In the early 1700s, a 18-year-old alchemist named Johann Bottger from the town of Meissen in Saxony was imprisoned by King Augustus the Strong and ordered to turn base materials into gold. Bottger failed, but discovered another formula that had been sought in Europe for decades: How to create true Chinese porcelain. Augustus, while disappointed, recognised this as another kind of golden opportunity for increasing his wealth, founding the Meissen Porcelain Factory near Dresden. Production began in 1709 and more than three centuries later, Meissen remains the first of many German porcelain houses world-famous for transforming simple clay and common rock crystal into inimitable art for the tabletop.
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Invest in a good reference book. Serious collectors of German porcelain face a wide range of special problems in trying to authenticate and date pieces. Being able to consult a comprehensive reference book will reduce the chances of confusion over company trademarks that may have changed numerous times over the years, or paying premium prices for worthless fakes. Two highly recommended books are: "Directory of European Porcelain, New, Revised and Expanded Edition," by Ludwig Danckert, and "Marks on German, Bohemian and Austrian Porcelain: 1710 to the Present," by Robert E. Roentgen. Availability is limited, so special-ordering either from a bookstore or online may be necessary.
Hold the plate up to the light. Fine porcelain is translucent and the finer the porcelain, the greater the translucence. When you hold a plate up to the light, you should be able to clearly see the shadow of your hand passing across it on the other side. Also, tapping lightly with a fingernail may produce a slightly crystalline ring.
Examine the markings on the underside. From the time porcelain was first manufactured in Germany, it was both very expensive and highly desirable to collectors. Because of its potential profitability, markets were flooded with convincing imitations and cheap fakes and often, the markings on the undersides closely resembled the markings of manufacturers of the real items. Authentication challenges are further compounded by company trademark, logo and name changes, and even changes in the names of the countries of origin (for instance, East and West Germany). After World War II, the Allied Nations imposed product identification regulations on German exports that also impacted porcelain markings. Consult the "Porcelain Marks and More" website for more information and examples.
Cross-reference markings with patterns to estimate an approximate manufacturing date. Like fine art reproductions, the finest porcelain always has a strictly limited production run, usually (but not always) indicated by one or more numbers on the underside if the plate. The date range suggested by the markings should tally with your research on what kind of patterns the manufacturer was known to be producing at the same time.
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