Whether you collect antique Chinese pottery vases, 18th century British sterling silver, or any type of antique at all, knowing how to identify any item --even the ones in the worst states of disrepair--can save you hours of frustration spent sifting through 1990s collector's message boards for a hint in the right direction. These identification marks may outnumber you several to one, but with a little bit of focus, you'll be able to master them in no time at all.
Thousands of Antique Identification Marks
When thinking of all antiques in existence, there are tens of thousands, if not more, of different identification marks. For instance, one website, Antique-Marks, has more than 10,000 images of maker's marks and trademarks found on antique pottery and porcelain.
If you've come across a family heirloom you're looking to sell or want to know more about, then the identification marks are the place to start your detecctive work. Likewise, every collector, whether a novice or seasoned, needs accurate resources to help them identify and value pieces that're interesting to them. The same is true for antique dealers, auctioneers and pickers, as your education when it comes to antiques is never quite over. With the vast number of identification marks, it's virtually impossible to recognize all of the different manufacturers of one specific category, such as English porcelain. Many collectors that specialize in a specific type or era of antiques generally only recognize the most well known of the maker's marks, along with the marks of pieces they have a special interest in collecting.
Marks Are Clues to an Antique's Past
Many antiques have marks on the underside that are stamped, impressed, or painted on. These marks generally help with identification and the dating of the piece by giving a significant historical point of reference. Marks assist in determining one or more of the following:
- Approximate date of manufacture
- Country of origin
- How many copies of the item were produced
It's important to note that identification marks will vary across antiques depending on the following variables.
The Type of Antique
Marks are highly dependent on the types of antiques they are; for example, porcelain artifacts often feature inked or stamped marks on the bottom of their bases, while furniture has a wide array of places that their marks might be located. Depending on your type of antique, you'll need to look in specific places and for specific types of marks to better identify your piece(s).
The Materials Used
While materials like iron and clay have been around since antiquity, other materials haven't been around for quite as long. Things like steel and plastic have finite dates for when they were created, so the antique's materials can give you information as to what time a mark was probably made.
The Time Period
Marks evolved alongside technology and style over the course of history; hand crafted marks gave way to stamped marks, which then gave way to paper labels, which eventually evolved into the lasered, stickered, or printed marks of today. Thus, if you can pinpoint how sophisticated the mark's construction is, you should be able to give yourself a ballpark range for the period in which it was created.
The Country of Origin
Not every country has the same type of identification system for their goods. For instance, Great Britain's hallmark system for precious metals involves more stamp marks than those from the United States. Finding these extra stamp marks on your piece can give you an indication as to where the piece was originally created.
Types of Identification Marks
The following are some of the more common types of identification marks that you might find on your own antiques.
Marker's marks have been around in some way or another for hundreds of years. Often associated with historic home goods and accessories, these marks have been used by craftsmen and then manufacturing companies to distinguish their products from others' and from any possible imitations. One of the more difficult aspects surrounding maker's marks is the fact that they often change over time, meaning you can have two Hummel and Goebel's pieces side by side with different maker's marks. However, they're some of the most useful in terms of identifying an antique, because they're hyperspecific and (usually) well-documented.
Silver hallmarks have been used by assay offices and jewelers across the world to assess both the quality and the manufacturing chain which the pieces come from. This way, precious metals are always accounted for by the government, independent craftsperson, and the owner. Different assay offices have different marks, meaning you can identify which country the silver came from even if they didn't stamp the country's origins in any obvious way. Similarly, you'll find silver and silver plate items bearing hallmarks that describe the metal's content. These are usually depicted using one of many visual markers, such as 925 or the word sterling.
Much like signing the bottom of a painting, artists and designers often preferred to sign their finished bronze pieces in the same manner. These signatures aren't necessarily indicative of age since you can find examples of artists from 300 years ago as well as those from 40 years ago having signed their bronze sculptures or installations using the exact same techniques.
