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How old is that vase, porcelain, china, toy, violin, statuary … a hint might well be in what the label or marking says, and exactly what words are used.

mckinleyGenerally speaking, prior to 1891 all imported decorative and related items had no markings and/or possibly some obscure mark indicating the factory, country of origin, the decorator, etc.

Such markings were often a circle with a letter, a cross, a figure, or some other mark not necessarily expressly indicative of any country of origin.

The United States passed the McKinley Tariff Act in 1890 and thereafter required that these items imported into the United States be marked with the country of origin.

The Act (and subsequent law) basically had four material moments for auctioneers:

    1. Before 1891 — imported items required no marks indicating country, manufacturer, painter, artist, company, etc.
    2. Between 1891 and 1913 — imported items had to to be marked with the country of origin. For example, “España,” “Nippon” or “Italia.”
    3. Between 1914 and 1920 — imported items had to have the words, “Made in” and the country of origin. For example, “Made in España,” “Made in Nippon” or “Made in Italia.”
    4. After 1920 — imported items had to have the words, “Made in” and the country of origin in English. For example, “Made in Spain,” “Made in Japan” or “Made in Italy.”

Further, it’s important to note that a mark such as “Made in Germany” would suggest between 1914 and the late 1940’s. Then, that would have changed to “Made in West (or East) Germany” for example until the 1990’s. In other words, after 1913 when names of countries changed, marks changed too.

Of course these guidelines aren’t absolute. Some countries failed to follow the laws perfectly, and not surprisingly some items might have qualified for exemption through consideration paid to an inspector or tariff official.

Auctioneers researching the approximate manufacture date of these types of items should be aware that there are reproductions in the marketplace, so not all marked as such is actually from that period. As well there are additional clues which indicate age — such as wear, glaze, material, finish and overall condition.

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, Keller Williams Auctions and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at Hondros College of Business, Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School and Faculty at the Certified Auctioneers Institute held at Indiana University.