Collecting Nippon Porcelain

     By Joan Van Patten

Wine jug, dark woodland décor, 9-1/2 inches tall, backstamp is blue maple leaf, $1400-1700.
Wine jug, dark woodland décor, 9-1/2 inches tall, backstamp is blue maple leaf, $1400-1700.

Psychologists tell us we're all collectors at heart, some to a greater degree than others to be sure but once we start most of us find we're trapped into this predicament for life. Some collectors are obsessive and compulsive. Many are packrats. But usually the "hunt" is almost as desirable as the actual possession of a piece.

Nippon collecting brings joy, happiness and excitement to the collector. Nippon is not the name of the manufacturer as many think, but rather the country of origin. It comes from a Chinese phrase meaning "the source of the sun" and is the name the Japanese people called their country. Nippon-marked porcelain was manufactured for export during the years of 1891-1921. Today, Nippon items are among the most sought after collectibles on the antique market.

In 1891, the McKinley Tariff Act was enacted and required that all articles of foreign manufacture must be plainly marked, stamped, branded or labeled in legible English words to indicate the country of origin. In March of 1921, the government reversed its position and decided that the word Nippon was a Japanese word, the English equivalent of which is Japan. Customs agents were then instructed that as of September 1, 1921, merchandise from Japan should not be released when bearing only the Japanese word Nippon to indicate the country of origin. Thus the era of Nippon-marked items was over.

Art Nouveau styled moriage portrait vase, 10 inches tall, backstamp is blue maple leaf, $4000-5000.
Art Nouveau styled moriage portrait vase, 10 inches tall, backstamp is blue maple leaf, $4000-5000.

The Japanese items were less expensive to purchase than pieces coming from Germany and Austria and around the end of the 19th and early into the 20th century were very popular in the United States. Many of the items were sold in gift shops, at summer resorts, boardwalks, fairs, five-and-ten-cent stores, carnivals, penny arcades and even at the local general store.

It is interesting to note how much Nippon porcelain items actually sold for during this period. An old 1908 Sears catalog lists vases for $.59 each, a nine piece tea set sold for $2.29, game plates were $.95 a dozen and cups and saucers were sold as low as $1.49 a dozen.

In 1638, Nippon was closed to all Europeans and cut off from the rest of the world. This was to secure Japan from the Europeans and the rebellious Japanese peasants. The Japanese were forbidden to build any ship larger than a coasting boat. They could not go abroad and no foreigner could enter. The law of the land decreed a death penalty for any foreigner entering Japan and the people of Nippon lived in almost total seclusion for 214 years until Commodore Matthew Perry, USN, steamed into Yedo Bay in 1853. Yedo was later renamed Tokyo. The Japanese referred to the ships as the "Black Ships" because of the clouds of black smoke they produced. These clouds could be seen all over the countryside and the Japanese were undoubtedly impressed with this display of force. Perry proceeded to play upon their fears. This time they put up no resistance and before long trade negotiations were underway. Japan was opened to world trade and ensuing contacts with the West brought a flood of European art to her shores. Japan had been "rediscovered," her seclusion was ended and a new life began.

During this period the Japanese government also hired thousands of foreign experts to come to Japan to train their people. The artists began imitating the European styles or tried to combine those of the Eastern and Western manner. There were no copyright laws and the Japanese copied whatever they admired. They were highly skilled and capable of quickly learning new techniques. They had previously copied the master artists from China but in order to satisfy this new Western market they now copied the arts of many other countries. Occidental decoration was being painted on Oriental wares.

Galle styled humidor, 5-1/2 inches tall, backstamp is green M in wreath, $2200-2500.
Galle styled humidor, 5-1/2 inches tall, backstamp is green M in wreath, $2200-2500.

Modern factory equipment was installed, plaster molds were introduced and European methods of glazing were tried. Previously the kilns had been fired by wood, now coal and oil were used. Whole villages made pottery and decorated it; in fact, children were used to decorate many of the Nippon wares. By the time the 1900s rolled around assembly line techniques were already being employed in the making of Nippon porcelain.

The Japanese had a famous capacity for imitation and today we find Nippon porcelain that resembles Limoges, Beleek, Wedgwood, Gouda, Royal Bayreuth, RS Prussia, the list goes on and on. All types of items were manufactured, from elaborately decorated vases and punch bowl sets to plain utilitarian items such as butter tubs and juicers. One finds dolls, incense burners and souvenir items, so varied was the market. Thus, the country of Nippon began world trade and porcelain became one of her major export items.

Mention the word Nippon to most people and they conjure up a vision of pretty little white dishes decorated with flowers or a small scene. And right they would be, for a good deal of Nippon pieces fall into this category. What many do not know, however, is the variety of decorating techniques used on Nippon porcelain. There are those decorated in a Wedgwood style, some have a tapestry appearance, others are relief molded while some have tiny colorless beads applied - collectors term this technique as coralene. The majority of Nippon pieces are hand-painted and say so on the backstamp. Others can be found decorated with decalcomanias (transfer prints).

Research indicates that the Noritake Company in Nagoya, Japan manufactured the majority of these items and are still in business today. They had artists in New York City draw many of the early designs used on their wares and these drawings were then sent to Japan for the artists to copy. Many of these handpainted design sheets were also given to salesmen in the United States and were shown to prospective clients. If and when any of the original salesman or design pages can be found, they are generally more expensive than the item they portray.

Wall plaques: At Left: American Indian design, wall plaque featuring Chief Sitting Bull, 10-1/2 inches wide, backstamp is blue M in wreath, $2200-2600. At Right: Wall plaque, 10-1/2 inches wide, backstamp is blue M in wreath, $1000-$1200.
Wall plaques: At Left: American Indian design, wall plaque featuring Chief Sitting Bull, 10-1/2 inches wide, backstamp is blue M in wreath, $2200-2600. At Right: Wall plaque, 10-1/2 inches wide, backstamp is blue M in wreath, $1000-$1200.

