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Ceramic Damage Detection

Tureen with Overpainting
Caption: A subtle difference in the shades of blue is a hint that this piece was over-painted to repair a break.
Your senses will serve you well, but asking the dealer point-blank questions will be your secret weapon.

by Dennis Gaffney

There they are, seemingly beauties to behold. Ceramic pieces that have beautiful lines and patterns. The objects appear to be in perfect condition. But are they?

Only a closer inspection will tell, says Roadshow appraiser David Lackey, a pottery, porcelain and glass expert based in Houston.

“If you use your eye, your ear and your sense of touch, you can catch ninety-nine percent of ceramic defects,” Lackey says. “All you have to do is be careful and thorough.”

However, Lackey says that imperfections should not be viewed as the enemy, and are often unavoidable, especially in older pieces.

“Some of my favorite pieces have some damage,” Lackey says. “As long as an imperfect piece is valued accordingly, feel free to buy it.”

That said, here’s how you can hunt down imperfections in pottery and porcelain.

Listening for the Answer

Bowl with Staples
Caption: Staples were a common — and obvious — means of repairing damaged ceramics in the 19th century.

You might not expect it, but the ear is an essential tool when examining the condition of your ceramics. An un-cracked piece almost always “tings” when you tap it with your fingernail. First, put the piece on a flat surface, such as a tabletop. Then give it a little tap.

“If it rings it’s probably fine,” Lackey says. “If it’s a dull sound, it means you’ll want to look a lot closer.” That dull sound usually — although not always — will indicate a crack or defect.

Good Cup
Cracked Cup

Click the play button to hear ceramics
(requires QuickTime).

Eye Spy

A close visual inspection can also reveal cracks in the ceramic or the glaze. Ones that scar the beauty of a piece — a crack through a figurine’s face or a big chip off the spout of a teapot — do tend to depress value significantly.

“The question you have to ask is: ‘How visually distracting is the defect?’” Lackey says. “If the chip is on the bottom of a plate, it’s not nearly as important.”

Paint that is off-color or has a different sheen than the rest of the piece is a warning sign. Gold and white are two paint colors that are particularly difficult to match. Yet, Lackey says, “Repairs aren’t usually done to deceive buyers. They’re just done to make the piece more visually appealing.” The older the paint job, the more the paint degrades, making color differences stand out.

Paints that have been added more recently, however, are more difficult to spot. Black light has been used in the past to reveal over-painting. But the technique often doesn’t work, especially with new paints. “It’s a tool,” Lackey says. “But it’s far from foolproof.”

Sleight of Hand

Figurine with Crack
Caption: Discolored remnants of glue indicate that this Majolica candlestick was badly broken at one time.

“But you can’t trust your eye completely,” Lackey says, which brings us to your sense of touch.

Pick up the piece and carefully let your fingers get to know it. The hand will often reveal what the eye can’t see. You can feel cracks or chips that may be hidden. Changes in texture or the thickness of a piece can reveal added paint. As paint conducts heat much more poorly than a fired pot, differences in temperature on a piece may also indicate paint that’s been added later.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Finally, Lackey counsels that while inspecting a piece of ceramic ware on your own is always recommended, that shouldn’t replace a direct question to the seller.

“Even I ask,” he confesses. “If you ask someone point-blank, they almost always tell you the truth. If you don’t ask,” Lackey says, “some sellers will simply assume that you have noticed what they consider to be an obvious flaw.”

“I’d say speaking up should be your very first step, or at least your last,” Lackey says. “Take your time, and always ask.”

posted on 01.18.05

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