisal fair raising money for the Heart and Stroke Fund, I took it in for an appraisal. The appraiser told me the vase was Chinese and was probably only about 20 years old, I find this all very confusing.

ANSWER: Don’t feel bad. Chinese porcelain is very confusing, even to experts. While I don’t have an image of you vase to work with, based on what the appraiser has told you, here is my explanation. What he didn’t mention was that most likely your vase originally had a paper or foil label that indicated it was “Made in China.” Labels like this are often removed after sale or simply have fallen off. Chinese floor vases of this type have been flooding the market since the 1980s, most sold through import/export decorator stores and garden centers. Most are based on traditional Chinese porcelain and hand-decorated very much like the originals.

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This pseudo hallmark reading “EPBM” stands for “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal,” and alloy used as a base for silver-plate items.

QUESTION: I was given a tea set years ago that I though was Sterling silver because it had hallmarks on it. I tried looking them up recently, but they did not match any I could find. They are stamped on the bottom and look like a crown and old English letters from left to right “EPBM.” I had the set tested and was told it was only silver plated. The guy who tested it said he thought the stamp were initials for the company name. What does this marking mean?

ANSWER: These are what’s called pseudo hallmarks. The trouble started when late 19th century makers of American silver plate began to realize they could improve their sales if they marked their products in a similar way to English hallmarks, and such stamped marks gave the impression of quality, “just like Sterling.” These marks take many forms, but they generally appear as two- or five-punched marks in Old English script.

In the case of the marks on your tea set, they actually describe the material the set is made of. The marking “EPBM” means “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal.” Britannia metal is a pewter-type alloy which very much resembles silver appearance, it being an alloy of 92-percent tin, 6-percent antimony and 2-percent copper. It is often used as a base metal for electroplating of silver.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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