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Collecting teacups


It seems no estate sale is complete without a tea service. As part of a larger set of china or separated from the pack and sold as singles, those little cups and saucers have become collectors items in their own right.

In many cases, it’s likely the dishes never left their cabinet. Put on display, perhaps only to be brought out for special occasions, if at all.

Teacup life can be lonely.

But they’ve recently seen a resurgence in popularity. Once the dowdy wallflower at the homecoming gala, they’re now the prom queen with a full dance card.

Colorful cups and saucers can add a vintage flair in a home. And they’re versatile. Not only can you drink from them (what a novel idea), they can sit prettily on a cabinet as a jewelry holder, a home for small plants, or they can be used for other crafty projects.

But before you run out and buy the first cups you see, propelled by the possibilities of all the pretty porcelain, you might consider a few things.

Is it a teacup?

This, really, is only important if you’re set on collecting them specifically, as many people are these days. But tea services and full china sets often include cups for coffee, tea, and maybe if you’re lucky, cups for cocoa as well. The untrained eye might not notice a difference. Teacups, like the oft sung-about teapot, are short and stout, while the coffee cup is more tall and narrow. (The teacup, with increased surface area, is better suited to take in boiling water and cool it quickly to a drinkable temperature. With less surface area, coffee will lose its heat more slowly in its designated vessel.)

But, at the end of the day, a pretty cup is a pretty cup is a pretty cup, right?

Is it in good condition?

Despite it’s delicate appearance, china is actually quite durable. It’s fired at incredibly high temperatures to reduce the chance of chipping and ensure it will last for generations. That’s not to say it won’t shatter if you drop it on the floor, but offering a cup-clinking toast before tea is unlikely to cause chips.

But as with any large purchase, particularly secondhand ones like those at estate sales, the buyer must beware: that china has already lived at least one life, and whether it was used regularly or held dear behind cabinet doors, there is a chance there will be some wear.

That is, of course, part of the joy of buying from estate sales. There’s history in your purchases. A patina of use. But you want to avoid chips and cracks in the foundation, particularly if you plan to drink from them. There are some pieces that will feature an intentional spiderwebbing effect in the glaze. This is known as “crackling.” Faint and accidental network of lines in the glaze, known as “crazing,” will not necessarily reduce the value of the piece. It should be expected, in fact, on glazed or hand-painted pottery. If you run your finger along crackling or crazing, you won’t feel it, This is not the case with a legitimate crack in the cup, which less reputable dealers may offer up as “crazing.” If you can feel it, it’s not crazing.

I wish there was a rhyming mnemonic device for this. “If you can feel the crack, put it back?” “If your finger it’s grazing, that’s not crazing?” I’m sure there’s one out there...

Another thing to consider: If the teacup comes paired with a saucer, is it a matching set? The base of the teacup should fit comfortably in the round divot of the saucer. If it doesn’t, it’s possible the cup has been mismatched, either with a small plate of the same pattern, or with a saucer of a similar pattern. Either instance will affect the value of the set, if that’s important to you. If that’s not a priority, you might be able to talk your way into a good deal.

Who made it and what’s it worth?

There are books and websites dedicated to identifying china and determining price, and, like so many other collecting hobbies, there are subtleties to identification that can only be found through research or by talking to experts.Teacups and saucers usually have a maker’s mark on the bottom, and frequently include a country of origin.

A few things to consider:

Makers can’t be identified by mark alone. Similar to carnival glass or a number of other collectable baubles, it’s not uncommon for more than one manufacturer to use the same marking. Crossed swords, for example, was used by  first by Meissen, then by Volkstedt, and a number of other pottery and porcelain companies. A symbol displaying a crown and the letter N is also a common mark, used first by the Capo-di-Monte factory in Naples, Italy. Another Italian company purchased the mark, and in the years following, a number of manufacturers have taken up the use of the logo, copyrights be darned.

There are some telltale signs and reference pointed that might help age a piece if it’s not clearly printed on it. Small, handwritten marks on the bottom of a cup means it was likely made before the 1800s. The use of registration numbers began in 1884. By 1891, imports to America were required to bear the name of the country of origin. If these things are legible, they can help you determine where the piece originated.

The value of the piece is an even trickier matter. Avail yourself of pricing guides and information online--is there a similar piece available online? And as with most collectables, there are groups dedicated to the hobby of collecting teacups. Don’t hesitate to reach out: most collectors are happy to discuss with earnestly interested newbies.

What’s next?

Once you’ve determined the direction your collection is going to take, the sky is the limit! Perhaps you’re looking to have a complete tea service of one particular design, or you just want to collect the pieces that tickle your fancy (my personal favorite.)

Whatever you do, be sure to enjoy your collection--put them out for all to see, and use them freely. Some might argue that if you’re collecting more valuable pieces, you should preserve them, or at least not risk damage by repurposing them as pincushions or candles. But what’s the point of owning these things if you’re not going to enjoy them in a manner that brings you joy? There is none. To paraphrase English poet Robert Herrick: plant ye succulents in your teacups while ye may.

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