Satsuma Pottery

Fooled By Fakes

January 5, 2017

Satsuma - the word is practically synonymous with intricately detailed painted Japanese pottery. Most of the antique Satsuma pottery seen today was made between the 1860s and the early 1920s for the export market and sent to Europe and America. Satsuma has actually been made since around 1600, but those were not for export, and very few featured faces until the mid-19th century. In fact, the very first Satsuma pieces were made by a Korean potter living in Japan, who was asked by Lord Shimazu to open a kiln. There the potter created heavy stoneware pieces made with dark, iron-rich clay and finished with thick, black glaze. These pieces are extremely rare today and, according to, mostly reside in museums.
Once white clay was discovered in the area, potters used it to make lighter-colored Satsuma pieces, the forerunners to the Satsuma we know today. However, those oldest pieces were far less elaborately decorated than the pieces created for export and the more modern pieces still being made throughout the world.
While a good number of factories produced lower quality Satsuma wares for export (mostly between the 1890s and the 1920s), other potters continued creating extremely fine quality pieces but still of relatively simple design. The more complex imagery that emerged sometime between 1867 and 1875 was the inspiration behind Japonism in Western cultures.
One of the earliest cases of Satsuma fraud - or possibly just gross misinformation with no substantiation whatsoever - that I could find occurred in 1877, when wares referred to as "old Satsuma" were sold in London. These pieces were represented as having been made in the 16th century - the century before the first Satsuma had first been made - specifically to be presented to the Pope. It wasn't until the 1890s that the record was set straight.
Once Satsuma became popular internationally through exhibits around the world, Japanese potters from all regions of the country began making it. The Shimazu family crest, a cross within a circle (called a mon), was added to the mark to tie these pieces to the Satsuma name. These marks, which include Japanese symbols, are typically handpainted in "liquid gold," so if you see a mark that's been stamped, it's either a modern reproduction or an outright fake. Likewise, seemingly handpainted marks that are identical on multiple pieces could not have been painted by hand, as each would have at least some variations. Another stamped mark that's the sign of a reproduction is "Hand-Painted Satsuma." Many times, these repros, most of which are poorly done, are ceramic and made in China, but the "Made in China" label will most likely have been removed. True antique Satsuma wares never bore a mark with the English word "Satsuma," except for Royal Satsuma Nippon.
If you plan to invest in an antique piece of Satsuma that's attributed to a particular painter, study the work of that artist before bidding or buying. Some modern reproductions can be quite good, and telltale signs of a copy may include brighter or newer colors, more or less surface coverage, or various features done differently than the original artist is known for.
Antique Satsuma pieces were decorated by individual artists, the artwork was never factory applied. So if you see multiple pieces with identical artwork, they're modern. Also, check the moriage work (sometimes called beading) - these raised enamel dots should be evenly applied, with very minimal to no difference between the size of the dots, and the placement should be methodical. In fakes and reproductions, moriage placement can be scattered or random looking, and the dots are typically sloppy and different sizes. Finally, authentic Satsuma is pottery, not porcelain, so it doesn't ring when tapped, and it usually has a fine crackle in its glaze.

Photos via Wikipedia.

At A Glance:
Signs of a reproduction.
1. "Satsuma" stamped in English
2. Stamped mark
3. Piece rings when tapped
4. Evidence of a paper label
5. Sloppy workmanship

Reference books, websites and collecting groups are the best ways to keep from being fooled by fakes. Here are a few: “Treasury of Satsuma” by Sandra Andacht; “Satsuma: Masterpieces from the World's Important Collections” by Louis Lawrence;


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