It’s a well-known fact that if you go looking for treasure you’re unlikely to find it. Mostly you won’t find anything at all. Sometimes you’ll excitedly make a find but it turns out not to be treasure: just think of all the metal detectorists who never find anything more exciting than a ring-pull from a beer can! And then there are those times when you unearth an object that – well, you just don’t know if it’s treasure or not.
You might think that in these days of fast broadband, Google images, Pinterest and social media, there must be a picture of just about everything online. That if you possess an unidentified object, it will be an easy task to scroll through some images on your screen and rapidly find something which looks just like it. Or at least something sufficiently similar to enable you to narrow down your search in the hope of getting a precise identification. And then you might think that even if you can’t identify the object yourself, you’ll be able to find an expert on the internet who’ll be able to help you out.
But often it’s not like that at all. You come back from the charity shop or the antique fair or the auction with – well, with what, exactly? You examine it closely from all angles, you form a few hypotheses in your head. Newish or oldish? Marked with a maker’s name or symbol, or unmarked? What material is it made of? Is it fashioned in a recognisable period style? Is it British or foreign? If it’s foreign, is it European or from further afield? Is it hand-made or industrially-produced? Does it look like a fake or the real thing – whatever that may be?
Then you place the object beside the computer screen, and you start to search. Sometimes you get lucky. Often you don’t. I’ve put some of the lucky stories into my book Random Treasure. The luckiest of all was a wooden religious statue which I bought in a local auction room here in Edinburgh. Starting off without a single idea about what it was (other than being a wooden religious statue, which was pretty obvious), I managed to trace it back to the actual sculptor who carved it in the early fifteenth century, and to the actual church in Burgundy from where it was seized by French Revolutionary vandals in around 1794. Now that’s lucky.
Other times, you do the research and come to an apparently satisfactory conclusion about an object, only to have your findings blown out of the water by an expert who dismisses your treasure as a late copy or a fake or something entirely different from what you thought. In Random Treasure I describe three such frustrations: with a pottery bowl, a brooch, and a group of etchings.
But occasionally, despite all the research resources available, you find yourself at a dead end. With an entire world of expertise and images available at the touch of the keyboard and the click of the mouse, you get precisely nowhere. Three ceramic examples:
Exhibit 1: When you know what it is but you don’t know if it’s a period piece.
I love Italian maiolica, the brightly-coloured tin-glazed earthenware pottery made in many towns in Italy from around the 15th century. If I had an unlimited budget, it’s probably the type of object that I’d spend the most on. But with limited means it is not possible to buy much. Pieces rarely come up at the kind of auction that I frequent, and the few that do are invariably either 19th/20th century tourist reproductions of much earlier objects, or early pieces which are so badly damaged as to be of no interest to serious collectors. Even the prices of such late and imperfect items are generally too much for me. But every now and then, I’m able to pounce on a maiolica pot at a price I can afford. I bring it home in triumph and begin to search, in the hope of proving that, no, it’s not a reproduction but genuinely “of the period”.
This piece was bought at a now-defunct saleroom in West Lothian. It’s a salt dish, supported by three seated winged lions or chimaeras. It is badly damaged and has been chipped and knocked about not once but many times over a long period; some of the chipped areas look weathered and soiled, while others appear much more recent. It’s difficult to imagine how a late reproduction could show damage which has such clear differentiation in age. So I think it’s old.
My salt dish is modelled upon a known pattern. There’s one extraordinarily similar in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (see https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/285204588881612783/), which is attributed to the 16th century Patanazzi workshop in Urbino. Mine isn’t of the same quality, but it could be from a lesser workshop in Urbino or its surroundings. I can’t find images anywhere of later reproductions of this type of object.
I’ve looked at hundreds of pictures online and I’ve gawped at spectacular maiolica collections in many museums. But I haven’t handled much of this type of ware, and, frankly, I’m incompetent to judge if my salt is a genuine period piece or later. So I sent photos to various experts, most of whom were non-committal or thought it was modern. Then I showed it to the curator of the excellent collection in the Royal Scottish Museum. He didn’t know, so he showed photos (but not the thing itself) to the expertest expert in Scotland. She thought it was a reproduction – but she hasn’t handled it.
