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.

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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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