Antique hand-painted Nippon China is both beautiful and fun to collect. When Japan (Nippon) opened its borders to trade with the West in the mid-1800s, they began producing china for export to the world. It rivaled European china in beauty and quality and in some cases surpassed it, yet it was less expensive, so most Victorian households could afford some. Modern fakes can reproduce the marks, but they can't fake the quality of original hand-painted Nippon china. Knowing what to look for can save you from a costly mistake.
Look for fine, delicate porcelain in older pieces. Some of these are so thin and delicate you can see light through them. This rule does not apply to their relief-molded items, which are thicker, with a more pottery-like appearance. You can identify molded items by the exquisite animals, people and landscapes that are three-dimensionally sculpted onto the surface.
Inspect the decoration. Hand-painted Nippon china is known for its exceptional decoration. Since pieces were hand-painted, not mass-produced, every piece will be slightly different, even if it is part of a set. There should be beautiful representations of flowers, animals, landscapes and detailed portraits. Nothing should look sloppy or haphazard; everything should be done in fine detail.
Identify moriage techniques. Moriage is a hand-painting technique in which liquid clay, called slip, is dotted or drawn onto the surface of an unfired piece. It serves the purpose of providing added dimension to the look of the piece and sometimes to outline or add to decorative elements. It is an exacting and time-consuming process to do this well, so modern reproductions don't take the time. A piece with moriage is most likely authentic hand-painted Nippon china.
Recognize marks. There are over 200 recognized genuine Nippon marks, all of which say "NIPPON," not "Japan." Most of them also say "Hand Painted." Some of the more familiar ones are the maple leaf, the rising sun and the wreath, with a letter "M" in the middle. This one stands for the major importer of Nippon, Morimura Bros. Often importers and distributors had their own marks, which is why there are so many of them. Later pieces may also have the name "Noritake" on them.
Learn to recognize fake marks. Marks found on reproduction pieces tend to be larger and sloppier than the real thing. The fake wreath mark has an hourglass in the middle, instead of the "M", and the wreath is upside-down. The fake rising sun mark has spiky flames coming out of the sun, instead of straight rays. The fake maple leaf is twice as large as the quarter-inch real one, and has thicker lines.
Look for gold. While not all Nippon has gold decoration on it, some of the most collectible pieces liberally used 24K gold. Gold was used to highlight designs -- such as along the edge of a rose petal -- decorate rims and often created a cartouche-like frame around other decorative elements. The gold should be in good condition and not heavily worn or scratched. The more gold there is, and the more pristine it is, the more valuable the piece.
Learn to recognize Nippon patterns. Important patterns to be familiar with include the Phoenix Bird (blue and white), Geisha Girl (Japanese scenes with geisha girls in them), Dragon, Wedgewood and Reverse Wedgewood (beautiful pieces in solid matte colors with a cameo-like appearance).
Find whimsical figurines and china or porcelain dolls. Nippon made many of these and they are very collectible. They also made dolls that are very collectible.
Acquire Nippon resource books. There are many good books on the subject that can be found at your local bookstore, on eBay, Amazon or other online resources. One of the best-known books in the field is "The Collector's Encyclopedia of NIPPON Porcelain," by Van Patten. Reputable resource books will describe the different designs, patterns and marks used in antique Nippon china. Educating yourself is the best way to keep from falling for an imposter.