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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Identifying True Etruscan Majolica

The following post was one we wrote for eBay several years ago. All or part of it has appeared in numerous articles on majolica both in print and online. We thought we would also post it here for the benefit of our readers.

In the past five years there has been quite a bit of confusion about the term Etruscan Majolica.
 Etruscan Majolica was a brand name given to the earthenware pottery created first by Griffen, Smith and Hill, then later manufactured by Griffen, Smith and Company; Griffen, Love and Company; and Griffen China Company, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania in the years between 1879 and 1892.
Recently this term has appeared on eBay with increased frequency to describe majolica of a rustic nature, which is incorrect. Only true Phoenixville majolica should be labeled with the name Etruscan.
Reproductions of Etruscan majolica are numerous and well represented on eBay listings so the novice buyer should be aware of certain qualities of the pottery that will help them identify the real thing. Never go by the mark--there are hundreds of fake, marked pieces out there.

Identification

One of the easiest ways to identify true Etruscan Majolica is by the color. The Etruscan Works used a very limited palette in creating their majolica. For one thing there is no turquoise in the Etruscan palette. Whenever you see a turquoise piece advertised as Etruscan, you know it's either a fake or wrongly attributed. All Etruscan glazes have a clear, transparent quality to them. The company was famous for the pastel glazes they used--another way to recognize real Etruscan majolica. The long time collector will recognize an Etruscan glaze on sight. The glazes are also quite true to the design they are representing. If you see very runny glazes with little or no definition, run in the other direction!

The underside is also an easy way of telling true Etruscan Majolica. During the eleven years that the company was in production they only used three underside treatments for their multicolored pottery: solid white; yellow and green sponged; and the most common, brown and teal-grey mottled. Any pottery with a treatment other than this is not Etruscan.


Markings
The vast majority of Etruscan Majolica is marked with either the GSH logo or the circular Etruscan Majolica mark but, as I mentioned earlier, many reproductions are also marked. The lack of a mark shouldn't deter you from buying an otherwise desirable piece because most of the later pieces were not marked at all, so there are quite a few out there. There are other telltale signs to distinguish a piece's pedigree. One thing that virtually all Etruscan majolica has on the base is a decorator's mark. Decorators were paid by the piece so they were diligent about marking the wares they worked on. The decorator's mark will appear as a small unglazed area on the underside of the piece with either a stamped or hand written two digit number in the unglazed area. These marks can often be attributed to specific decorators who worked at the pottery. In fact, the decorator's mark is actually a better indication of the piece's origin as many unmarked pieces have the decorator's mark but not the GSH stamp. Otherwise, reproductions with fake Etruscan marks never have decorator's marks.

Another way of telling a fake marked piece from a real marked piece is by looking at the mark itself. Etruscan marks were pressed INTO the body of the piece--the words ETRUSCAN MAJOLICA as well as the stars in the circular Etruscan logo itself should be pressed into the clay. If they stick out it is certainly a reproduction. Marks, if they are present, are almost always crisp and clear in the colored majolica pieces. If the mark looks at all distorted or muddy, it should send up a red flag. Don't forget that Etruscan Majolica is sometimes not marked with the usual Etruscan logo. Sometimes it is only marked with the catalog number.
I should also mention printed marks. The Etruscan Works NEVER marked their wares with ink marks. I have seen pieces that have come out of Europe with ink Etruscan logos on the underside. These are categorically fakes. While the later potteries that took over the Phoenix Pottery did indeed use ink marks, the name "Etruscan" was never used in these marks. Ink marks that were used in these later pieces include: Griffen, Love & Co.; Chester Pottery; Griffen Pottery; and the Penn China Company.

Fakes & Reproductions

The most commonly seen fake Etruscan Majolica online are the small hollow ware pieces: a small turquoise or brown ribbed pitcher with a daisy on the side and a distorted round Etruscan majolica mark on the base; the so-called Devil or Bacchus two-handled cup, also with a fake mark on the base; and an asparagus mug with a fake mark on the base.


There is also a small mug with a wild flower on the side and a little green frog inside the turquoise interior, with a fake mark on the base. None of these pieces was ever created by the factory.
There are also copious numbers of colored Shell reproductions, usually the plates and cups & saucers that were marketed by Horchow a few years ago. These have a white underside and no mark. Shell majolica is, while not always marked, always decorated on the underside with a brown/teal mottled glaze. These pieces date from the later period in the company's history when only that underside treatment was used. There is also a very poorly done white Shell teapot using the decoration of the so-called Albino wares.
There are also copies of the Sunflower fruit tray (cobalt ground with green or yellow underside) which originated from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and originally had a MMA on the underside. This mark is usually ground off by unscrupulous dealers.


There are also several reproductions of the Oakleaf bread tray, some marked, some unmarked. This can easily be identified by the light weight of the body or by the distorted Etruscan mark on the (usually solid colored) underside.
A piece that was very common a few years ago but not seen as often today was the rusty rose Lily cheese bell with the swan finial. This was a copy made from the cover of an auction catalog of a very rare pink Lily cheese bell. These are coarsely modeled and originated in China. The interior of the copy is white, unglazed as is the underside of the base--something you would NEVER see in a true Etruscan piece.

Good Buying Practices

When buying Etruscan online always deal with a seller with a good reputation and good selling history. A reputable seller will always take back a piece that was incorrectly represented. Avoid closed auctions where the bidders are not identified--this is often done by unscrupulous dealers so that knowledgeable buyers cannot alert the bidders of the fake merchandise being offered. Most of all, go to museums, antiques shows and read books to see the real thing, and in no time these fake Etruscan pieces on eBay will be as obvious to you as a fly in milk.

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