When my grandmother died, the whole family got together to go through her things.
There were plenty of memories. There were sad moments and some funny ones — like when we discovered she had bought five identical warming trays, with four never opened. (Forgotten gifts, perhaps?)
And there were china sets. So many china sets. Enough that all of her kids — and their kids — got a set… and we still had plenty left over.
Once upon a time, having a fine china set was considered a milestone — a crowning purchase that showed you’d made it.
Maybe you’d get it as a marriage present… or handed down as a family heirloom. Maybe you’d finally have enough disposable cash to spring for some fine china… or you’d take time putting together a complete set from a number of individual pieces.
Regardless of how you came by your set, owning a good one was a mark of pride.
How times have changed.
Thanks to improvements in manufacturing — and the global reach of our economy — it’s easy for anyone to get a decent-quality china set. Indeed, you could probably pop down to Walmart or Target and get a complete set for under $20.
And you don’t hear people say “Break out the fine china” much anymore. Formal dinner parties are fairly rare events… especially events hosted at home, without any rental equipment.
Add in the fact that most older china sets don’t do well in dishwashers… and many can’t go in the microwave, because of having gold or another metal in the pattern or the finishing process used can lead to cracks under microwave heat… and fine china has gone out of fashion.
Not to mention the accompanying silverware has also passed from fashion. No one wants to deal with tarnish when sterling silver is cheaper, looks nearly as good, is tougher (and dishwasher-safe) and doesn’t tarnish.
All of which is to say old styles of dinnerware are on the outs with the general public.
But the truth is antique china is still incredibly popular with the collectible crowd, and many coveted brands have gained in value as time has passed.
Whether you’re looking at a dinner set from Royal Albert… or stemware from Waterford Crystal or Lalique… or classic antique silverware, even from “mass-market” brands like Oneida… if you’ve got an intact, antique set in good shape, you might have a hidden treasure.
But before getting too excited, it’s important to make sure you’re dealing with a true antique, from a quality brand. After all, there have been cheap knockoffs of china for decades — and some are pretty convincing.
So let’s take a moment to go over the best way to identify what you’ve got in your closet.
1. Check the back
Many companies that produce china either engrave or stamp their brand on the back of plates. However, those stamps can fade or erode over time — especially if you’re dealing with an antique from the ’40s or earlier.
If you can’t find a stamp, don’t despair — that’s fairly common. Note that after 1900, most companies used stamps instead of engraving — if you’ve got an engraved plate, it is probably very old (and possibly very valuable).
2. Check the shape
It may be de rigueur to have oddly shaped plates today, but until the 1950s, virtually all china sets were round circles. (A few Art Deco plates from the ’20s are the exception.)
Furthermore, most of them were rimmed — meaning they had an indented circle inside the larger rim of the plate. You will occasionally see coupe plates from earlier eras — ones without an indent, usually turned up at the edges — but they are relatively rare.
3. Check the pattern
Most producers have distinctive styles — as do eras. For instance, Royal Copenhagen china sets almost exclusively have a blue pattern on the white plate — with a particular shade often called Royal Copenhagen blue.
Wedgwood often had scenes from ancient Greece on their china, while Haviland focused on floral designs. There are many sites online that can help you identify the producer when you know the pattern.
4. Check for consistency
The best manufacturers produced consistently excellent dinnerware — with the same exact shapes, colors, scene placement, etc. If you have a set with inconsistencies, odds are good you’re looking at a cheaper knockoff.
The final thing to note is — if you’re looking to sell your china or hold onto it as an investment, a complete set will always be more valuable than an incomplete one. Of course, china breaks, and antique china has had a lot of chances to break — it’s hard to hold onto a complete set.
But you can always go onto a site like Replacements Ltd. and see if you can find your missing piece. Alternately, eBay has a thriving marketplace of single pieces and replacements.
It’s worth checking out the value and worth of whatever collection you’ve got. The highest-priced sets and unique dishes have sold for six figures.
While it’s unlikely you have a fortune like that, you might be surprised just how much cash you’ve got in your china cabinet.
Which means you might want to reconsider putting that fine china in front of the little ones this Christmas — one of the few meals of the year that still warrant the china treatment.
Editor-in-chief, Unconventional Wealth
P.S. Do you have a china set you’re especially proud of? Or some antique crystal stemware? Silver flatware? Classic English tea sets? Send us descriptions or photos of your best sets to email@example.com. And if you aren’t sure what you’ve got, send in your best photos — with distinguishing characteristics — and perhaps we’ll be able to help you identify it in a later article.
Ryan Cole is the editor-in-chief of Unconventional Wealth. He’s been covering the alternative investment space for nearly a decade and writing about finance and investment for almost 20 years.
Ryan has walked the walk for years, living a very unconventional life. He’s led snowmobile tours through the mountains of Colorado, settled in Japan for five...