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posted: 8/24/2013 5:00 AM

Are these old Japanese vases worth much today?

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  • This vase has a somewhat Neoclassical shape and is typical of items made in Japan (Nippon) during the early 20th century.

    This vase has a somewhat Neoclassical shape and is typical of items made in Japan (Nippon) during the early 20th century.
    SHNS photo courtesy Joe Rosson and Helaine Fendelm

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. I have enclosed pictures of one of two vases that were given to my great-grandparents as a wedding gift in Germany, probably in the late 1800s. I have also enclosed a drawing of the mark on the bottom. The vases are about 8 inches tall and in good condition.

A. A reiteration of the discussion on the McKinley Tariff is important here because it might help people to date items they have -- specifically, items that bear the name of a country, such as England, France or "Nippon," as part of the markings.

We also need to discuss the painful reality of current market trends.

The third reason we are answering this letter is because this lovely pair of vases was probably not a wedding gift to the letter writer's grandparents in Germany during the late 19th century. Instead, this pair was made in Japan in the early 20th century, and we know this because of the style of painting and the mark that reads "Hand Painted Nippon."

The McKinley Tariff -- or the Tariff Act of 1890 -- was passed by Congress in 1890, and it raised the duty on many imports close to 50 percent in some cases. The McKinley Tariff was hugely unpopular with the American people and was replaced with the 1894 Wilson-Gorman Tariff.

One part of the McKinley Tariff that stayed in force was that all items exported to the United States had to be marked with the country of origin. Starting in 1891, imports were marked, to name a few examples, "England," "France" or "German." If the country of origin was Japan, then "Nippon" was used. But wherever the item was manufactured, it was marked with the name of the country of origin -- theoretically, at least.

What all this means is that if an item is marked with the name of a country, it was probably made in 1891 or later. Some English wares were marked "England" before 1891, but not many. If a piece says "Made in" some country or other, it generally means that the piece was probably made no earlier than the mid-first quarter of the 20th century.

Nippon wares were made between 1891 and 1921, and the ceramics can be pottery or porcelain (but mainly porcelain, as are the vases in today's question). These ceramics can be decorated with everything from geishas and landscapes to geometric bands, dragons, birds, moose, windmills, dogs and, most commonly, flowers.

When we started being interested in collecting, Nippon items were greatly desired by many enthusiasts and prices were rising quickly. Better Nippon ceramic items of good size and rare decorations could sell in the thousands of dollars each at auction. Unfortunately, times have changed.

The romance with Nippon is in abeyance for now, and only the very best pieces bring significant money in the current market. This pair of vases is typical of Nippon wares of the early 20th century, and while they are quite lovely, they are not special enough to command premium prices.

Before 2004, the pair of Nippon vases in today's letter should have been valued for insurance purposes in the $500-$600 range. But in 2013, that price has fallen dramatically, and the value does not exceed $100 to $150.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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