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

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Detecting reproduction majolica

If there's one topic on this blog that always attracts a lot of hits it is those articles where I write about reproductions. Is it any surprise? With the number of reproductions growing daily it is getting more and more difficult for beginning collectors to discern between the genuine article and the copies flooding the market. We have written on this topic several times in the past but with reproductions becoming more common, we thought that maybe we should go over the basics for new readers.

The most important thing that any buyer can do to educate themselves about reproductions is to look at a lot of majolica. Go to an auction house or antique show that has a lot of pieces to choose from and look carefully at the pieces. You will find that after you've handled quite a bit of majolica you'll note a difference between reproductions and contemporary copies. Victorian majolica is heavy for its size. It is solidly potted earthenware. Most plates were thrown by hand with a molded face. Contemporary ware is slip formed in molds. It is light in weight.
Antique majolica hollow ware was also slip molded on the exterior with thick sides that are smooth on the interior. Contemporary majolica hollow ware is hollowed out-- the inside shows indentations from the design on the outside. Take a look at the two examples below.

The cobalt example immediately above is a Victorian majolica bowl by Wedgwood. See how the interior is quite smooth with only the slightest indication of the ruffled fan design from the exterior of the bowl? The white bowl shown above it is a contemporary reproduction by Mottehedeh. See how different the interior is? You can practically see all of the details from the exterior of the bowl on the inside. This is commonly seen in reproduction pieces because of the change in manufacturing of pottery in the past 100 years.

Another indication is the presence or absence of saggar or stilt marks on the base.

Above is the underside of a genuine George Jones horse chestnut plate. In the center of the plate one can see three small, rough, unglazed marks. These are stilt marks, left over from the original firing of the piece. The plate was balanced on these three small stilts as it was fired in the sagger. This kept the piece from sticking to the saggar tray as the glaze melted. All Victorian majolica has these marks.  Now take a look at the reproduction of the same plate below.

The saggar marks are missing and the foot itself is completely unfinished. This is because the base was ground down after firing to allow for a smooth foot. This is typical of contemporary inexpensive ceramics made in southeast Asia. Any kind of large unglazed area like this should immediately send up a red flag. 
Now let's take a look at the obverse of these same same two trays.

The top tray is smoothly glazed with a bright shiny finish. Detail is good and the colors are rich and clear. The face of the reproduction below is coarsely modeled with a semigloss type of glaze. There is a clumsiness to the modeling, something very typical to these reproductions, and an overall yellow cast to the entire piece, an attempt to give the piece an antiqued look. In this case the reproduction is the heavier of the two pieces--too heavy in fact. It feels like it was made from dense plaster, which it may well have been.

Let's take a look at another example of an original and its reproduction.
The piece directly below is a Wedgwood Victorian majolica cheese dome. The piece below it is the contemporary reproduction.

Every aspect of the original is superior in quality: the modeling, the glaze, even the scale. The runny glaze one sees in this reproduction is extremely common. There is no crispness to the glaze application which is very sloppy, another indication of its poor manufacture. Victorian majolica has an iridescent quality, something you don't see in reproductions. Even that clumsy knob on the top is a give away. It is wildly out of scale with the remainder of the design.

Here are another two cheese domes.

The top piece is an original Minton piece, the one below it is the reproduction. Again, as in the Wedgwood copy, everything looks wrong. Minton invented majolica. Their craftsmanship is sublime. There's nothing sublime about the reproduction: the glaze is dripping everywhere, the modeling is coarse and the scale of the handle on top is much too large for the bell. Even the base is wrong.

Nothing substitutes for education when it comes to buying antiques. The best advice anyone can give a beginner is to look at as much majolica as you can. Soon you'll be able to tell a reproduction from across a showroom like a pro.

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