Identifying antique china patterns can be a challenge, but if you know what to look for, it is possible to gather some information about your piece. China pieces without a mark are much more difficult to identify, but learning the typical characteristics of a manufacturer may assist you. Some manufacturers, such as Wedgwood, or the potteries in Limoges, France, are well documented by collectors. Others are more obscure and require more research to identify.
Turn your piece of china over and look for a maker's mark. It might be printed or stamped into the piece. If there are words in your mark, particularly initials, it will be easier to look up. If there are not words in it, you will have to figure out what someone might have called it in order to look it up. Common symbols include shields, fleur de lys and star bursts. Printing may be quite small or blurred and require a magnifying glass or loupe to read.
Consult antique china reference books. Once you have identified the mark on your china, find reliable resources about that manufacturer. Use your library or browse at the bookstore before purchasing pricey guide books. For Internet research, visit only websites you can trust, such as a museum or reputable collectors' organization.
Compare the pattern on your piece with what you see in your reference materials. You must match the pattern exactly in order to reach a definitive conclusion. It can't be "almost like mine" or "practically the same." It must be identical. Companies sometimes made slight changes to another manufacturer's pattern and gave it a new name. Some marks include the name of the pattern.
Use the pattern itself to gather information if you cannot identify your mark, or if your piece does not have a mark. The only way to identify a pattern without knowing the maker is to flip through general antique china books until you see something similar. That is a more difficult route to take, but it is not impossible to identify a pattern this way.
If the mark says "Bavaria" or "Limoges," that is a place to start. Bavaria and Limoges are not companies; they are regions. Bavaria was the center of Germany's pottery industry, and Limoges is where most of France's china was produced. How the word is written will often determine the manufacturer of the piece. Both of these kinds of china are very well documented and will be relatively simple to research.
Use the china mark itself to help date your piece, if the company changed marks over time. Some manufacturers used a different mark every year. Items made in England between 1842 and 1883 were required to have a diamond-shaped British Registration Mark. Decode those marks to find the exact date of manufacture, down to the month.
If there are no marks narrow your search by the style of the design -- Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Art Deco designs can narrow the field. Whether your piece is handpainted or uses a transfer or decal under the glaze, or a combination can also be telling. Type of material is also a tip-off, many manufacturers worked only in earthenware, ironstone or porcelain.
Be wary of sites that offer online auctions, antiques dealers, or small auction houses that are selling antique china. A seller may or may not know what they have, and their motivation is to sell you something. Independently verify any information you find from these sources.