A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Monday, August 20, 2012

Detecting Majolica Repair

Detecting repair in a piece of majolica has gotten increasingly difficult as restoration specialists get better with every passing year. It's important to learn however, to assure that you know what you are buying when you purchase a piece of majolica.

Majolica has always been a strong candidate for repair because of the soft nature of earthenware pottery. The presence of repair in a piece of majolica doesn't affect the cost of a repaired piece as much as it does in a harder body like porcelain. Still, it does affect cost. The more repair, the lower the cost. I remember seeing a woman at auctions who routinely took out a small bottle of nail polish remover and cotton swab from her handbag for rubbing over a suspect piece--acetone will remove many repairs. That is an example of what NOT to do! She was potentially destroying property that was not hers and was eventually banned from several auction houses.

Here are a few tips that will allow you to detect a repair without destroying a seller's property.

The easiest way to detect repair is simply by running your finger over the suspect area. Places like teapot spouts, rims of bowls and plates, lids and finials on covered pieces are all likely places to search for repair on a piece. When you run your finger over the area, a repaired piece will often feel different from the rest of the piece. The glaze may have a plastic feel. By that I mean that it won't be slightly cool to the touch like a regular piece of pottery. The repaired area may also have a different slippery quality to it from regular glaze--almost a squeaky quality. That's a dead giveaway that a repair is present.

Another easy way to detect a repair is with your eyes. Pottery like majolica has a reflective depth of color that simply can't be mimicked by paint. This is more obvious on some colors than others. Green and brown are notoriously difficult to reproduce because of their transparency. No matter where you look at these colors on a piece of pottery it will have a reasonably uniform look to it. Most restorationists use full spectrum light to get the most realistic color match on a repair. That's all well and good if the piece is displayed under full spectrum light like daylight. Unfortunately, most people don't live outdoors so a piece repaired under full spectrum light will not always display as well under incandescent or fluorescent light. I would suggest viewing a piece under as many different light sources as possible. If you're at an antiques show, ask permission to take the piece over to a window or to a different source of light than used at the dealer's booth. This makes most repairs very easy to detect.

Majolica glaze in particular has a tendency to craze. These fine cracks in the glaze are impossible to reproduce during repair. Some restorationists try to mimic the crazing on a repaired piece by faintly painting over the repair a fine web of lines simulating it. This is sometimes successful in disguising repair but usually only in a superficial sense. A detailed examination of the piece will reveal the repair.

A tool that many dealers wouldn't be caught without is a pocket UV light like this one from Streamlight.

When shone onto a repaired area, an otherwise invisible repair will stick out like a sore thumb. It's also very good at making visible flaws in the pottery like cracks and chips that may not be obvious to the human eye.

An old time method that professionals use to detect repair or damage is by testing the sound of a piece. If you sit a piece of pottery on its base and you tap it very lightly with a hard object like your finger nail, you should get a slight ringing sound. If the piece has been compromised with damage it is likely to give a thud rather than a ring. The difference in sound between the two can be quite subtle in some cases so experience helps in learning what a good "ring" is.
Here are some directions from About.com on detecting the sound of damage on a piece of pottery:

  • If it's two pieces, e.g. a cookie jar, take the lid off.
  • Put the pottery on a solid surface or cradle in one arm.
  • Using your index finger and thumb -- flick your finger onto the piece. Imagine you are shooting marbles!
  • The resulting sound will be a clear ringing bell sound if the pottery has no cracks and a very dead thud if here is a crack.
  • Master your "flick" at home and next time you are out shopping, it will only take you moment to check out the pottery. 

A method that some professionals use that I do not advocate is the "pin" test. This involves taking a straight pin and inserting it into an area of suspected repair. If a repair is present it will penetrate the body slightly. This test has the potential for damaging a repair by scratching the surface of the piece. Unless you ask permission of the owner or outright own the piece in question I wouldn't try this. You risk damaging the property of another person, like our friend with the nail polish remover at the auctions that I mentioned earlier.

The best defense against being fooled by repair is a good offense. Learn these methods and practice them and soon you will be as good at detecting repair as the folks on Antique Roadshow!

Photos of repaired majolica from David Battam's pottery repair site, chinarepair.com.

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