When you consider pottery from France's House of Havilland, Ireland's Beleek brand, blue and white Delftware gracing dinner tables in Denmark or Noritake designs representing Japan, save room at the table for the U.S. when you make a list of heirloom-quality pottery. Among the most revered and collected brands is Bennington Pottery, a New England studio that's synonymous with old world crafting and diverse design. A 2009 Antiques Roadshow program airing on PBS featured an 1849 Bennington Pottery Lion appraised by professionals at between $4,000 and $8,000, and the artifact wasn't in great condition. This could happen to you if you make the effort to sleuth out the pedigree of your Bennington.
- Avoid using "How to Identify Bennington Pottery," written by Richard Carter Barret in 1964. Bennington commissioned an archaeological team of investigators to verify suspect Bennington pottery and compare exhibits to a variety of reference sources. The startling results of their investigation called into question what had been the main resource for identifying Bennington for nearly 40 years.
The audit concluded that from 50 to 75 percent of the pieces depicted between the pages were actually made in England, France, Germany or at other U.S. studios. Bennington has gone to great lengths to correct this matter, but the book is still eagerly sought, perhaps as a collector's item unto itself.
Despite all of the data listing ways to identify Bennington Pottery, serious collectors should still keep the warning above in mind: Some examples produced by the company were not marked in any way.
Inspect the incised or written backstamps found on a variety of Bennington pottery pieces. Compare yours to already-authenticated samples or have them inspected by someone familiar with clays mined and used for pottery during that period of time in Vermont. Alternately, match your piece to information published or produced during the Crystal Palace Exhibition where Bennington Pottery was one of the expo's stars.
Contact a curator (see Resources) at the Bennington Museum in Vermont. They can match your pottery to the company's archival catalog. Bennington museum personnel are particularly interested in having a chance to identify "redware" glazed pottery, made of the region's signature red clay around 1785 or a piece from final red stoneware examples fabricated around 1804 because they are so rare.
Look for markings or signatures placed on pottery by David Gil who re-opened Bennington Potters around 1960 after a lengthy period during which the business was closed. Gil added these inscriptions, incised logos and his initials on different parts of the items he made. The most likely place to look for this is underneath a plate, tray, figurine or pitcher. Of course, he didn't sign them all, so verify pieces you suspect may have been crafted by Gil by visiting the Bennington facility located on County Street.
Visit the Bennington Museum to have your samples of analyzed for authenticity by staff. The museum showcases everything from pristine Bennington pottery examples to verified shards of dishes, pitchers and other samples collected during the 2002 archaeological dig. Even a sliver of a dated fragment may hold a clue to the piece you wish to have evaluated. While you're having your pottery assessed, view the remarkable variety of Bennington artifacts on display.
Check the color of items you suspect of being Bennington originals. Three kilns built between 1855 and 1856 produced distinctly-colored pottery known as yellow-ware, common white, white granite, agateware, flint enamel and cream-colored. During the time these kilns were in use, Bennington expanded its product line to chamber pots, urinals, bedpans and bread bowls so making a connection between color and product will get you one step closer to a successful identification.
Look for marks that have been etched, incised, lettered and otherwise added to finished pieces of Bennington Pottery. Some early examples of pitchers will bear this inscription: "Fenton's Works/Bennington/Vermont." These can be accurately dated to pre-1853. In addition to this inscription look for these patterns on white ware produced by Bennington during this era: Love and War, Bird's Nest, Snowdrop, Panel Flower and Vine, Rib Flower and Vine, Wild Rose and Tulip and Sunflower.
Search for this backstamp citation to peg Bennington Pottery fabricated after 1853: "United/States/Pottery/Co./Bennington, VT." Match the imprint with these classic patterns: Cascade, Climbing Ivy, Tulip and Sunflower and your chances of owning an authentic piece are high. Additionally, add another verification point to validate the item: blue and brown backgrounds showcasing stamps or incising in matching colors. Bennington Parian objects from this era may also bear a circular 1849 mark plus either of these inscriptions: "Lyman, Fenton & Co./Bennington, Vt." or "Fenton's/enamel/patented/1849."
Identify pottery marked with the initials "U.S.P." as a likely piece of Parian pottery from Bennington. Some may have numbers. Match them to unique patterns to verify authenticity: #10 "Paul and Virginia, with and without figures"; #11 - "Arabesque"; #12 - "Tulip and Sunflower with stippled background"; #14 - "Pond Lily"; #15 - "Oak Leaf, smooth background with palm tree under spout" and, #16 - "Oak Leaf, with stippled background." If you have a piece marked #13, it's a fake. The company refused to put the "unlucky" #13 on any of its production pieces.
Go to extremes if you think you own a rare Bennington by having a chemist sample a fragment of the pottery to assess whether or not it passes the time and material test. It's expensive to have a chemical analysis of any product evaluated, but if it turns out your red ware, pitcher or cream-ware commode are in the league of the lion valued on that PBS program, you might want to spring for the test.
Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.