Maker marks have been used to identify silver and gold work, china and stoneware, glasswork, furniture and other objects for centuries. Like a signature on a painting, a maker mark identifies the creator of artistic work. As craftsmen gathered into guilds, workshops, and eventually factories, maker marks continued to express standards of quality and creative reputations. To prevent forgery, maker marks were often stamped or incised onto work. Whether the process involved an actual branding-iron or another identification method, we can speculate easily about the link between maker marks and what we recognize today as "brands." Learning to identify maker marks will give you information about the history, creator and possible value of your family treasure.
Begin by assembling all existing information about your object. You have always been told, for example, that your German grandmother, whose husband came from Alsace-Lorraine, brought her flowered china vase from "the old country" when she came to America as a bride. They had met as teenagers on a Rhine River day-excursion. After writing letters for years, they were finally able to marry after the First World War and came to the U.S. in 1920. They were working people, and your grandmother treasured her vase as a wedding gift. You don't recognize the initials or the symbol printed on the bottom of the vase. Chances are high, however, that the vase comes from Northern France or Southern Germany, close to the Rhine. They met on a day-trip and were working people. War made much travel impossible. All the family details suggest beginning your maker mark search search between 1910 and 1920, in areas close to the Rhine in both France and Germany.
Copy all the marks you can see on the bottom of your vase. Take photographs of the whole piece and of the marks, if possible. If you are adept at drawing, make a sketch of the object, noting colors, and draw the marks. Having copies keeps you from having to take your vase on searches for information.
Research print sources of maker marks at your local public library. This is a popular research topic and you are likely to find, or be able to ask the library to obtain, print sources to examine. Both your family facts and your copies will help you narrow down the search and compare marks (these resources are often reference books and cannot therefore be checked out of the library). Take notes on what you find. Include directory titles, page numbers, and information. Copy pertinent pages.
Expand your search with online sites. Especially for china, silver and other domestic wares, sites tend to be large and informative. Give greater attention to information sites than to those featuring buying and selling. Information will be more extensive and more reliable than that provided by people most concerned with monetary value.
Include historical society and museum online sites in your search. While you are unlikely to find a museum that pinpoints your object immediately, knowledgeable curators are generous with free information and may well have research sources unavailable to you otherwise. Use contact information--and your copies--to refine your search. Online research permits you to access historical sites and museums in "the old country" as well as close to home.
Be flexible and persistent in your search. If research suggests strongly that your vase comes from Italy, pursue the suggestion (more than one treasured family recipe turns out to have appeared in print in a major cookbook--sometimes family stories don't contain all the facts). Reputable antique dealers and university art departments may be helpful. Even collectors' sites often attract experts. Finding a maker mark can be time-consuming, but the journey can be as much fun as the destination.
Because maker marks are a huge field of research, the References listed are samples of research resources only: a British silver-hallmark information site, a library resource, and an Alsace museum contact site (based on researching Grandmother's vase). Your own search will be shaped by the object and maker marks you are trying to identify. The Collectors online site listed under Resources offers a variety of museum, association, and club links in a wide span of areas, although half of each page is devoted to item auctions. Again, a sample page is included.
Avoid auction sites and businesses more concerned with appraising or buying your vase than with your research. You are seeking information, not profit.
The absence of a maker mark does not mean that your piece is worthless. As you read about the creation of objects like yours, you will notice that some objects may never have been marked or, as companies merged, marking had to be reorganized. Usually unmarked pieces will strongly resemble their marked family members, and distinctive handles or even marks in places you would not ordinarily look can establish the identity of your object.