A system was eventually introduced by the Noritake Company to keep secret many of the decorating techniques developed at the factory. Previously, workers would be taught by the company masters and often jumped around from factory to factory, taking these skills and secrets with them. In an effort to stop this from happening, it was decided that each worker would only be allowed to do one type of work on the finished product; thus, no worker knew it all. Each did a little part of the work and items were passed around to others to do something different. Each worker specialized in his own area of expertise and thus the secrets were kept.

Gold was used quite lavishly on the pieces exported during the time of 1891-1921. However, much of this gold was not very durable and today we find that a number of these pieces have much of the gold worn off. Some dealers and collectors have a tendency to add gold paint to these items but generally it can be detected quite easily. Some pieces are decorated in a moriage fashion. This refers to applied clay (slip) relief decorations. There are three basic methods for applying the moriage designs. One is by hand rolling and shaping. The second makes use of tubing. The tubing was filled with softened clay and applied to the porcelain much as we decorate cakes today. The third technique is to reduce the clay to a liquid state and brush it on items. Moriage designs are innumerable and varied. They include border trimmings, lacy designs, floral motifs, birds, animals and landscapes. One of the designs found in moriage fashion is the jewel-eyed, slip-trailed dragon.

The tapestry texture found on some Nippon items is similar to that found on Royal Bayreuth pieces. A cloth was first dipped in porcelain slip. The artisan then spread this cloth out on his hands to pat out the excess clay. The material was stretched tightly over the damp piece of porcelain and during the bisque firing the material was consumed. The heat in the kiln destroyed the threads of the material leaving a texture on some items resembling cheesecloth or linen. The piece was then painted and fired again. Items molded in relief or so-called "blown-out" pieces have a three dimensional appearance and are very desirable wares among collectors. The pattern for this type of item was made directly in the mold. Recesses were cut into the mold producing a negative relief. Whatever was incised into the mold would protrude out on the completed item. The design is raised up from the background of the item and is often found in the shape of nuts, flowers, animals, figures, etc.

The Wedgwood style decoration found on Nippon wares is an imitation of Josiah Wedgwood's popular Jasper ware pieces. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was an English potter who acquired a reputation for his cream colored earthenware. In 1774 he introduced Jasper ware in pale blue and sage green colors. Most of the Nippon wares have a light blue background with white moriage slip-trailed decoration. Some have a lavender or green background. The Wedgwood look-alike pieces can be found that have an allover covering or just as a border or trim with a scenic or floral décor. Portrait pieces are some of the most desirable items of Nippon. Almost every portrait that is featured on a piece of Nippon is a decalcomania (decal). Popular portraits featured are Madame Lebrun, Queen Louise, Madame Recamier, Countess Anna Potocka, lady with doves and lady with peacock. The majority, however, are presently unidentifiable and at times one must consider that they are just pictures of pretty women.

Prices depend upon many things - which part of the country you are making your purchase, the sophistication of both buyer and seller, the condition of the item and the rarity of the piece.

The following are my rules for collecting:

Buy to please yourself! Your collection should reflect your own taste and be for your own pleasure and enlightenment. You have to live with these pieces so buy what you like but buy the best you can afford. Quality items always retain their value.

Study, study, study and study some more. Knowledge is power. Read the books; talk with other collectors and dealers. Find out why collectors value some items over others. Compare prices. But remember everyone makes mistakes and probably some of my best lessons were learned that way. You will find that some pieces wear well over time and others do not. Our tastes change and evolve over the years. You can always do as most veteran collectors have done - sell off your beginner pieces. One man's trash is another's treasure.

Purge that urge to splurge on anything and everything. You do not need one of every type of item ever manufactured. Look for beauty, workmanship, quality and rarity. Remember to watch for damaged pieces and try to buy items free of cracks, hairlines, chips, etc. Check the handles, finials and spouts for evidence of breakage. Get to know what the reproductions look and feel like. Buy pieces of sets only if you like the individual item as you may never find the rest of the set.

If rules 2 and 3 are too difficult for you to follow, go back to rule 1. If you really love an item and can afford it - go for it!

There is also a club devoted entirely to the collecting of Nippon porcelain. It is called the International Nippon Collectors Club (INCC) and has been in existence for 26 years. The club has hundreds of members and holds an annual convention each summer. Membership is a must for the serious collector.

For further information about Nippon porcelain, readers should visit the International Nippon Collectors Club website which is The website provides information about Nippon and the club. Of particular value to collectors and dealers are the six pages of known Nippon reproductions, which were flooding the market a few years back. Collectors need to know what to buy as well as what NOT to buy.

Happy Nippon hunting!

Van Patten's ABC's of Collecting Nippon Porcelain

by Joan Van Patten
Publisher: Collector Books
Price: $29.95

Van Patten's ABC's of Collecting Nippon Porcelain Historical information is included in this new volume Van Patten's ABC's of Collecting Nippon Porcelain, as well as the different designs and techniques that were used. A variety of patterns, designs, decors, and various scenes are showcased. A big chapter on reproductions is also included, and hundreds of backstamps are shown. As the subtitle of the book suggests, this volume is arranged alphabetically by piece. As always, current collector values are provided for every item shown. Hundreds of photographs of vases, tea sets, candlesticks, trays, creamers, plates, urns, and many other types of dishes are featured. Joan Van Patten, co-founder and past president of the International Nippon Collector's Club, is a qualified, trustworthy source for every Nippon collector, and her books are always considered required reading.

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