Once utilitarian workhorses, antique stoneware such as crocks, jugs, jars, water coolers, etc. can be extremely desirable collectibles in today's market, and those with cobalt blue or incised designs can sell for thousands of dollars. Exceptionally rare pieces have sold for over $100,000, including a 1773 heart-shaped stoneware inkwell that sold for $148,000.
Antique American Stoneware
Fooled By Fakes
If you plan to invest in 18th- or 19th-century American stoneware, knowing its history is important so you don't fall for fakes or altered pieces purporting to be from one time period that actually have the characteristics of another. For example, early American stoneware, dating back to the 1720s, generally copied English and German pieces that were used by the earliest settlers. However, pieces made in America weren't salt glazed at that time; instead, a thin brown slip was used. Therefore, if you see a salt glazed piece being attributed to an early 18th century American potter, you'd immediately know it's being misrepresented. Salt glazing by American potters began around the last quarter of the 18th century.
Decoration on early American-made pieces would be on the more primitive, simple or crude side (though certainly beautiful in their own right and historical context). From around 1800 to circa 1850, potters began incising their pieces with intricate motifs of subjects like fish, flowers, and other things.
Glaze painting was used starting around the mid-19th century, when potters began heavily decorating their stoneware with cobalt-oxide blue glaze. These designs became quite elaborate, some covered entire sides of pottery, others were complete scenes, and still others were extravagant flourishes. In order to fraudulently increase the value of undecorated early crocks, fakers will sometimes paint these cobalt blue images or even add names or dates on these plain crocks; they may even refinish them to improve their condition. Original condition is important to the value of an antique crock, so any refurbishment will also lower the value.
Stoneware shapes also changed over the decades, starting with simpler English- and German-inspired shapes. From about 1790 to 1820, ovoid shapes with small bases resembling Mediterranean styles came into fashion, but these were unstable when filled. Following the ovoid period, pottery had wider bases, thicker rims and less pronounced curves. Then, around 1860, the cylinder shape took over for everything from crocks to jugs to bottles. This type of information can help you avoid being fooled by a misrepresentation of a piece's time period. More in-depth information about what types of stoneware and designs were being produced by various regions and potteries is also important.
As with many collectibles, modern reproductions are sometimes made by companies or historical societies with no intent to deceive buyers. In the 1990s, Rockdale Union Stoneware in Wisconsin reproduced 10 different 19th century New England stoneware pieces including crocks, jugs and water coolers using the same hand-thrown techniques, handpainted cobalt blue designs, and salt glazing as had been used over a century before. The pieces duplicated known examples, including some rare shapes, and also carried the original makers' and painters' names, just like the originals. However, these pieces also bore the Rockdale stamp as well as the stamp of the New York State Historical Association, for whom the pieces were made. Unscrupulous resellers may try to obliterate the Rockdale and NYSHA marks in order to misrepresent the stoneware as antiques, so watch for scratched or rubbed areas that wouldn't make sense in the original use of the pieces.
The designs on antique stoneware were handpainted, so any stamped or printed designs, years or names would be an immediate sign that either the entire piece is a modern reproduction or that the design was added much later to a plain, undecorated piece. Some antique crocks do bear stenciled letters or numbers rather than freehand ones. In addition, no two pieces should have designs that are identicalfreehand work can't be duplicated exactly from piece to piece. Likewise, stoneware with a decal or sticker, advertising or otherwise, on top of the glaze would not have been done in the 18th or early 19th century.
Antique salt glazed stoneware has a pebbly surface, which you may not see on modern reproductions. While there are some modern makers that reproduce their antique counterparts using the exact same methods as were used in America's early centuries (as with the Rockdale stoneware created for the NYSHA), many others will use a smooth, contemporary glaze that sets them apart from antiques.
Sometimes a fake or reproduction can be identified as such by a misattributed design. While design alone isn't enough to pinpoint a piece of stoneware to its maker or designer, a misattribution can sometimes be caught. Let's say, for example, that a particular maker is known to have focused solely on birds and flowers within a specific timeframe. If one day you happen to find a piece of stoneware with his name and a date within that timeframe that features a watch spring design, you're more likely to have a modern fake or a newly applied design than a one-of-a-kind rarity. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules, so check every aspect of such a piece carefully, and if it passes your initial exam, have it examined by an expert in the field. Similarly, incorrect glazes or clay types for the area of production may also indicate a modern piece. If you purchase a questionable piece, make sure to have the seller give you a detailed written receipt that guarantees your money back if you return it.
Photos are property of the author.
At a Glance
Signs of a reproduction or fake:
1. Cobalt blue design over glaze
2. Wrong type of clay for area of manufacture
3. Stamped or printed designs
4. Sticker or decal over glaze
Reference books, websites and collecting groups are the best ways to keep from being fooled by fakes. Here are a few: Collectors of Illinois Pottery and Stoneware (http://www.coips.org/home-2.html); American Stoneware by William C. Ketchum Jr.; American Stonewares: The Art and Craft of Utilitarian Potters by Georgeanna H. Greer.