Some remarks about evaluating the age of a Satsuma object

The appreciation for Satsuma pottery is not only determined by the quality of the piece itself but also by the time when it was made. As with all pottery and porcelain determining the exact age of a Satsuma object is not easy. Time has hardly any influence on it and a signature, if here is any, is not always in accordance with the truth. The dating will therefore have to be derived from a number of characteristics that can give an indication of the age. A global attribution as "Late Meiji" or "early Taisho" is usually the highest attainable.

In this section we mention a number of comments to consider when evaluating Satsuma pottery. Most experts agree on it, although not everything is without discussion. So it's just to keep in mind when evaluating a piece of Satsuma.

Availabilty of Satsuma

  • As a general rule we can say that almost all Satsuma work offered in Europe or the US is exportware, and therefore dates from the period in which Japan was opened for trade contacts with the West from around 1870. Pieces from the Edo period (1600-1868) are rare to find, since exportware and mass production did not exist yet. The potters in Edo period were working for and protected by the Daimyo. Quality was more important than time and the production was therefore low. For this reason the vast majority of collectors are interested in objects made in the late Edo to the early Showa period, so from roughly 1830 to 1930. Very early pieces are collectible but hardly available and therefore expensive. This in contrast to the Satsuma ware that was made from the 1930s and later what was exported in large numbers to the west, but unfortunately most of it is of poor quality and therefore not collectible.
  • From the beginning of the Meiji period, there were Western collectors who traversed the country in search of old Satsuma and by doing so, they created a demand for 'Old Satsuma'. To provide this demand for ‘Old Satsuma’, potters (who were since Meiji restoration no longer supported bij the Daimyo) start to produce Satsuma work in old style, leaving it unsigned. The best known example of this is Kozan, who was described by Frank Brinkley in The Chrysanthemum magazine of 1883 as a notorious counterfeiter of Old satsuma. Kozan later restored that reputation by creating fabulous pieces in his own style and carefully signed all his work. However, Kozan was not the only one, and much of the work nowadays presented as Edo dates from the Meij period
  • Not everything we now call "Satsuma" comes from that region. It was produced or decorated in Kyoto, Yokohama, Tokyo and other regions. For most collectors, this is not an obstacle, since restricting yourself to "real Satsuma" would mean that you have to exclude the beautiful work by masters such as Kinkozan and Kaizan. So most collectors are therefore not so puristic and collect Satsuma as wel as Satsuma style objects,  that is all Japanese pottery of ivory-colored clay with a very fine crackled clear glaze, on which the decoration has been applied (overglazed, as opposed to underglazed, whereby the image was made before glazing).  Japan is for most of the collectors  the only geographical restriction, although American Satsuma (in the U.S.A. decorated blanks from the beginning of the 20th century) became collectable too.    

Crackles as an indication for age and quality

Although Satsuma is allways earthenware and not porcelain,  there was also porcelain ware decorated in ‘satsuma style’, and some are of exquisit quality. Kinkozan and others occasionally produced high quality porcelain objects. Porcelain is hard, smooth and white and will never crackle in the same way as Satsuma earthenware do. Some people like and collect it, others find that it lacks the softness and warmth of earthenware, athough they admire the breathtaking brushwork on it.

  • Fine crackles are a charisteristic of good quality Satsuma pottery and sometimes they are so fine that you hardly can see it. Lower quality pottery and newer pieces, have much bigger crackles. They occur as a natural process after the firing, when the glaze and the pottery itself start to shrink in a different way. The crackles can be controlled but it takes special skils and experience to fire a piece in such a way that the crackles occur so fine, and certainly it’s more difficult as firing the enamels. For this reason there were studio’s who ordered the glazed and crackled blanks from a good pottery and decorate it in their own workshop. Often you find therefore the names of the potter as well as the name of the decorator on an object.
  • Lower quality pottery and newer pieces, have much bigger crackles as should be. In late Taisho and Showa period the crackles can be large, and in the worst examples even disturbing the overall impression instead of being an intrinsic part of the beauty of an object. Good quality ware from the Meiji period can be recognize by the fine density and ivorycolouring (instead of grey) of the crackles, it is the main charasteristic of all good Satsuma ware.

See the picture: First row depicts a 16cm bowl by Hykoseki from 19th c. Meiji period.The crackles are very fine and ivory coloured. Below is a set of 20cm vases by Kusube, from early Showa period, the crakles are large and grey.  

