A brief history of early European porcelain
At the beginning of the 18th century, Europeans regarded porcelain as an almost mythical material. It was imported from the Far East and was so expensive that it was known as ‘white gold’. Nobody in Europe knew how it was made, and there had been various attempts at making it since the 16th century.
The discovery of the correct formula by the German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger — most likely together with the polymath Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus — led to the establishment of the Meissen porcelain factory in 1710. Meissen was quickly up and running as a producer of luxury wares, selling its pieces at the Ostermesse (Easter Fair) in Leipzig in the same year.
Red stoneware or white porcelain pieces made during Meissen’s early years of production are referred to as ‘Böttger’, because the factory was under his direction. After his death in 1719 they are referred to as ‘Meissen’.
Manufactured for only a very short time, red stoneware is rarer than white porcelain. ‘Böttger’ stoneware was, though, produced in a wide variety of decorative finishes and with different glazes, and a group of glass-engravers were recruited from Bohemia in order to cut and polish it.
What a specialist looks for: marks
It is unusual for pieces to be marked — the tankard shown above bears a six-armed star-type mark for the potter Georg Michel, who was active at the factory in its infancy, from 1711 to 1712.
A glossy and lustrous finish
As a material stoneware, which is a form of porcelain, is tremendously hard, and the polisher, who would have polished it on a grinding wheel after firing, has achieved a remarkably glossy and lustrous finish to the surface. In contrast, the interior of this tankard remains unpolished and of matt appearance.
Colour, and the feel and look of the surface texture
When authenticating a Böttger stoneware piece it’s all about the material itself. Its colour varies from a dark brown (above) to a brick red (below), so it’s really the feel and look of the surface that is more important. It should not have a granular surface like Chinese Yixing ware or the smaller granular surface of English stoneware — it should be smooth. If the piece is not polished it should have a pleasing, smooth, matt feel, not unlike stone.
Slight imperfections — evidence of the human hand at work
There should be some evidence of slight striations to the surface, where a sponge was used to finish the piece. When observed through a magnifying glass, expect to see slight imperfections such as small dark, speckle-like inclusions, minute tears or areas that aren’t exactly the same as others. In short, the surface should have ‘life’ to it — if it’s all completely consistent and mechanically perfect, then it probably isn’t a genuine piece.
Traces of difficulty faced by the polisher
If the surface is highly polished, one should be able to see evidence of the difficultly the polisher faced when working around areas such as handle terminals and applied decoration. There may also be evidence of the grinding wheel digging into the surface slightly at the extremity of its reach.
Highly polished stoneware pieces that aren’t genuine tend to look rather like Bakelite, whereas even a polished surface should be lively and hand-made in feel. If the piece is black-glazed in imitation of Japanese lacquer, such as the examples shown above and below, the glaze should be thick and rich.
Iridescence reminiscent of motor oil
On the underside, the glaze may cover the base completely or it may only partially cover the base, and there is often a rainbow-type iridescence to it, rather like there is on motor oil, which can be seen on the examples shown above and below.
Pieces of red stoneware with a subtle glaze that makes it look like iron or pewter are called Eisenporzellan. They are unique to Böttger and very rare. The surface of an Eisenporzellan piece is somewhere between matt and polished, and some pieces have a subdued grey sparkle to them.
Less refined forms produced by rival factories
The final thing to be aware of are pieces that share very similar characteristics to Böttger. The Plaue-am-Havelj factory was established in 1713 in Berlin by one of Böttger’s former employees, and its stoneware shares many similar characteristics, although the forms are generally less refined, slightly ‘clunkier’ versions of Böttger forms. One important way to tell the difference is to look at areas where the surface isn’t polished. On Plaue pieces, the surface is rough; on Böttger it’s smooth.