Unloved Antiques: Dragonware Tea Set

This tea set is a good example of this Japanese pottery called Dragonware. The term used to describe porcelain or pottery items with raised decorations that depict an oriental dragon. Unfortunately, it looks to be more valuable than it really is.

The ninth item in this series of “Unloved Antiques” is Dragonware. The tea set above is a good example of this Japanese pottery. Dragonware is the term used to describe porcelain or pottery items with raised decorations that depict an oriental dragon. Many family stories abound about these colorful tea sets; in fact, we’ve almost never run into owners who did not have a fantastic story to tell about their set. Often, great ages are assigned to Dragonware because of its over-the-top styling, the fact some examples have no company markings*, or they were gifts given to distant seafaring relations 150 years ago by Japanese royalty. The truth is, the origins of these sets is often rather more mundane, as the vast majority were brought home as gifts by troops returning from the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. These items were produced in Japan from the end of the 1890s until the mid 1950s.

Most Dragonware pieces are decorated with “moriage,” which is a type of slip clay that gives the piece a three dimensional appearance, often giving it the look of colorful cake icing at times. Pottery such as Dragonware featured this method of decoration quite heavily, using a very deep relief of the dragon or serpent that curls around the outside of the piece of pottery, sometimes the dragon’s mouth being part of the teapots spout. Quality varies considerably for these sets as some have minimal moriage decoration with very detailed depictions of dragons, others appearing as over-decorated birthday cakes with the dragons and moriage popping out over three-quarters of an inch above the surface. Generally, it’s the earlier examples with a more subdued decoration that are the best quality, while the pieces featuring heavy moriage usually turn out to be later examples.

An example of an lithophane, a delicate picture that resembles a black & white photograph that can be viewed through the bottom of the cup, usually depicting smiling Japanese beauties in profile. The term “lithophane” has a Greek origin, meaning “light in stone” or “appear in stone.”

Another feature sometimes found on Dragonware is “lithophanes,” delicate pictures that resemble black & white fashion shots that can be viewed through the bottom of the cup, usually depicting smiling Japanese beauties in profile. The term “lithophane” has a Greek origin, meaning “light in stone” or “appear in stone,” the image is first created as a mold, then used to create the image in the porcelain. Where the picture appears the lightest, the porcelain is very thin, and where it is darkest, the porcelain is much thicker. Not all Dragonware has this feature, as it added considerably to the original cost of production.

Regardless of the type of Dragonware, values for it are quite modest when you considered the amount of labor involved in producing it. While not mass-produced in the modern sense of the term, it has been produced in large volumes for the tourist and export markets. Today, a set comparable to the one above would often sell at auction for less than $90 and retail in shops for less than $200.

* The lack of a marking on pottery and porcelain is often erroneously considered a mark of antiquity. In the case of Dragonware, it simply indicates it originally had a foil or paper label that was removed after sale or has simply fallen off.


Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware Tea Set

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


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  • Nice! And finding a genuine antique plate or dinnerware to add in your collection is a tough one. I used to do research when I want to buy something–the marks, the materials used that dateline, all of those essentials. Antique plates are really marvelous as it takes you to the time when it first exists. For antique enthusiasts like me, it really is a precious to have a collection of different plates from different era. Might as well, handle these delicate pieces of art with proper care. 🙂

  • Mike Wilcox

    We’ve just recently added articles about porcelain marks to Worthpoint with more to come.

  • Mike,
    Thanks for the Dragonware Tea Set write up! I just picked up a cute set at auction (just like the set pictured with the article, but only one plate, and including a flower vase). It was such a steal at the auction, and I thought it was lovely, but knew nothing about dragonware. I am so happy to have read your article to learn more. I am even happier with the set now that I have read your piece! Oh, and thanks for including the bit about lithophane- I never would have known to lift the cups up to see the ladies- bonus! 🙂

  • Mike Wilcox

    Thank you for your kind comments, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Bettemarie Judy

    My dragonware was a wedding gift to my parents. I still have the set, including plates, cups and saucers and of coarse the tea set. It has been through 2 tornados, a flood and a hurricaine! LOL!! Only have 1 broken cup.

  • Shawn

    I’m an avid dragonware collector, and there is a lot of misinformation here. Anyone seeking information about dragonware is welcome at the dragonware collectors group on Facebook.

    In 25 years of collecting, I’ve never heard a silly history for dragonware like the one described here, although it is true that people sometimes think dragonware is older than it really is.

    Dragonware is basically a pattern found on Japanese pottery and sometimes glass. If it’s not Japanese, it’s not dragonware. Dragonware is hand decorated with raised dragons, often moriage (matte clay), but sometimes the dragons are raised enamel (shiny glaze). Sometimes the dragons are gold and occasionally, coralene pieces show up.