Colours and Motifs

A 6 x11cm teapot, ca. 1800

  • Old Satsuma before the end of the 18th century were rarely decorated and only in a few hues, blue and brown,  since the the technique of using a full scale of colours was only learned at the end of the 18th century. From that time up the decoration on Satsuma ware became more colourful, although in many ways different as in the Meiji period.
  • Until the Meijiperiod the ceramists were very careful not to cover the whole body with  decorations, to show the beauty of the fine crackled earthenware self. Sometimes the crackles were even emphasized by rubbing golddust or colours in it. It was only since Meiji period that sometimes the complete body was decorated and gilded, possibly also to hide imperfections on less quality pottery. 
  • The decorations in Edo-time were simple and delicate representations of nature only:  flowers and birds, blossoms and insects. Gradually these depictions of flowers and birds were replaced by views of Japan’s rich religion, history and daily life in ancient times. Rakans and Gods or human figures as Samurai, bijins or children did not occur on Satsuma ware before ca. 1850, the last decades of Edo period.     
  • According to Sandra Andacht (in Treasury of Satsuma) the use of gosu blue stopped in the early seventies of the 19th century and replaced by cobalt blue (a colour coming from the addition of cobalt carbonate or cobalt oxide to the glaze) after it was introduced in Japan.  Others think gosu blue also was used in later years until the turn of the century.  In general one can say that gosu blue on an object  is a good indicator for pieces made no later as the Early Meiji period, and most likely dates from late Edo period. The use of cobalt blue on an object means that it is certainly not older as the beginning of Meiji, since it was only then introduced by westerners.
  • Satsuma pieces with a dark background and the motifs outlined in gold are from around the turn of the centrury. In Taisho and Showa period the dark blue and green hues tend to be somber, and the lighter hues much more intens as in Edo and Meiji period. Many of the Taisho ware from 1920 and later have a dark, chocolate, matt ground, wheras the ware of the thirties and later seems to have a more red-brown tinted background.
  • Before 1900, again according to Sandra Andacht, the rims of covers seems to be left unglazed, in contrast with the years after. In Edo time the entire underside of the lid was left unglazed. 
  •  According to Louis Lawrence, in his book “Satsuma romance” the technique of overglazed decorating did not occur before 1841, it was done for the first time by Chin Jukan. Before this date the decoration was painted after the biscuitfiring, but before glazing it. When determining a piece as “old Satsuma” this can be a useful indication:  Overglazed decoration was never done before 1841. (However, it is questionable: Gisela Jahn shows in her book Meiji Ceramics, page 133 an overglazed Satsuma teabowl made in late 17th or early 18th century)

The Shimazu mon

Shimazu mon in gosu blue, signed Nyo-en, late Edo period

  • Many marks includes the Shimazu mon in various colours as red or gold. For most of these items one can say that they where made in Meiji period or later. From origin the use of a mon was meaningful and had to be admitted by the Daimyo. In that case it always was painted in gusu blue, being the right colour of the mon, and the fact that cobaltblue was not yet available in Japan. 
  • Permisson to use the family crest of the Shimazu family on pottery, was a form of appreciation and encouragement that the Daimyo could attribute to the potter and for pieces that he liked very well. After the shogunate disintegrated and, consequently, no relation exists anylonger between the production of pottery and the Shimazu family, the crest was frequently used as a “trademark”, regardless of its origin and merely as an indication that it is a “satsuma-like” product. A crest that is depicted in black, gold or red therefore has no relationship with the Shimazu family and it always dates from a period after Edo. Authentic relationship with the Shimazu clan is always in gosu-blue, not in other colours, including cobalt blue what what was not used before 1870, and it's allways made before Meiji-period.
  • This Satsuma vase evidently was made for the Shimazu family. It is marked on the underside “in the third year of the Kansei Era, the year of boar [1791], Seikun produced this.” 

The use of gold

Liquid gold was first manufactured by the Royal Porcelain Factory at Meissen in Germany in the early 1830s but the formula for mixing gold powder in suspension with natural oils and chemicals was kept secret until 1851 when a patent was taken out. According to Thomas S. Kiernan (in The best book on Satsuma) the gold as can be seen on Satsuma objects from Late-Edo and Early-Meiji period is very heavy and the outlines and borders are painted in relief in contrast to the gold on Satsuma pieces later as 1900 what seems to be flat on the surface. Gold was allready used on Satsuma ware since 1800’s but by adapting the European liquid gold it was possible to use it as any other enamel. It is assumable to date an object with such a flat golddecoration as an early 20th century piece, what can be late Meiji as well as Taisho period  (and later) .   

English texts on satsuma

  • In general one can say that Western texts are not found on Satsuma ware made in Meiji or earlier periods, in spite of the fact that it was a requirement for export to the United States since 1891. In that year the United States required that all articles from foreign countries should have a mark, stamp or affixed label written in legible English words to indicate the country of origin. Nevertheless this is seldom seen on Satsuma ware from Meiji period. It is possible that labels were used and put off once the item had arrived the United States. Exception was Kinkozan who used a label “Kinkozan, Tokyo-Japan” or a stamp, in addition to the painted signature, but never a painted text. In the period  from 1920 on he also used a "Japan"or "Made in Japan" stamp in combination with a painted name in  Kanji or a stamped name Kinkozan in English or Kanji.
  • The name Nippon in English occurs after 1891 until ca. 1920, when the name Nippon was not accept any longer by the United States. Kinkozan used  the word Japan also before 1920, possibly because he was a mayor exporter to the U.S.A. and knew how to anticipate on future regulations.     
  • The words ‘handpainted’ and “satsuma” what sometimes occur on pottery from 1920 on to the present days, are used ambiguously. Most of the times it's a good indication for ‘not authentic’ Satsuma ware of mediocre or worse quality. Handpainted often means that only a part was handpainted but another part was printed.  And the word Satsuma is most of the times an indication (or warning)  for ‘Satsuma Style” ware made in China. The only exception is Royal Satsuma Nippon which is an authentic mark used on porcelain, and dates from Meiji to Showa period.
  • A signature on good quality ware is always handpainted and not stamped. There are exceptions. Kinkozan for instance used a stamp with English text “Kinkozan” in the late Taisho period. Some of them are bad, but some pieces are of very good quality in Art Deco style. But as a rule stamped signatures can be found on objects of mediocre or poor quality, made in Taishoperiod or later.
  • If a maker's name can be identified on an object, it is useful to know some biographical details. The Kinkozan workshop for example, ceased to exist in 1927. A piece of work originating from the Kinkozan therefore always dates from before that time. It is known that Taizan Yohei closed his workshop in 1896, but that he was still working as an individual on a very limited scale until his death in 1922. Since a name and sigature frequently are hand over through generations, it is not a good way to determining the age. Ito Tozan signed ware for instance can have been made 200 years ago as well as 20 years ago.