Chinese mudman figurines are beautiful and fun to collect. They have been produced in China for hundreds of years. The most common figurines on the market are from the Victorian era, when a fascination with all things from "the Orient" swept Europe and America. Mudmen were created to adorn penjing gardens — miniature landscapes constructed on trays using pruning techniques that would influence bonsai traditions. These charming figurines are easy to recognize, if you know what to look for.
Inspect the glaze. Antique Chinese mudman figurines have brightly colored, lead-based glazes called majolica. The most common colors are black, yellow, brown, green and blue. The low-firing technique often produced crackle in the glaze. Newer kinds of mudmen have matte glazes that are very different. Even if they have a crackle in the glaze, the muted colors will tip you off that the figures are not antiques.
Inspect the face. Most antique figurines have charming faces of wizened old men. The eyes are usually just holes poked into the clay. Nearly all of them have white, flowing beards and bushy eyebrows. The more detailed the features of the face, the better. Pieces made by the most skilled artisans will have more detail and the face will look more lifelike.
Look for rare accessories. All Chinese mudmen are holding something: a book, a pot, a basket, a flute or a fish. The more eclectic or rare the item in the mudman figure's hand, the more desirable and valuable it is. Baskets are common. An open book or a flute are rarer, and figurines with those items will be worth more.
Look for a stamp on the underside of the figure that is impressed into the clay. The oldest mudmen, made prior to 1890, will not have a stamp, but you will be able to see evidence of the artisan's work. Since they were made by hand, you will see fingerprints in the clay, and indentations where the artisan's fingers pressed the clay into the molds. In the 1890s, the U.S. began requiring all imported goods to be marked with their country of origin. A figure with a mark of simply "China" or "Hong Kong" is from 1890 to 1919. From 1920 to 1951, the words "Made in..." were added to the mark. Stamps on figures made after 1952 also include a number.
Seek out limited-edition mudmen. The rarest figurines are not men, but women — female figurines just weren't made as frequently as the male ones. Other rarities include large mudmen. Most of the mudmen were small, made to fit beneath miniature trees in miniature landscapes. The most common size is about 4 inches tall. Mudmen that are 8 inches or more are hard to find and can be quite expensive. Mudmen over 20 inches tall are extremely rare. If you find one at a good price, snatch it up.
Examine a figurine you find closely, and ask a lot of questions if you doubt the age of the piece, even if you're in a reputable shop. When purchasing figurines online, ask for multiple close-up photos, including shots of the stamp and any imperfections, like fingerprints, that would help identify the age of the piece.