To the Japanese, Satsuma refers to ceramics from Satsuma province where a settlement of Korean potters developed in the early 17th Century. As a collecting term, Satsuma describes a distinctive range of wares produced by a variety of kilns for export to the West during the Meiji period (1868-1912). There is much poor quality Satsuma ware on the market, but the best is highly prized by international collectors.
Step back and examine the shape of the piece. The most common shapes are vases (often in pairs,) bowls and lidded jars, but you can also find trinket boxes, tea caddies, hexagonal vases and others. All are intended to be decorative rather than strictly utilitarian.
Look at the base for Japanese characters. Search for a circle with a cross inside it, the crest of the Shimazu clan that ruled over the Satsuma region.
Examine the pottery body and look for a faint cream or ivory tint and a “crackle glaze” with tiny faint lines.
Inspect the decoration. The most striking feature of Satsuma ware is its heavy use of gilding to create patterned rims and borders, and to delineate features of garments, buildings and landscapes. Common subjects include scenes from everyday life, saints, warriors and geisha girls. The piece is often divided into several different panels or “reserves” and there can be a sense of overlapping profusion.
Pieces of Satsuma ware can differ widely in quality. The best were signed, often in gilt, on the base and were the works of highly-skilled craftsmen intended for an elite of collectors. Unsigned pieces were for the mass market. Mass market pieces may be worth $100, a fine piece $7,000.
Satsuma is often confused with the vibrantly red and blue Imari and Kutani, which favours iron-red borders and delicate, muted decoration.