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 1800's, 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. You can find the name Nippon used up until WWII, when "Japan", or made in Japan, began to be used. Nippon later became the company name Noritake. Modern fakes can reproduce the marks, but they can't fake the quality of original antique hand painted Nippon china. Knowing what to look for can save you from a costly mistake. Here are the main indicators of true hand painted Nippon China.
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. These pieces are thicker, with a more pottery-like appearance. You will identify molded items by the exquisite animals, people and landscapes that are 3-dimensionally sculpted onto the surface.
Inspect the decoration. Hand Painted Nippon china is known for its exceptional decoration. Pieces were hand painted, not mass produced, so every piece will be slightly different, even if it is part of a set. There should be beautiful representations of flowers, animals, landscapes, and beautifully rendered 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 skill to be able to do this well, so modern reproductions don't take the time to do this. A piece with moriage, is most likely an authentic piece of antique hand painted Nippon china.
Recognize Marks. There are over 200 recognized, genuine Nippon marks. All of them 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. That's 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 line rays. The fake Maple Leaf is twice as large as the ¼" real one, and has thicker lines.
Look for gold. While not all Nippon has gold decoration on it, some of the most collectible pieces have a liberal use of 24kt gold. Gold was used to highlight designs (like 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 are 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), Gold and Silver overlay, Coralene (tiny colored glass beads fired onto the clay, giving it a velvety appearance), Cloisonné' on Porcelain, Tapestry (a textured surface make it look like tapestry), Gold Etched, Gouda I\imitations (matte finishes and bright colors that look like Scandinavian designs)
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 a lot of good books on the subject that can be found at your local bookstore, on eBay, Amazon, or other online resources. One of the best series of books is, "The Collector's Encyclopedia of NIPPON Porcelain", by Van Patten. They will describe the different designs, patterns and marks used in antique Nippon china. Educating yourself is the best way to keep you from falling for an imposter.