Copyright 2009 – Kimberly Clay

Antique China PlacesettingHow old and how much are typically the questions most often asked regarding antiques, particularly with family heirlooms or that set of antique china dishes that you inherited.

While the “What’s it worth?” question takes a little more time and information to answer, the “How old is it?” question is much easier for a novice antique collector to determine.

Antique China Marks
The beauty of antique porcelain and china is in the fact that it is marked with clues. If you turn over nearly any piece of china or porcelain and view the back, there’s normally both a maker’s mark and a country of origin mark. It’s the country of origin mark that offers the information that helps you date your antique dishes.

In 1891, there was a law passed in the United States called the McKinley Tariff Act. It stated that each item imported into the US needed to be marked with the country of origin. It is with this information that we can determine that antique dishes with no country of origin mark normally date to pre-1891. There’s one hitch to this dating system, paper and foil labels with the country of origin which may have been removed were used in the 20th Century. So look for little outlines that may indicate a missing label as well.

Early 20th Century China Marks
Between 1891 and 1921, countries marked their porcelain with just the name of the country. Japan in particular is known for porcelain produced during this timeframe, as they used “Nippon”, which means “Japan” on their wares. Nippon porcelain made during this era has become extremely popular with collectors.

If your antique dishes have only a country name stamped on the back, without the words “Made In”, it is safe to assume that it was made between 1891 and 1921. Japan began using “Japan” rather than Nippon on porcelain and china during the 1920’s into the 1940’s, when they began using the “Made in Occupied Japan’ during World War II. This is yet another popularly collected Japanese import, but certainly not the quality of the earlier Nippon porcelain.

Mid 1920-‘s to Modern China Marks
Porcelain and dishes made from the 1920’s and later will typically be stamped “Made in” before the country of origin. There are several other clues that can help in dating the dishes made during this time, and they also relate to the words found on the back of each piece:

  • “U.S. Patent” was used after 1900;
  • “U.S. Zone” or “U.S. Zone Germany” was used between 1945-1949;
  • “West Germany” was used between 1949-1990;
  • “Dishwasher Safe” was added to some dishes after 1955;
  • “East Germany” was used between 1949-1990;
  • “Incorporated” was typically used on pieces produced during or after the 1940’s.

While this information should certainly help you date your heirloom dishes and porcelain, valuing them is another point entirely. Old doesn’t always equal valuable in antiques. But when old means a set of dishes has passed from generation to generation within your family, that makes them priceless and an heirloom to be cherished.

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