Antique majolica was just as commonplace in the Victorian era as fiesta plates were in the early 2000s. However, these vibrant lead-glazed ceramics have transitioned from an overlooked Victorian staple to a valuable collectible in just a few decades.
Majolica: From Antiquity to the Victorian Era
Originating in the 15th century and making its way across the European continent into Italy, majolica got its first taste of fame during the Italian Renaissance as creatives worked on all kinds of new artistic mediums. However, the art form waxed and waned in popularity until its resurrection by the Minton Company in 1851.
This ceramic boom was launched at the Great Exhibition in London. For 10 years, Minton dominated the market thanks to its patent on the tin-glazing process. Once these 10 years were up, ceramics manufacturers across Europe and the United States started producing their own majolica lines. Despite the fervor with which Victorians bought these mass-produced pieces, majolica ceramics became a trend of the past after just a few decades, and there wasn't much interest in them until the mid to late-20th century.
Today, majolica encompasses a vast collection of brightly-colored ceramics from the 19th century. Many pieces are highly collectible and can be quite valuable.
Victorian Antique Majolica Characteristics
People have been making pottery practically since humans developed opposable thumbs, which can mean that identifying antique majolica from any other old pot or pitcher can be pretty difficult. However, there are some distinctive characteristics unique to majolica that can help even beginners figure out which pieces they have.
The most obvious factor that differentiates majolica from similar pottery is the saturated, bright colors that come from natural oxides painted on top of white lead-glazes. Not only were the exteriors painted on with beautifully vibrant glazes, but the interiors were painted as well. Some of the most popular colors to look for include:
Manufacturers of Majolica
Although not every piece of majolica over the years was marked by an artist or manufacturer, the ones that're the most valuable today were. The major three manufacturers for 19th century majolica were Minton, Wedgewood, and George Jones. You should be able to find makers' marks on the bottoms of each of their pieces.
A major element central to English majolica was the natural themes that inspired the decorative artwork painted onto each piece. You'll find decorative elements on these old ceramics such as birds, plants, flowers, and insects. This romantic iconography also served to tie the cultural fascination with Romanticism in the late-19th century with the domestic aesthetic.
How to Spot Fake Majolica
Since there are a lot of majolica ceramics out there, there's a big market for creating fakes. Yet, even the most convincing replicas will include certain tells that hint at their false origins. These are a few tips for differentiating fake Majolica ceramics from the real deal:
- Feel - Authentic majolica ceramics should have a certain heft to them in your hand, whereas reproduction pieces that're made with cheaper materials can feel much lighter.
- Precise Artistry - Each of the colored glazes was applied with expert precision, and you can pick out fakes by the bubbles or color mixing that would've occurred during a hasty application.
- Maker's Marks - Since not every piece came with a maker's mark, this one isn't a failsafe characteristic to rely on when assessing for authenticity. However, finding a mark is a positive sign that there's a chance it's authentic, though you should definitely check that the mark doesn't appear smudged or misshapen, as these are tells for being faked.
Antique Majolica Value
Majolica, from both the near and distant past, can be worth a huge price range, depending on many different factors. A few of the central ones to consider include:
- Size - On average, larger majolica pieces are worth more than their smaller counterparts. This can be due to the extra space giving room for more detail or because of their intended purpose and how often they were meant to be viewed.
- Design - The more colors of glazing and the more detailed the designs, the more valuable the piece is to potential buyers. Just like with fine art, the intricacy hints at the amount of time, effort, and skill that went into creating it; the more of these that're present, the more money the majolica can sell for.
- Maker - Pieces made by the Minton Company are by far some of the most desirable, but marked ones will normally sell for far more than unmarked/unsigned pieces will.
- Age - Age can have a significant impact on values; while late-19th and early 20th century majolica is in huge demand and thus worth a lot of money when it comes to machine-made ceramics, ones from much earlier, such as the 17th or 18th centuries, can sell for high amounts even in average condition.
Since majolica is quite popular with collectors right now, these pieces can sell for anywhere between $50-$50,000 (in rare cases) depending on who's attending the auction or interested in the piece and what state it's in.
For instance, here are a few pieces of majolica that've recently come to auction for a range of prices:
- This 1860s majolica pot is decorated with a brown weaved glaze against a vine and flower. Its color has faded, and it's unmarked, leaving it to be listed for only $54.
- One majolica plate from 1875, created and signed by Joseph Holdcroft, depicts a salmon swimming in a sea of turquoise glaze. Although it's older, the understated design and simplicity meant it was listed for just under $500, at $485.
- A majolica garden seat from the late-19th century made by famous manufacturer Wedgewood features beautiful scrolled legs and gold, pink, and white glaze. Far exceeding its estimated worth at auction despite multiple hairline cracks, this cushioned seat sold for $3,750.
Places to Buy and Sell Old Majolica Ceramics
Since majolica is a popular purchase with collectors across every tax bracket, it can be really important that you know which places are the best to buy from and which to sell through. Keep in mind that with as varied of a price range as majolica is, you should consider having a piece appraised if you think it's worth more than about $100. After all, you won't want to sell the pieces that are worth tens of thousands of dollars to sites like eBay or Etsy because they won't reach the proper collectors' audience. Similarly, there are different sites to visit depending on if you want a valuable piece or just fancy having any old one in your collection.
Take these online retailers and auction houses, for instance:
- 1st Dibs - While only auction retailers can sell through the 1st Dibs marketplace, there are far too many antique goodies for sale to not browse through their massive collection.
- Madelena - Madelena is a smaller antiques business that deals in more expensive majolica (among other items). However, they do have a layaway system, so you don't have to go bankrupt on the perfect Victorian piece.
- Cynthia Findlay - Cynthia Findlay is a Toronto-based antiques and vintage dealer that has a collection of Victorian majolica for sale on their website; prices range between about $500-$2,500.
- Ruby Lane - Ruby Lane is an antiques marketplace that's been around since 1999, partnering with antiques dealers and shops around the world and showing their stuff to a global audience. While you can't sell through them, their catalog is constantly being updated, making them a valuable place to look for new majolica pieces.
- Love Antiques - A U.K. based antiques marketplace similar to 1st Dibs, Love Antiques offers mid- to upper-tier antiques for sale, including ceramics and porcelain.
- Etsy - Etsy is an online market filled with independent sellers, many of whom sell antiques and vintage collectibles. It's pretty easy to set up your own shop to sell through, as well as to purchase from.
- eBay - eBay is the perfect place to go to if you've got a few pieces that you just want to get rid of, particularly if you think they're not worth a ton of money. While they are easy to sell through, they also have a massive catalog of items from sellers around the world that you can buy from.
Majolica Price and Identification Guides for Reference
Given the simple way that majolica was manufactured in the 19th century, there are so many pieces out that it might take you forever to figure out which you have at home. Thankfully, there are some comprehensive identification and price guides that provide descriptions and illustrations for you to know exactly which pieces you own and how much money they could pull on the open market.
A few of these guides include:
- Warman's Majolica: Identification and Price Guide by Mark F. Moran
- Majolica: A Complete History & Illustrated Survey by Joan B. Stacke and Marilyn G. Karmason
- Kovels' Antiques and Collectibles Price Guide 2023 by Terry Kovel and Kim Kovel
- Marvelous Majolica: An Easy Reference and Price Guide by Jeffrey B. Snyder
Pottery Made to Be Displayed
While it may seem as though there's an abundance of pottery and ceramics out there, antique majolica is special for its rich, lasting hues and soft, whimsical subject matter. Of course, you shouldn't forget about their big budget price tags that can make them worthwhile for even the least artistically-minded person.