The Appraiser’s Roadmap: Navigating the World of Marks

Is it a genuine Tiffany iridescent glass vase? Tiffany marks are no guarantee of authenticity unless the design of the piece itself matches known documented examples.

Many might wonder, when watching appraisers on the “Antiques Roadshow,” just how they can determine so much information by simply flipping a porcelain cup, silver platter or glass vase upside down? Well, welcome to the appraiser’s world of marks, a world that might seem arcane or mysterious to the budding collector of any type of antique or collectible, but once understood, can save hours of time and frustration trying to figure out exactly what you are holding in your hands.

The fact is, markings that are stamped, painted or impressed on the underside of most items can tell a great deal about a piece other than just its maker. Each mark—be it for pottery, glass or metal items—are important reference points that are used to decipher vintage, authenticity and origins.

What the appraiser is looking for in these markings are basic reference points that they have learned through years of research and study that begin to solve the mystery of each of antique or collectible item. What few people are aware of is that it’s not just the names of well-known companies—such as Rookwood, Tiffany or Gorham—that stamped on the piece that tells the whole story, but a number of things used within the mark itself.

The actual dating of a piece is much like detective work, and the company name itself only gives the appraiser a rough time line of when the company was known to operate. Other factors, such as the color of the mark, how it’s applied or the numbered codes within the design can often date a piece to the exact year it was produced. Famous companies, such as Wedgwood, Minton’s, Derby and Worcester, have all used a variety of numerical or symbol codes that, with a quick look in a reference book or library, will provide the exact date of production.

Now, it’s not possible for even the most accomplished appraiser to memorize all the marks they run into; just for ceramic items alone there are tens of thousands. Therefore, a reference source is a must for some rare or unusual or even reproduction pieces with fake markings that occasionally flood the market. Most marks, though, follow some basic guidelines that most often were a result of various trade, copyright and patent laws between countries and the companies that worked with in them.

Even without a reference library of pottery/porcelain marks, for example, there are a few “pro points” that you can copy or memorize to help you date pottery and porcelain:

• The lack of any country of origin markings indicates a production date pre 1891;
• Small, hand-written marks tend to be pre-1800s;
• Kite-shaped marks with “Rd.” in the center are English and were used from 1842-83;
• Printed/stamped marks in colors other than blue tend to be post-1850;
• The use of the word “Royal” on English ceramics before a company name tend to be used after 1850;
• The use of the term “LTD” or ” Limited” appear after 1860;
• The use of the word “Trademark” tends to be used after 1862;
• The use of registration numbers such as “Rd No.10057” began in 1884;
• Items marked “Nippon” generally date from 1891-1921;
• The name of a country with the stamp indicates where the piece was mad; dates from 1891.
• Company marks in gold, or the mention of “24K Gold” on gilded pottery or porcelain is generally mid-20th century.

These are not hard and fast rules, as there are some exceptions, depending on the individual company. In the case of the stamp shown here, it’s one of these exceptions.

This mark was used on French Quimperware pottery made by the De la Hubaudière factory from 1883 to 1895.

This mark was used on French Quimperware pottery made by the De la Hubaudière factory from 1883 to 1895. It is hand-painted, whereas the “rules” would indicate it should be a pre-1800 piece. Another would be a lack of a “Country of Origin” mark, such as “Germany,” indicating a pre-1891 production date. Many ceramic imports have used paper and foil labels that indicate the piece’s origin, which were often removed after sale or have simply worn off over time.

Marks On Metal

The foundry mark “Chiurazzi Naples” from the bottom of a bronze figurine.

Some guidelines that apply to ceramic items also apply to many antiques & collectibles made of metals from bronze to silver, such as the use of “Country of Origin” marks, British Design Registration marks or “Rd” numbers, and the words “Limited/LTD” or “Trademark.” Like ceramics, many metal Decorative Arts items—such figurines, bookends or lamps—are made of spelter or bronze and will also often have company or foundry markings that can be referenced to determine a date of production and origin. Again, these are not hard-and-fast rules, but basic points to start the reference process.

