German china has been desired by collectors for nearly three centuries. While it can take a lifetime to learn about china made in Germany, beginning with the basics will help you understand how to recognize and evaluate individual pieces.
German China History
First of all, the terms china and porcelain are used interchangeably. The ceramic's formula was a closely guarded secret for more than 350 years, and only Chinese workshops produced and exported it. In 1708, Johann Friedrich Bottger, a German alchemist, stumbled across the secret for making hard paste porcelain. On the basis of that discovery, Augustus the Strong of Saxony founded the Meissen porcelain factory, the oldest German porcelain factory still in existence, and occasional manufacturer of German beer steins.
With the success of Meissen came the opening of dozens of porcelain factories as the rulers of different German states and regions vied to dominate the European and American markets. Many well-known names in the porcelain industry got their start in Germany at that time.
Frankenthal porcelain was founded in 1755 in Frankenthal, Germany and was famous for its elaborate figurines. The factory flourished in the 18th century, and while some copies of original pieces have been issued, the original Frankenthal factory is no longer in operation. The figures are recognized by their doll-like faces and arched bases. Values tend to be high, and they can commonly reach above $3,000. The backstamp includes a lion or crown, in honor of the royal house.
Konigliche Porzellan Manufaktur is also known as K.P.M. The company was founded in 1763 by Frederick the Great who was determined that the finest porcelain in the world come from Germany. The backstamps vary from plain lines to scepters, crowns, and orbs. The company made tableware, figurines, and pieces from the 18th century which were delicately molded and hand painted. K.P.M. porcelain can still be purchased for under $100, although values can also top $1,000 or more.
For almost a century, Meissen china produced the finest quality porcelain in Europe. Part of Meissen's success was the exquisite decorations applied to the pieces by artists such as Johann Horoldt, Johann Kandler, and Michael Victor Acier. Blue Onion by Meissen was produced in the mid-1700s, and it's one of the most copied and reproduced antique china patterns. Interestingly, there are no onions in the blue and white design, only stylized asters, peonies, peaches, and pomegranates which were mistaken for onions. Prices for old Meissen can be extremely high and even smaller pieces can command $3,000 or more. Meissen backstamps take years of study to master since there were many variations of the "crossed swords," and there were even more copies and forgeries. The artiFacts website has some excellent examples of the authentic marks.
Villeroy & Boch has manufactured porcelain and pottery since the 18th century, and they are still on the market. You can see their backstamps and impressions which include "Made in Germany," "Mettlach," and "V&B", among others.
By the beginning of the 19th century, many of the original German china factories had ceased production. After large kaolin deposits were discovered in the area of Selb, Bavaria, a new chapter in the history of German porcelain factories began. The china made in Germany at this time was designed for the general population rather than for nobility and aristocrats. Many of the companies founded in the mid-to-late 1800s still produce beautiful German china with well-known names such as Goebel, which was founded in 1871 and is best known for the Hummel figurines of German children. The Goebel backstamps included the name, a crown, the moon, and a bee. Values for Hummel figurines can begin at $20, although rare pieces command thousands of dollars.
Made in Germany? Old or New?
Identifying German china takes research, patience, study, and practice. A piece may have a certain color, shape or design element that offers a hint to the factory that made it, but the most dependable way to determine if a piece of china is made in Germany is the backstamp.
Backstamps are marks that appear on the underside of a ceramic to identify the manufacturer. A backstamp can be hand drawn, stamped, or incised (pushed into the ceramic's clay.) The backstamp is generally under the glaze and often represents the company's symbol or name.
Backstamps can also tell you the year of production, based on the shape of the stamp, and companies changed the stamps often to reflect new ownership or updates.
"Made in Germany" was first used in 1887 as a way to differentiate German porcelain from English porcelain, which was very popular and competitive with British manufacturers. However, once "Made in Germany" was stamped on the porcelain, buyers looked for that as a mark of excellence and often preferred it since it typically meant a piece was well designed and well priced.
In 1949, the government of East Germany had their companies use "Made in German Democratic Republic" or "Made in GDR." West German companies changed their marks to "Made in West Germany." When Germany reunited in 1989, the "Made in Germany" backstamp was reinstated.
Another problem to consider when identifying German porcelain is that Germany consisted of different states through the centuries. Bavaria, Saxony, Prussia, and other regions also represent china made in Germany. You may not see a "Made in Germany" mark, but the piece could have been manufactured there.
At the height of production in the late 19th century, Germany had hundreds of porcelain factories and workshops. Many of their names used "royal," or they reused names when forming new factories. It can be very confusing when trying to sort out who made what, and where and when they made it. One of the best sources for information like this is the website, Porcelain Marks and More, which provides a complete list of early German states, the manufacturer names, an overview of each manufacturer, and an image of every mark used by a company. There is also a section on later German manufacturers with the same information.
If you are looking for an antique piece of porcelain that was "Made in Germany," you need to purchase something at least 100 years old, according to the US Customs Service. A piece of porcelain under 100 years old may be called an antique (which is a fairly flexible term), but for legal reasons, the century mark is official.
Spotting Fakes and Copies
Since some German porcelain is rare and valuable, the market has been flooded with fakes and copies which can fool new collectors. There is no single way to tell whether a piece of German china is old or new, but here are some tips to help avoid a bad bargain.
Antique German china generally shows signs of wear. Look for scuffs on the bottom edges or some glaze crackle. If a piece looks brand new out of the box, but it's listed as an antique, be careful.
Each era had different aesthetic tastes, so colors that are used today on German china may not be the same as colors used in 1870. If you're unsure of a piece, check its colors against images of older pieces and be wary of extensive color variations.
If the piece feels very light or unusually heavy, it may be a reproduction.
The best way to date a piece of porcelain is through knowledge, and that takes research, time, and effort to acquire. Visiting museums, antiques shops and shows will give you an opportunity to see examples up close, and this can help you learn what to look for from a certain factory. Keep in mind - even the experts get fooled sometimes.
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Identification and Price Guides
Gerold Porzellan Collectors website contains valuable information and photographs of rare and collectible German porcelain. There are excellent pictures for identification and study.
The International Ceramics Directory has numerous links to German porcelain websites, along with backstamp listings, history, and other information about old and new factories.
The Directory of European Porcelain by Ludwig Danckert is a classic reference source if you want to track down factories, history, and marks. Although out of print, there are many copies available through online sources, like Amazon or American Book Exchange.
Pictorial Guide To Pottery And Porcelain Marks by Chad Lage is available for purchase online and is an excellent reference guide to porcelain marks in the US and Europe. Clear photographs and exhaustive lists of backstamps will help you date a piece or identify a manufacturer.
German porcelain, for all its delicate looks, has lasted for nearly 300 years. Although the "Made in Germany" mark appears on some pieces, don't use that as your only guide to collecting porcelain. Instead, spend time getting to know the factories that produced porcelain and enjoy learning about the designers, styles, and stories behind these fragile creations.