For the time being, I’ve shelved the issue, both figuratively and literally. I’ve seen and touched my maiolica salt and I think it’s old. The experts think it isn’t but they have only seen photos. One day I’ll show it to a recognised authority and get a firm opinion. But in the meantime it remains a frustrating mystery.
Exhibit 2: When you’re sure it’s a period piece but you don’t know how from which period or where it’s from, or who might have made it.
Here is a small pot with a wooden lid. It arrived in a much larger mixed lot of ceramics which I bought in an Edinburgh auction because I wanted just one piece out of several boxes.
It is a totally charming little pot, not quite globular in shape, having a slightly flattened profile and squared shoulders, made in a reddish earthenware, tin-glazed in turquoise blue with intricate geometric and naturalistic decorations in a darker blue. It definitely has some considerable age, but the turned wood lid appears to be a more modern replacement.
The general shape and size are vaguely characteristic of early tea canisters, which also sometimes have similar wooden lids. You would expect these to be English or Dutch or Chinese, and I know enough about ceramics to be certain that my pot is none of these.
My hunch is that it’s middle eastern in origin, but hours of searching through online images have failed to turn up anything quite like it. You see vaguely similar objects and colours if you search Raqqa or Kashan or Safavid or Qajar ware, but the clay and glaze and shape and decoration are not nearly close enough to be confident. And the objects that might be comparable are anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years old. I’m getting nowhere. I need an expert. But I can’t find one.
Exhibit 3: When you don’t even know where to start
I have a vague recollection of scooping up my third example from the floor of a junk shop somewhere (Strathpeffer?) and paying a trifling amount for it. It’s another small globular pot, as brown and plain and featureless and understated as can be, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful objects that I possess. It is heavily potted in whitish stoneware, with a thickly-applied milky-coffee glaze, fading as it nears the base with faint striations of light blue. The neck and rim are a very distinctive inward curving shape, and the base is unglazed and has been ground flat. It seems old.
The feel, shape, weight, heft, subtlety and elegance of this object tell me instinctively that it’s Chinese, with an unusual jian-type hare’s-fur glaze, and dating from the Song, Yuan or early Ming dynasties, which would make it between, say, 500 and 900 years old. Instinct is all very well, but before I take an object to show to an expert I require evidence to support the hunch. I guess you could call this a matter of professional pride – or sheer cowardice, because I could think of nothing more humiliating than taking a mystery object to show to a world authority (whether in a museum or an auction house), only to be told you can buy the same thing round the corner at TK Maxx for £4.99.
Now instinct is all very well, but what if you simply can’t find anything to back it up? I’ve looked and looked and looked online at images from museums and auctions all over the world and can’t find any object nearly close enough for comparison. Not only at Chinese wares, but also at Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Khmer and Thai. I got nowhere, so I posted pictures to the Facebook Collecting Chinese Ceramics & Art group, and the only suggestions from the experts there were that it is 20th century European art pottery.
So my vase might be Eastern or it might be European. It might be old or it might be relatively recent. Images don’t bring out the extraordinary sophistication of the glaze, so it’s impossible to identify remotely. I don’t want to take it to a local expert, partly because I don’t want to look a fool, and partly because authoritative opinions on early Far Eastern ceramics are very difficult to obtain here in Scotland. I’m at a dead end.
Sitting at my desk typing this , I can see some 50 ceramic items arrayed on shelves around me. I reckon I could tell you pretty much anything you might wish to know (or probably much more) about some 40 of them. I could give a reasonable account of another four or five, but there might be some information missing – for instance I might not yet have looked up the maker’s seal on a piece of studio pottery. That leaves five or six, including two of the objects described above (the maiolica salt being kept in a different room), which I place in my “mystery objects” category. They pose significant problems of identification which I’m unable to solve by the use of my own experience and expertise (such as it is) and my use of the internet.
In a future blog post I might well return to this theme, exploring why, in about 10% of cases, the most comprehensive information resource in the history of humanity appears useless to help me to identify a small old chipped pot. In the meantime, I continue to puzzle and struggle.