Collecting ceramics can be a very interesting hobby. First there's the fun of finding pieces that you like or that are unusual. Then there's the fun of researching the time and place of manufacture, based on the mark or back stamp. You can buy pieces very cheaply at thrift stores. It seems like, the more pieces I collect, the more I want to find.
I started shopping at thrift stores, which are very much like the best garage sales ever. I found myself drawn to the ceramics pieces. They were pretty, inexpensive, and didn’t take up much room in the house, so I started to buy them.
I’ve been collecting for two years now, and I still have a lot to learn about ceramics. But there’s a treasure hunt aspect to this pursuit that’s irresistible. Every time I go into a thrift store, there’s the possibility of finding something really cool. The search is as much fun as the discovery.
People, including me, get confused about just what ceramics are. Ceramics include earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, and bone china. They’re all made from clay with other minerals added. Earthenware and stoneware are not completely fired, and are still porous. Porcelain is completely fired and non-porous, and it can be translucent. Bone china has bone ash added to make it more translucent. Porcelain can also be called china. All these types of ceramics can be glazed.
When you start collecting ceramics, pretty soon you learn to look on the underside of the piece to find the mark or back stamp. This can tell you where, when, and by whom the piece was made. I like to find pieces that are old. If you like old ceramics, you want to look for marks that are not too crisp and clear, but that look more blurred or smudgy. Old pieces, especially European ones, also tend to have flowers on them. You can’t always tell if a piece is old by looking at it. Sometimes people have their dinnerware or other ceramics wrapped up and put away for decades before it’s donated to the thrift shop.
I also like to find ceramic pieces that were made in interesting places. One of my favorite finds is a plate made in Silesia, which is partly in Germany and partly in Poland. It was manufactured by P.K. Silesia, or Porzellan Koenigszelt Silesia, between 1914 and 1925. The company was called Koenigszelt because that means “king’s tent;” it’s believed that Frederick the Great of Prussia once pitched his tent where the factory stood. Frederick was a fine king, and also not bad for marketing.
Another favorite piece I’ve found is a funny-looking little cup with a face that was made in occupied Japan. That means the time when Japan was occupied by the Allies after World War II. That period only lasted from 1945 to 1952, so that’s a limited time in which the piece was manufactured. To me, that makes it pretty interesting.
Researching manufacturers and marks is a part of collecting ceramics. If the maker’s name is on the bottom of the piece, it’s not too hard to do. I just google the name, and, even if that factory is out of business, I can still usually find out a lot about its history. There are plenty of websites devoted to ceramics. If I only have a mark, it’s harder, but a great resource is the International Ceramics Directory, and I’ve put a link to it in my references. Marks change over time, so based on the mark I can find out when the piece was made. Like collecting pieces in the first place, tracking down information is an intriguing treasure hunt.
Now you won’t make a lot of money collecting ceramics. I pick up most of my pieces at the Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul store for around a dollar. When I find something similar for sale on ebay, it’s usually for about ten dollars. That’s not a bad return on investment, but of course I don’t want to sell my collection. Also, even antique ceramics don’t always bring high prices.
Right now I’m working on a catalog of my collection with pictures and information about the time and place of manufacture, before the whole thing gets out of hand.
The great thing about collecting ceramics is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. You can do it as much or as little as you want. You can research as much or as little as you want. And you can buy what you like.
Picture by Kathleen Murphy
International Ceramics Directory at http://www.ceramic-link.de/icd/pages/marks/marksindex.htm