Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Identify Vintage Finds

Many times people make decisions regarding family hand-me-downs and vintage items that they regret later. We see a lot of examples of this on the Antiques Roadshow. Think about how often people find valuable things in dumpsters, at garage sales, and are given very valuable items as payment for a favor or service. The person who threw the item out or gave it away must be kicking himself somewhere, don't you think? Expensive mistakes can be avoided by just doing a little research, and I'd like to share what I do with an item I'm unfamiliar with in this post.

I purchased this collection of French porcelain at an auction a few years ago. I knew it was high quality because all of the details were hand painted rather than a transfer design, there was additional relief decoration, gold painted edges, and triple signed bottoms on some of the pieces. Sometimes I buy first, research later. I packed up my finds and put them in my basement and sort of forgot about them for a while.


I happened to see a plate just like my example being appraised on the Antiques Roadshow last season. I remembered the appraiser calling it "French export porcelain", but didn't write down any details, trusting my memory (which was a mistake). So I went to Google Images and searched with the words "French export porcelain". Lo and behold, a couple pieces similar to mine popped up, and I discovered it was made by Samson, a French company.


Next, I looked at the mark on the bottom and found a good on-line resource for pottery marks, identifying my marks a second time as Samson. Samson was even written about on Wikipedia, I discovered. It was a French company that made ceramics in Paris beginning in the 1830's. Their initial intention was to reproduce examples of museum pieces and expensive ceramics in private collections, so they were adept at producing ceramic wares in a variety of styles.

Samson produced ceramics ranging from Italian majolica to French Palissy to Chinese famille rose. Samson's wares were hard-paste porcelain with a glossy glaze, signed with their own markings. They were not intended to deceive, but eventually unscrupulous dealers found ways to remove the markings and pass off Samson's wares as the more valuable originals.


The Samson company continued production until the late 1960's and their items are quite collectible now because of their beauty and interesting history.


The internet is so handy for researching antiques, but I find old fashioned price guides to be very helpful too. I have a little library that I refer to frequently, and anyone who is in the antique biz or a serious collector should have a good basic antique price guide and a couple specific guides in areas of interest. I have several for Roseville, Weller, and Majolica pottery, Dolls and Teddy Bears, Glass, Enamel Ware, Yellow Ware, Costume Jewelry, Advertising, and Vintage Toys. These guides will have prices for items and have all sorts of information about reproductions to watch for and other tidbits. Most antique malls sell price guides, or you can buy them at bookstores.

A couple of my well-worn collector price guides:


I often check eBay for a quick and easy indication of what things are selling for. EBay is like a constantly updated price guide. I go to "completed listings" and do a search for the item in question. Then I factor in the cost of shipping along with the final price at the end of the auction. This gives you an idea of what people are willing to pay right now for the item. Price guides that were written 15 years ago before the economic downturn tend to be unrealistically high when it comes to the values of most things.

If you happen to have a painting or sculpture in hand, the first thing you need to do is check for an artist signature. Sometimes the frame of a painting will conceal a signature, or sometimes there will be information on the back indicating who painted the art work. Unfortunately, there are many unsigned paintings in the world too. If you do find a signature, you need to drop everything and check to see if the artist is "listed".

Unfortunately, this painting has no signature. If I painted it, I would have signed it, wouldn't you?


A "listed" artist is someone who has a body of work substantial enough to be recognized in one of the major art reference books. The industry standard is Davenport's. Now there are on-line sites too, and these might be worth checking. Try ArtPrice, ArtFact, and ArtNet. If you find the artist who created your piece, consider the artist "listed", and you can now be more confident about putting a value on your piece, because the the reference book or site will indicate what the artist's works have been selling for.

Art Reference

Whatever you do, don't throw anything out or give anything to charity until you have an idea of its value, and make sure Grandma doesn't do it either!
Written by Mitzi Curi
Mitzi's Miscellany

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