Foundry marks are a less common way of dating and identifying antiques as they relate to metal items that have been cast in a foundry. These castings come in various designs but are specific to the foundry that manufactured that piece. One of the ways you might use a foundry mark for identification purposes is for military equipment, as many wartime enthusiasts have tracked back their wartime artifacts to specific regions and foundry plants across the world.
Pewter Touch Marks
According to the Pewter Society, a touch mark describes the visual trademark for a pewterer's work. While some areas have regulations as to reporting their touch marks by using standard 'touch plates,' others aren't so systematic. This means that, while you should be able to see the pewterer's specific markings on your piece, you might not always find a correlating database from which to reference those pieces against. Additionally, following the 1830s, there was a significant drop-off in these trademarks' decorative designs, with pewterers favoring touch marks that encompassed just their names or initials for simplicity's sake.
Engraved Signatures on Glass
Glass blowers and designers are some of the most tenacious craftspeople around, and the nature of their molten materials means that conventional marker's marks aren't always the optimal option. Some glass artisans prefer to etch their signatures onto their pieces, adding a personalized and resolute touch to their works. This can be incredibly helpful for identification purposes, as it's near impossible to replicate an authentic etched signature. Some famous examples of these signatures include those from Steuben Glass Works and Murano Glass Company.
Design Registration Marks
Products which feature a design registration mark have their specific designs--including features like proportions, lines, configurations, and so on--protected by the law. These can be shown in different capacities depending on the country of origin, but Britain, for example, has an extensive database of the different registration marks they've used over the years. From diamond marks correlating to pieces from 1842 to 1883 and others cleverly stamped with a clear warning of their meaning, there's a lot to unpack with these marks, and finding one on a piece gives you a concrete paper trail to start researching with.
Resources of Antique Identification Marks
There're many excellent resources relating to identification marks, including books, price guides, and websites that you can reference today.
Books and Price Guides
There're tons of works out there pertaining to maker's marks, hallmarks, and other identifying marks of specific types of antiques. Antique price guides often include information on marks and other methods of identifying antiques, as well. These are some comprehensive reference materials to help you better identify your antiques.
- Antique Trader's Doll Makers and Marks: A Guide to Identification by Dawn Herlocher
- American Silversmiths and Their Marks: The Definitive (1948) Edition by Stephen G. C. Ensko
- Kovels' New Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain, 1850 to the Present by Ralph Kovel
- Pictorial Guide to Pottery & Porcelain Marks by Chad Lage
- Schroeder's Antiques Price Guide: Identification and Values of Over 50,000 Antiques by Sharon Huxford
- Kovels Dictionary of Marks - Pottery and Porcelain: 1650 to 1850 by Ralph and Terry Kovel
There are numerous websites dedicated to identifying antiques by their marks and these websites are just a few of the many ones out there.
- Antique-Marks - This website is a digital reference collection that's extensive and free to use. It provides a massive listing of manufacturers' marks found on pottery and porcelain, while also offering things like concise summaries of antique periods and detailed histories on well-known artists and manufacturing companies.
- Marks 4 Antiques - Marks 4 Antiques is a paid subscription service that gives you access to their resources surrounding identification and appraisal. In fact, they have three specific research services which focus on ceramics, silver goods, and antique appraisals that all include information regarding identification.
- Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks and Maker's Marks - If you're ever looking to date and assess a piece of stamped silver, then this online encyclopedia is the best place to go. The website includes extensive information for American, British, and global silver makers' marks, as well as sections that focus on silverplate and flatware pieces as well.
- Silver Hallmarks and Marks - Silver Hallmarks and Marks is an illustrated guide that includes hallmarks, assayer marks, a directory of makers, and a list of towns and countries of origin.
A Little Detective Work Goes a Long Way
Knowing where to find accurate information on antique identification marks provides collectors the knowledge that they need when investing in a piece for their collection while giving them the security to know that they're getting the best deal possible. Even if you're only a casual collector, knowing how to identify seemingly ambiguous antique and vintage items based on their identification marks is an incredibly useful skill to have. To practice, take a quick browse around your house and see what identification marks you can find on your most treasured items yourself.