No pot of gold for auctioning off the 'good china'
'I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china," complained Oscar Wilde, then a dandified student in late 1870s Oxford and a key figure in the aesthetic movement. It was a joke that would run and run. In reaction, an 1880 cartoon by George du Maurier in Punch, featured a young couple inspecting a teapot. "Oh Algernon, let us live up to it!" declared the bride.
The hub bub about striving to live up to your china continued when Royal Worcester released a double-sided teapot in the shape of an aesthete with a sunflower at his chest. The piece, entitled 'Fearful consequences through the laws of natural selection and evolution of living up to one's teapot' mocked the aesthetes who were probably regarded much as hipsters are today.
The other side shows a young woman with a bonnet and a lily, their costumes modelled on Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, Patience. The inscription gets in a dig at Darwinism too. Examples of this hilarious and insightful teapot are now much coveted by collectors.
And in May last year, we saw life imitating art, imitating life, when an aesthetic teapot (1884) sold at Bonhams' Fine British Porcelain and Pottery Auction for £1,125 (€1,419). Now go home and live up to that!
Many of us grew up with intimidating china rather than imitating it. Irish houses often had a two-tier hierarchy of crockery. On one hand were the everyday cups and plates; on the other was the "good china", which rarely left the cabinet. We were brought up to think of it as too precious to use, but is this notion of value reflected in the price?
Sadly, despite the fact so many of us treasure our fine sets that have been handed down and cared for generations, in most cases the "good china" is probably much less precious than we think.
It is important to remember that dinner services and tea sets can command high prices at auction, but only if they are complete, undamaged, and extremely rare. In the halcyon days of April 2009, a porcelain Herend dinner service set reached €5,400 at Adam's in Dublin.
In contrast, in June of last year, a hand painted dinner service set from the same factory sold for €1,200.
Individual pieces of historic interest can occasionally make serious money. In May 2014, a Worcester teapot (1754-5) sold for £17,500 (€22,435) at Bonhams in London. The British-made pot is decorated with a Chinese scene.
At the time, this decorative theme would have linked the teapot with China, where the earliest porcelain was made. Now, it seems like the great-grandparent of the ubiquitous and much-loved willow pattern.
Fine tableware was often imported into Ireland from the great British factories like Worcester, Crown Derby and Wedgewood. Since these factories produced tableware from the 18th to the 20th century, their pieces can be hard to date.
Seasoned collectors acquire the knack of picking out the more valuable and interesting pieces - the antiques version of 'an eye for a good horse' - the rest of us have to learn to read the stamps on the underside of the pieces.
This is every bit as tricky as knowing the quality of wine from the label, but here are a few shortcuts:
The practice of marking pottery did not become widespread until after 1800, and 18th century pieces may not be marked at all;
If a mark is printed, rather than pressed into the clay, and includes the name of the pattern, it probably dates from after 1810;
Pieces that include the word 'England' date from between 1891 and 1920;
"Made in England" signature dates a piece to post-1920;
Something that describes itself as "Bone China" was probably made in the 20th century;
A hand-painted surface, as opposed to a transfer, can often be discerned with a fingertip
Older pieces of good quality may be noticeably heavier than modern ones.
In general, decorative tableware is one of the most accessible areas of collecting. It's by no means unusual to find beautiful Victorian plates for €10 each or a hand painted Edwardian plate for around €35 in a local market or charity shop.
"Any piece that was made in England is of historic interest," says Brian Hurley (086 6065165), who sells vintage and antique china in markets around the country. He's referring to the closure of most of the British ceramic factories and the fact their branded products are now manufactured out of the country.
"Twelve months ago, tea sets were as dead as a doormat," Hurley says. "Now I'm selling them at every fair."
He finds there is an increasing interest in vintage china from post-Independence Irish factories, such as Arklow Pottery which produced a huge range of designs between 1934 and 1999. The rose-printed, gold-fluted tea sets produced in Galway by Royal Tara in the 1970s are also popular, probably for nostalgic reasons. "People tend to collect the patterns that they remember from their childhood," he explains.
Dinner services and tea sets also often represent excellent value at auction for their practical household use. In November 2014, the best part of an early 19th century Bloor Derby dinner service sold at Adams' for €220.
That's not a lot of money at all for 12 soup plates, 29 dinner plates and three lidded tureens. You might not live up to the purple and gilt foliage around the rim though - definitely not for the fainthearted.