One issue that confuses novice collectors regarding metal items more than anything else is “silverware,” a term that one would think implied the item was indeed constructed of silver, but since the 1840s, that hasn’t been the case. Until silver electroplating was perfected and patented by Henry and George Richard Elkington in 1840, most silverware was exactly that: 80- to 92.5-percent pure silver. The Elkinton’s patented process allowed the appearance of “silverware” by using only a very thin layer of pure silver—usually from 1/1,000 to 2/1,000 of an inch (0.03 to 0.05 millimeter) thick—on a base metal such as copper, brass or Britannia metal (a type of hard pewter).

As with ceramics, some basic guidelines will identify most silver plated items from genuine silver pieces, To the average person, Coin or Sterling silver don’t look much different than silver-plate pieces. Where the difference lies is in the markings. By international convention, most countries have laws regarding the marking of precious metals such as silver and gold, generally referred to as “Hallmarks”—stamped marks from which the purity, the maker, city and date can be determined. Hall Marks had their origins in England, where all silver has been marked since the 14th century, and are a great aid in determining the history
of a piece today.

These hallmarks on an English-made Sterling Silver trophy tells that it was made in 1873, among other details.

American silver is often marked with the word “Sterling” (925/1000ths pure silver), “Coin” (about 900/1000ths pure silver) or with numerical markings that indicate the same thing “925” or “800.”

Here’re a few markings that right away will tell you the item is silver-plated. The wonderful thing about them, though, is they actually spell out their true metal content, as can be decoded as shown below. So if your “silverware” has any of the markings listed below, you can rest assured it’s not “Sterling.”

EP – Electroplate
EPBM – Electroplated Britannia Metal
EPNS – Electroplate on Nickel Silver (nickel silver is a nickel/brass alloy)
EPC – Electroplated Copper
EPWM – Electroplated White Metal
EPNS-WMM – Electroplated Nickel Silver with White Metal Mounts

Marks on Glassware

Although some of it has been warn away, the Steuben fleur de lis mark on the rim of a glass lampshade is still visible.

Most glassware markings will require sources of reference to identify them. Most are very minimal, a change in the style of the company marking being the only indicator of a vintage based on the marking alone. A great deal of glassware up to the late 19th century was handmade and unmarked, but a lack of markings as an indication of glassware made pre -1890s should not be used.

Other than Art/Studio Glass, mass-produced glass tableware and commercial bottles—a great
deal of even contemporary glassware—comes with paper or foil labels which are not terribly durable and come off with the first washing. Determining the origins and vintage of glassware often depends very little on the lack of markings, but on the style and type of glass, compared to documented examples in reference material and company catalogs.

Patent Marks and Serial Numbers

The patent mark on an antique clavicle splint registed by A.M. Day, Bennington, Vt., in 1853.

Any time a manufacturer designs a unique item or an improvement on it, a “patent” is applied for with the regulatory agencies of that country’s government. The patent provides protection from anyone else from copying that product for a period of several years (the period varies depend on the country of origin). Many manufactured items, such as cameras, radios, phones, etc. will have one or more patent markings on them, generally in the form of an “applied tag” or label to
indicate the date of the patent. To determine a rough date of production for the item, look for the last patent date on the label and add 1 to 17 years (the period of time the patent would have covered). Another alternative is to look up the patent numbers here (for American patents).

Last, but not least, is the serial number. Many items, such as clocks & watches, will have serial numbers through which a period of production can be determined with a great deal of accuracy. Companies such as Rolex, Waltham, Hamilton, Elgin, Illinois Watch, Omega and many others all used them. In most cases, the serial number you need is stamped on the movement rather than the case.

The serial number (see at top) of this Elgin pocket watch can tell you when it was made.

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

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