Caveat emptor: Reproduction vases offer Latin lesson

By Terry Maurer, What's it WorthJuly 15, 2012 

Caveat Emptor. Two Latin words that can strike terror in the heart of an antique collector. Dating to at least the 16th century, they literally mean "let the buyer beware."

In concept, caveat emptor means buyers alone are responsible for checking the quality and authenticity of something they are about to purchase.

Today we answer readers' questions about items where the concept should apply. Each looks very much like something that is old, well-known to collectors and quite valuable. The question is: Are they real?

Read on to see if What's It Worth? says "Fake or Fortune" to a Japanese vase and a French art glass piece bearing the name of a famous maker.

Q. I purchased this vase for $15 at a local yard sale. It later caused an argument between the husband and wife that it sold for such a small amount. It is 16 inches high and, I think, quite good looking. Is it old and is it valuable? -- Bob in West Richland

A. This is a Satsuma Ware vase. The originals are from Japan and can date to as early as the 16th century. Also called Satsuma porcelain it has been made in many different styles over the centuries. The best known Satsuma has a soft, ivory-colored crackle glaze with elaborate multi-color and gold decorations. They can be very valuable.

What Bob purchased, however, is a "museum reproduction," sold 10 or 12 years ago through the gift shops of museums hosting the traveling exhibition Splendors of Meiji: Treasures of Imperial Japan. That large show opened in Delaware in 1999, then traveled to other cities, including Portland, where it was on display from June to September 2002.

It was an exhibit of about 350 pieces (the number seems to have varied, probably a factor of how large the given museum's space was and what was available for this show) from the extensive, internationally known collection of Dr. Nasser Khalili of London.

Although a reproduction, this is a good quality piece. The original, which was part of the exhibit, would have been made for the Imperial Court of Japan during the reign of the Meiji Emperor (1867-1912).

That old vase, if it ever were to come on the market again, would be worth several hundred thousand dollars, maybe more.

A reproduction vase like this from the show, while not inexpensive, would fetch perhaps $200 today. It might well have cost more than that when originally purchased from the museum's gift shop.

Q. Maybe you can tell me if I made a mistake in not buying this blue cameo glass vase marked "Gallé." It was in an auction I recently attended and I took a few photos to do research. In addition to the maker's name, it also was marked "Tip." The auctioneer announced it was a reproduction, but it sold for $350. I know Gall é glass is valuable; did I miss something here? -- Rusty in Yakima

A. I don't think you missed out on anything with this piece, except perhaps paying way too much.

Glass by the famed French maker Emile Gall é is world-renown, beautiful, widely collected and expensive. Gall é was famous for his opaque carved or etched floral and plant motifs in as many as three or four colors of cased glass. His work was an international sensation by 1890 and he was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement.

As we said at the beginning -- buyer beware. In the antique world, anything that is valuable and popular is likely to be faked. That is the case here.

In his invaluable book Guide to Fakes and Reproductions, author Mark Chervenka examines these "Gallé" fakes. He notes reproductions marked just like this piece were first made in Romania about 1993. "It is very high quality and well made," Chervenka says. "Tip" is Romanian for type or "in the manner of " -- a legal warning the glass is not genuine Gallé."

Some unscrupulous sellers will try to explain away the mark by saying it means the piece is by a student of Gall é or is from a gallery that sold such glass.

Many times, the "Tip" mark has been ground off, making it very hard to be sure of authenticity.

The auctioneer made the right announcement and properly notified the audience. The buyer, I think, made a big mistake and paid eight or 10 times what the piece is actually worth. Any day you look, these pieces are for sale online for $25 to $35. Caveat emptor.

-- Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email

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