by Dr. Lori Verderame
The term Nippon porcelain is common to many people because this mark can be easily found on many pieces of vintage and antique porcelain. The word Nippon is commonly found on the underside base of a litany of items including but not limited to teapots, plates, cups, vases, and other ceramic objects.
McKinley Tariff Act
Why are these pieces marked “Nippon”? Was Nippon a company or a maker? Nippon was not a company or a maker. Nippon was a mark that had a lot to do with the American rise of the wealthy class and the Gilded Age of the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s. In large part, the answer to the question, why are these pieces marked “Nippon”, has a lot to do with the import/export laws of this period. In 1891, the McKinley Tariff Act was passed into law. This law stopped the import of any products that were not “plainly marked…in legible English words.” So, basically, anything that came into the United States from another country had to be marked with its country of origin in understandable, written English.
What does “Nippon” really mean?
Nippon basically means “made in Japan.” When you see a “Nippon” mark on the underside of a base of a piece of ceramic, you know that you have a piece that was made in Japan. Simply, Nippon means Japan and while the “Nippon” mark served its purpose to comply with the McKinley Tariff Act of 1891 for the next thirty years, Customs Officials decided, in 1921, that any piece imported from Japan should be marked “Japan” and not marked “Nippon.” So, the “Nippon” mark was no longer the recognizable mark used for these items. For porcelain collectors, this makes dating your piece really easy. If your piece is marked “Nippon,” then it was made and imported between 1891 and 1921. If it is marked “Japan”, then your piece was made and imported after 1921. The mark may tell you where your piece was made and if you know the history of understanding pottery marks, then the mark can help you date your piece too. However, the mark is not the only clue to assessing value of your Nippon piece.
The Nippon market is tricky. There are so many pieces of Nippon out there that value varies widely. Some undecorated pieces of Nippon are only worth a few dollars. Some pieces command between $100 and $500 depending on the piece, condition, decoration, and other factors. Of course, there are some Nippon pieces that command upwards of $1,000 to $6,000 for certain pieces of Nippon. The value of a piece of Nippon porcelain is in the quality, size, type, and condition of the decoration and other aspects of the item too. For instance, coralene and moriage decorated pieces of Nippon porcelain are highly sought after and command very high prices.
What to Look For
While porcelain pieces marked “Nippon” require more money from collectors than younger items marked “Japan,” this change in the marking protocol resulted in a greater interest for people to forge or fake the popular “Nippon” mark on newer porcelain pieces. Identifying pottery marks and spotting a fake is not easy as many Japanese ceramic artists were trained to imitate the work of European mainstays like Limoges, R. S. Prussia, and other wares. “Nippon” pieces, like Noritake china, appealed to American tastes in many ways. For instance, Nippon porcelains were decorated with flowers, images of animals, and applied ornamental designs like coralene and moriage ware. Nippon did not have the characteristic Japanese designs that you would find on Kutani ware china or other traditional Asian ceramics, but rather it appealed to American collectors of porcelain and their design taste.
For instance, the coralene process of decorating porcelain, specifically Nippon porcelain, shows painted colors against a background and raised elements in the design. Atop the application of painted colors, there are clear glass beads which were applied and melted in the firing process to fuse with the object’s body.
Another Nippon decorating technique is something called moriage ware. Moriage is the process where wet slipware is applied atop a piece of porcelain. This applied ornament is brushed on or applied in the same way that icing might by piped onto the surface of a cake. Moriage is highly textural and a time consuming process of ceramic decoration. Nippon artists also enhanced their pieces by putting a pieces of textile onto the wet porcelains before it is fired in the kiln. After the firing process which burns away the actual textile, the surface of the porcelain object would retain the pattern of the textile.
Don’t know if your Nippon piece is a trinket or a treasure worth big bucks, be sure you find out.
Get an online appraisal of your Nippon piece from Dr. Lori.