Dear Helaine and Joe:
What can you tell me about the vase shown in the photograph? It was in my mother-in-law’s house and no one knows anything about it. We own a similar vase with a different design, about the same size and shape. There are no markings on either one. I assume they are both of the same era and origins. My mother-in-law had a family friend whose family were missionaries in China in the early 1900s. Could the vases have come from there or someplace else?
Dear L. B.:
Markings can help in the identification of objects. But they can also be false and/or misleading. In this case, the lack of markings tells at least part of the tale.
The piece is definitely not Chinese and was probably made some years before the missionary family referenced in the letter was in China. True, the piece is Asian, but the country of origin is Japan.
The key here is the decoration and the way in which it was applied to the ceramic body. Much of the decoration — mainly the waves over which the sea birds are flying — is hand-painted underglaze. The images of the birds are also hand-applied and are raised off the surface using a technique known as “moriage.”
Moriage is composed of liquid clay called “slip” that in this case was applied using a hollow bamboo tube. This is a laborious process that is often found on late 19th and early 20th century Japanese ceramics.
Collectors often see the raised moriage dragons that are rather common, but images of flowers, birds, and elaborate traceries are encountered more rarely. Many of the pieces found with this raised slip decoration are marked with one of the various “Nippon” marks that were in use from 1891 to about 1921. Pieces designated “Japan” and “Made in Japan” are later.
The word “Nippon” started appearing on Japanese wares after the United States Congress passed the McKinley Tariff Act in 1890. In 1891, goods made in foreign locations had to be marked with the country of origin, and marks such as “England,” “France,” “Germany” and so forth began to appear.
In response, the Japanese started marking products with the word “Nippon,” which was their name for their country. Early in the 20th century, designations such as “Made in England” and “Made in France” began replacing the one word location identifier.
The lack of a mark on L. B.’s piece suggests to us that it was made sometime in the 1880s (probably the late 1880s, just before the McKinley Tariff went into effect). This is a rather high quality and artistic example of Japanese moriage, and is quite attractive with its seascape and pleasant color scheme.
At 61/2 to 7 inches tall, it is not imposing as some of these pieces are, but at retail it should be valued in the $250 to $300 range.