When a 20-piece dining set is passed down the generations, you could be unknowingly holding onto a fortune! China, the delicate white or translucent dinnerware pieces that chip and smash so easily, could be centuries old. Other items which are vintage rather than antique can be valuable too, as people like to collect fine china items.
In this guide, we’ll help you analyze exactly what kind of ceramic item you’ve found, how to identify it, what the value could be, and a few good places to buy and sell valuable antique china.
China vs Porcelain vs Ceramic
Before we get started, you may be wondering if your dinnerware is even classified as china. If you heard a relative refer to it as porcelain or even ceramic instead, then that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a valuable antique.
Here are the different terms and what they refer to:
- China – china is defined as fine white or translucent vitrified ceramic material. It’s made from either hard-paste (kaolin and silica rock fired at a high temperature to create a high-quality item) or soft-paste (kaolin and feldspathic rock fired at a lower temperature to create a weaker item).
- Fine china – simply means that the china used is good quality (usually hard-paste or bone china) but it isn’t a technical term.
- Bone china – developed in England in the 1740s, it combines bone ash with kaolin and stone to create a much stronger and translucent china. Hold it up to the light and you should be able to see your fingers through it.
- Porcelain – porcelain is a white vitrified translucent ceramic. The terms china and porcelain can be used interchangeably.
- Ceramic – saying an item is ceramic just means that it is made of clay and permanently fixed with heat. So, all types of china and porcelain can also be referred to as ceramic.
If you’re wondering why we use different names to mean exactly the same thing, it really comes down to geography and history. The Chinese were among the first to start creating ceramic items, way back in 1600 – 1046BC, using kaolin clay and granite. That’s why we call it china.
Much later on, in the 16th century, European countries also began to create ceramic items by hardening clay. This is also when the word porcelain (meaning seashell) was first used to describe these objects – possibly as a way to differentiate it from Chinese ceramics. Ceramic items made in Europe may be referred to as porcelain, while ceramic items from China retain the name ‘china’.
Of course, nowadays, china, porcelain and ceramic can all be used interchangeably so just because one plate is described as ‘china’ and another as ‘porcelain’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the china plate will be more valuable.
Knowing which techniques were invented when can be a good indicator of authenticity – or a sign of a fake. For example, if you find a bone china plate that the seller claims is from the 1500s, you know it’s a fake because bone china wasn’t invented until the 1740s!
Identifying Valuable Antique China
When you want to identify your china and find out if it’s valuable or one-of-a-kind, you need to figure out the origins and manufacturer. Once you know who made it, you can work out when it was made and whether it’s a rare and valuable piece… or not.
To find out the manufacturer of your valuable antique china, flip each plate, cup or item over so you can see the base. There should be a manufacturers mark on the bottom. It could be a symbol, a name, a word, or even a number. Each manufacturer has a unique mark that they stamp onto the plate. Sometimes it’s impressed into the ceramic material, other times it’s stamped on with ink.
Some rare china items may even have handwritten marks on them from the original designer!
If you don’t have any marks on your ceramic items, that’s typically not a good sign. It means that it’s harder to identify who created the china – but not impossible. Some manufacturers use paper or sticker marks, which can wear off over time. If this is the case, you can use the pattern on the dinnerware to identify who made it.
Below we have covered some of the most well-known and valuable china sets for you to compare.
Once you know the maker of the china, you can flip through manufacturer’s catalogs or contact them directly to find out when it was made and how rare it is. You can also upload photos to forums if you need more help – but more about this in our valuing section below.
Most Well-Known Types of Antique China
Look familiar? Some of these valuable antique china patterns will fetch extremely high prices… but it often means that they are targeted by counterfeiters as well!
The most famous design is this beautiful blue willow pattern of blue on white. Blue Willow first became popular in the 1790s. It depicts a willow tree, a bridge, people, birds and a teahouse – different manufacturers create variations on this theme. There are hundreds of similar yet different designs that are classed as Blue Willow. Most Blue Willow was created in England and China before the 1900s, but modern Blue Willow is produced all over the world.
The most valuable Blue Willow china can sell for thousands of dollars.
Fluted Royal Copenhagen
These plates are easily spotted thanks to their fluted design! The Royal Copenhagen porcelain company from Denmark began creating these delicate fluted china pieces in 1775 with a blue and white design. They’re still creating their blue fluted china collection today too.
Spode isn’t a specific design, it’s a company! Founded in England in 1770, Spode is credited with creating and marketing bone china for the first time, plus creating the technique for creating those detailed blue designs. The Blue Italian range, launched in 1816, is just one example of the many valuable antique china collections this company created.
Spode is now owned by Portmeirion (see below).
Meissen Chinese-Inspired Designs
As well as porcelain vases, like the one pictured above, the Meissen red dragon range features plates, teacups, and all manner of tableware. The Ming red dragon design was inspired by original Chinese china, but is actually made in Germany by the Meissen company.
These china pieces are very collectible! Make sure the crossed swords mark is on the back, indicating that it’s an authentic Meissen piece.
Portmeirion are one of the biggest fine china manufacturers and they’ve enveloped other porcelain manufacturers too, like Spode. One of the most iconic collections from Portmeirion is the botanical range, known as Botanic Garden, and these are very collectible pieces. With their simple floral designs on pale off-white porcelain, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re just the boring old china that grandma liked to use… when actually they are very valuable!