    We collectors believe that dragonware — like a lot of moriage wares — predate the Nippon era, so the earliest dragonware dates to perhaps the 1880s. These are the pieces with the thick moriage with lots of detail, and these are the most highly sought pieces. The oldest pieces are fantastic examples of Morimura Bros. or Old Noritake, and the dragons often have glass eyes. Sometimes such pieces are not marked, but they are unmistakable when compared to pieces like the tea set pictured above. At Ebay’s peak a few years ago, an unmarked dragonware tankard with damage sold for $2,100.

    It is true that the majority of unmarked dragonware is newer and has lost its paper label, but the oldest pieces also are not marked.

    Also, we believe that dragonware was produced perhaps into the 1980s, although the quality of those pieces is reduced.

    This article also is correct in that most dragonware is not especially valuable. The tea set pictured is nothing special, and the price is about right.

    But there’s more to dragonware than this basic type of set, and it gets plenty of love.

    My collection, if you are interested: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37542328@N06/sets/72157622577023491/

    • Robyn Green

      hello l’v got that set to but it’s green a around the top of the cup and a gold and army green and a bone colour. also the face in the cup I’m trying. to find out the value. of it

    • Julie mohr

      What is the name of the dargonware collectors club on FB. Don’t know what to search for. Thanks

    • Shawn

      I have this set ,on the bottom I have a paper tag that says Japan.My husband brought it back from Vietnam as a gift to his mother.So what would be the value of this set ,it’s in excellent condition

    • Paul From THE Netherlands

      Hi, i have an question for you. We have an teaset as shown with THE discription on the Back ‘mede in Japan’ spelled wrong!

      Are you familar with this?
      Thank you for your time.

      Paul Rijksen

  • Mike Wilcox

    I’m not sure what you find as “silly” or “misinformation” within this article. There is no mention of Japan not being the origin of Dragonware, the bulk of it was made during the period mentioned (1890-1950’s) and the set pictured represents in style and quality the majority of Dragonware made for export.

    As repeatedly mentioned within this “Unloved” series of articles there are exceptions, in some of the articles these exceptions are covered, but in the case of Dragonware the chances of an average person coming across a very rare or valuable example would be very slim.

  • Shawn

    The silly was the story about the dragonware being a gift from royalty, which you also called fantastic.

    I have gotten most of my collection online, but one of my Nippon tea sets was a antiques store find. And many of my collector friends have good luck at local auctions. Good pieces can be found. 🙂

    As for misinformation, yes, I think it is wrong to say that collectors want less moriage. Collectors want pieces with lots of decoration and detail.

    Here is a valuable early Nippon/pre-Nippon era vase. The moriage is thick, and this is worth hundreds of dollars. http://www.flickr.com/photos/37542328@N06/5477415276/in/set-72157622577023491

    Here is a small mid-century piece with a skimpy dragon. Even with the fun shape, it’s not worth more than $50. http://www.flickr.com/photos/37542328@N06/5465649367/in/set-72157622577023491

  • Mike Wilcox

    The term “fantastic” regarding the family history of Dragonware was not meant to suggest the stories were true, only that the lack of markings and exotic styling of these pieces led their owners to believe such stories were possible.

    In the Appraisal and Antique business one hears these stories all the time, stories of “Civil War Swords” that were actually made for Masonic lodges or “Rare glassware from the 1700’s” that came out of soap boxes in 1933.

    There is also no mention of the amount of moriage having an effect on value, only the quality of it seems better on pieces that do not make excessive use of it, in fact what’s stated in the article as “Generally, it’s the earlier examples with a more subdued decoration that are the best quality, while the pieces featuring heavy moriage usually turn out to be later examples” is similar to your view that it’s the early Nippon era pieces that tend to be the most valuable.

  • Shawn

    Mike, I’m agreeing with you. The story is silly and fantastical, but unfortunately, I’ve never heard a fun story like that from a seller. I’ve purchased hundreds of pieces of dragonware, but obviously in the trade, you get a lot more stories. Mostly, everyone I deal with thinks that someone brought the pieces home during WWII and it turns out that they were really from the Korean Conflict era.

    Still, I disagree with you about the moriage. The more moriage, the better. The newer, lower quality pieces have less decoration, and they are worth less. The “birthday cake” pieces with thick moriage are older and more valuable. Perhaps your point is that the gaudier pieces — pieces in colors or with funky shapes and less moriage — tend to be newer and less valuable.

    Thank you for continuing to bring attention to my favorite unloved collectible!! 🙂

  • abas

    original ceramic cup is not only thin on basis of cup but cup and teapot also so thin, and teapot made ​​by vortex technique, and I heard from my friend about this set is that teapot can keep the hot water be water up warm during 6 hours, this dragonware original, thank you.

  • John

    I have dragonware with the lithopane of womens heads but also two cups that have frontal nude Japanese women. The bottom have imprinted Japan. These cups were given to my mother in the early 1950’s. I was informed if the cups say Japan, then it was made before WWII. I have seen cups that have Occupied Japan, which again I was informed this was during occupation of Japan (WWII). I have seen some cups that have nothing on the bottom, but there are lithopane heads in them. My question are they worth collecting?

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