If you are a collector, chances are you have bought or inherited a piece about which you know very little. When you want to find out about your cherished object, where do you start? Start at the bottom, literally. Whether it is porcelain, pottery, or metal, turn the piece over and look at the markings on the underside. Researching these will tell you the story behind your piece. These marks can hold information on everything from who created the object to what it's made from to where it was manufactured.
Understand the distinction between a maker's mark and a hallmark. The two types of marks give different information. A hallmark is found on metalwork and lets you know the purity of the metal that makes up the piece. It may also tell you when and where the piece was created. The maker's mark tells you what company manufactured your piece.
Learn to recognise some of the most common hallmarks. You undoubtedly recognise the "k" or "kt" mark that denotes a U.S. gold carat weight hallmark. To recognise a British gold hallmark, look for a crown that is followed by a number and the letters "ct" or "c." This marking system was used from 1795-1975. An English sterling silver piece has the hallmark of a walking lion. American sterling silver often has the word "sterling" on it or the numbers "925."
Compare the maker's marks and hallmarks to those in a guidebook. Visit your local library or bookstore, taking with you a photograph of the marks on your piece. If you need to identify a metal hallmark, look for books like "Kovels' American Silver Marks" by Ralph Kovel and Terry Kovel, or "Jackson's Hallmarks" by Ian Pickford. For maker's marks, look for books that deal with the type of piece you have, whether it is glass, porcelain, silver, and so forth. For example, if you have a ceramic or pottery piece, look for titles such as "Ceramic Makers' Marks" by Erica S. Gibson or "Miller's Pocket Fact File: Pottery & Porcelain Marks" by Gordon Lang.
Use an Internet maker's mark or hallmark identification site. The convenience of Internet research is especially useful when trying to identify collectibles markings. You can easily look at hundreds of marks and compare them directly to the marks on your piece. For hallmarks, check a web site such as Marks4Silver.com. The site includes a pictorial guide to more than 12,000 hallmarks that appear on gold, silver, and other metals. The Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Maker's Marks shows hallmarks and maker's marks from all over the world. Other guides to maker's marks include Antique Marks, which has marks for pottery, porcelain, and other collectibles, or Marks4Antiques, a subscription site that provides information on ceramics, silver, and antiques.