Valuing China – Antique and Vintage
Once you are certain that you’ve got your hands on a piece of china that was made by a respected porcelain manufacturer, you need to work out what its value is.
When it comes to china, you can’t just go based on age. Many people like to collect china, so if you have a plate that’s quite modern – but still rare – it may be worth a lot of money. Furthermore, many ceramics companies will keep on creating the same pattern, so you can’t just go on what the china looks like. For example, you can buy brand new Blue Italian china from Spode even today.
Below we’ll take you through how to best identify the value of your china based on the date, manufacturer, origins and rarity.
Note: If you are looking to buy fine china from an antiques shop, then it’s important that you don’t touch the china unless the shop owner allows it. Some markets and shops won’t be happy if you start picking up cups and plates without permission. This is just to minimize damage!
Once you have permission to handle the fine china, you can begin checking for the maker’s marks and working out the true value of the items.
How to Value China Yourself
Here we go, step by step:
- Identify the stamp
On the base of the china, look for the stamp. Identify it with either a maker’s mark catalog (ask your library) or by using a reverse search online. This will immediately weed out any china that is worthless due to being made by an obscure or counterfeit manufacturer.
- Analyze numbers (if available)
Many china dinnerware items – especially ones made in the last century – have a digit code as well as a stamp. If it’s 6 or 8 numbers long, it could be a date referring to when it was made. It could also be a pattern number, which refers to both the date and the specific pattern on the china.
- Look closely at the pattern
This will help you identify the pattern against the catalogue provided by the manufacturer (if there’s no pattern number). It’s also another opportunity to spot a counterfeit item. It’s like spot the difference!
- Find auction prices
Look on auction websites (and even eBay) for your china items. This is an easy way to find a price for your item. If you can’t find your porcelain on any auction site or elsewhere on the web, it could be very rare!
- Confirm with the manufacturer
With large dining sets, you can often buy replacements online. If you’ve got 3 teacups but only 2 saucers, you can order a replacement saucer from the original manufacturer or from a replica company. If neither are currently reproducing that pattern or style, this can be an indicator of rarity.
At this point, if you haven’t found a price from an auction site and you think that your fine china could be very rare, you need to get an expert to evaluate it.
One option is to use unverified antiques experts online. Head to Reddit or any other antiques forum and upload photos of your china. If that doesn’t help, you need to find a professional antiques dealer.
How to Get Antiques Valued Professionally
If you are looking to get a value solely so you can sell your china to the highest bidder, then all you need to do is Google “fine china antiques dealer near me” to find businesses in your area. There are many antiques dealers that specialize in fine china and porcelain, so it should be very easy to get multiple quotes from businesses in your area.
On the other hand, if you want to get your valuable antique china valued for another reason (e.g., sentiment or for home insurance) then you may want to narrow it down even further.
It may take a little research, but you can find antiques dealers who specialize in very specific manufacturers or times. For example, Owen’s Antiques in Vashon Island WA specializes in early 19th century English china!
Where to Buy Valuable Antique China Online
There is a lot of china available to buy online, and many places to sell it too. If you have very specialist china or rare china that you believe is very valuable, then the best way to sell it is to contact a professional antiques dealer.
Your average Joe who stumbles upon china on eBay isn’t looking to pay thousands of dollars!
But if you have some collectible vintage china that you need to pass on, then these 3 sites could be worth looking at.
Best to Shift China Quickly
There’s no getting around the fact that there are a lot of fake antiques on eBay. It’s difficult to confirm whether a product is authentic over eBay, as there’s no verification system in place.
But with the auction feature and competitive pricing, it can be a good way to sell your china fast for a moderate price.
Best for Collectible and Beautiful China
Like eBay, there’s no real way to verify that the antiques are genuine on Etsy. But nonetheless, a massive number of china pieces are sold on the site every day. People who shop on Etsy are usually looking for aesthetically beautiful items and are therefore willing to pay a bit extra to get them.
Best for Like-New, Modern China
Amazon is not known for selling antiques, but you can find some vintage items on the site occasionally. You can also find a lot of modern fine and bone china items to buy brand new. If you have new(ish) china that you want to sell, you can sometimes sell it as ‘Used’ on Amazon if it’s also being sold ‘New’ by the manufacturer.
How can I tell if my old china is valuable?
Look at the mark on the base of the china. If you see a year, it’s easy to work out if it’s vintage or antique. If you see a trademark, then it’s probably very modern and not worth much. If you only see a symbol, you’ll need to research the pattern to find out the origin and year – this will tell you if it’s valuable or not.
How old is vintage china?
The general rule is that if an item is less than 100 years old, then it’s vintage instead of antique. Some people only consider items made less than 50 years ago to be old instead. Bone china, the most valuable kind, was only produced from the 1740s. A lot of vintage china is collectible, and so may be as valuable as antique china even though it’s not very old!
Is fine china worth much?
Fine china is not a technical term – it simply means good quality china. If the china is modern or hard-paste, then it’s not usually worth much unless it’s rare or collectible. If your china is bone china and very old or rare, then it may be worth a fortune! See our definitions of different porcelains above to learn more.
What is the most collectible antique china?
Blue Willow is arguably the most collectible – but it’s also one of the most widely produced. Even today, companies are creating Blue Willow patterned china. The rare, original, and very old Blue Willow china pieces are the most collectible and the most valuable, if you can get your hands on them. Be careful, however, as there are forgeries floating around the internet too!