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Great Noritake and Collectors in Britain

by David Spain

from Noritake News, Vol VIII, #1, March 1996

Noritake News March 1996

The piece on the cover of this issue is one reason why, for years, I had wanted to do some serious Noritake hunting in Great Britain. Explaining this potentially puzzling comment is, in a sense, one of the main objectives of this essay. I begin near the beginning. On one of my visits to Howard Kottler's home,several years prior to his untimely death in 1989, I saw on a table in his living room a small two-toned green compote. I asked about it and he commented briefly that it was one of his true pride-and-joys. His voice grew quiet as he recalled purchasing it in an antique shop in Los Ageles and at some point in his recollections , he stated the obvious: he valued it for its high Deco design.

Although that piece definitely made a lasting impression on me, I did not dwell on it, in part because Kottler's home was filled with fantastic Noritake (and other Deco items). Several years later (March, 1990 in fact), I had a chance to buy the piece shown on the cover from Dennis Burnickas(Thank you, Dennis!). To the best of my recollection, the motif on Kottler's compote is the same as the motif on the box. Since acquiring my piece, I also have seen (in another collection) a vase with this motif. Because of that , I wonder, of course, if the motif is to be found on other blanks and, if so, which ones and how many (the more, the merrier, I say).

The piece on the cover was sold to me as a humidor. Although the lid dose have a hollow handle (as humidors do, to hold a piece of apple or a moist sponge to help keep the tobacco from drying out), the shape of the opening is such that a sponge or apple would fall out. As you can imagine, however, when I saw the piece, I really didn't care what it had once been used for. Now it is true that, sometimes, I buy pieces because of the blank(e.g., I like bowls and wall pockets of certain shapes, almost regardless of the motif). My decision to purchase the piece on the cover, however, had everything to do with motif and almost nothing to do with the blank. Nowadays, if pressed on the subject of what the piece might have originally have been used for, I usually suggest that, since originally it sold in England, it might have been a tea caddy. (This is, I must stress, strictly a guess. I am not at all sure what the piece was used for and would be happy to hear the views or the readers about this.)

Non-Noritake collectors often ask if there is something about the motif that tells me that the piece was sold in England. Experienced collectors, of course, will know that the key is not the decoration but the backstamp. The backstamp on the cover piece is like the one pictured on the next page and, as nearly every experienced collector knows, pieces with such backstamp, were supposed to have been sold first in Great Britain (or at least in a Commonwealth country). Many who are familiar with this backstamp, refer to it as the “spider” mark. Even with all this familiarity, however, even rather experienced collectors probably cannot say much about the age of pieces bearing such a backstamp. Certainly, most cannot say as much as they can, for example, about pieces with the so-called “standard” “M-in Wreath” mark (JVP#27). This is because marks quite similar to the one shown here were used by the Noritake Company for over 40 years (from about 1908 trough 1949, at least). Also, in order to use such backstamps for dating purposes, it turns out that one has to know some facts that are both hard to remember and difficult to see in the marks (we will review some of these details momentarily).

Besides the word”Noritake” the most prominent feature of the mark is the six-”armed” symbol within the circle. Several claims have been made about this symbol. Alden and Richardson, in their book on Noritake dinnerware (Early Noritake China: An Identification and Value Guide to Tableware Patterns), indicate that this element of the backstamp is, among other things, a symbol for a tree and was part of the clan crest or “mom” of the Morimura family. It also is said to suggest a Japanese (or perhaps Chinese) term: :komaru.” As with many such terms, context free translation is not easy. Basically, it means “difficulty.” More completely, it means something approximating “struggling to overcome difficulties.” As Alden and Richardson note, a tree is an appropriate symbol for this because, to endure it must be strong and to be strong it must have “equal balance or support both above and below.” It is easy to see how such a symbol would be an appropriate one for the Morimura Brothers as they struggled to establish their import business in New York.

As noted above, collectors (including some authorities—e.g., both Van Patten and Donahue) sometimes refer to this as the “spider” mark but, in view of the comments just made regarding the meaning of the “Komaru” symbol, this “translation” seems rather less than appropriate --and not simply because spiders have eight, rather than six, legs.

Assigning dates to Noritake pieces that have Komaru marks requires a sharp eye for details and the application of some pretty arcane knowledge. If dating a piece is your goal, there are at least three features of a komaru backstamp to consider: color, the shape of the letter “r” in Noritake and the shape and other details of the Komaru symbol itself. Regarding color, we may note first that one or the earliest variants of the Komaru backstamp (see next page) is a bright teal or, as Alden and Richardson term it, “turquoise blue”--a color that is unusual when compared to all the other Noritake Company backstamps. According to the Noritake Company, this mark was first registered in Japan in 1911. It is said to have been used as early as 1908, however, for pieces shipped to England. At fist glance, one might think this backstamp is basically the same as JVP#20 but notice (a) that the words “Made in Japan” are not shown in backstamp #20 in Van Patten book and (b) unless I missed it somewhere, she dose not discuss the color of the mark.

In my experience, Komaru narks with this color are not common. Not until a few days before preparing this essay had I knowingly seen such a mark and even then I was merely aware that the color was not usual Noritake green (i.e., I had forgotten, if I had ever really known, what Alden and Richardson say in their book, p19, regarding this backstamp; it is number MM-9 in their system). So far as I know, this color appears to have been used only on this mark, but alas, we do not know for sure how long the mark was used so, as with many other Noritake backstamps, what we learn is only an “it can't be any older than...” date. Komaru backstamps of the sort shown here also found in blue, green and red (I say “of the sort shown here” because the Komaru symbol occurs in other marks, some quite old and others relatively recent).

As for the letter (r,) I am at a loss for the exact words to describe the difference, even though it is one that can fairly easily and quickly be seen. Just compare the letter”r” in the backstamp shown here with the same letter in the backstamp on page two. For lack of better words, I refer to the “r” in the backstamp on this page as a “flat-topped” “r.” Eventually, the script “Noritake “r” nearly always was as it appears above (p.2). In light of this, one may think it is reasonable to conclude that pieces with backstamps with the flat-topped letter “r” are fairly old. And, indeed, this may be reasonable but there almost certainly are some exceptions, however, since backstamp #40 & #41 of Donahue, which she says were registered in Japan in 1951, have the flat-topped “r.”

As for the shape of the Komaru symbol, one can again do no better than compare the two in the backstamp shown on this and the previous page. How would you describe the difference? To me, the one above appears to have been more carefully drawn than the other one on page two. Sometimes, one also notices that the upper and lower halves are joined in some versions of the symbol but are separate in others.

All of this having been said (and I admit that it is confusing and all too inconclusive). How dose any of it account for my desire to do some Noritake hunting in England? After the complexity of the forgoing, you may be glad to know that the answer is simple: some of the most striking Art Deco motifs to be found on Noritake porcelains are on pieces with the Komaru backstamp. For example, in addition to the piece on the cover of this issue, the piece on the September 1994 issue of NN has a Komaru backstamp and so dose “Jewel”--arguably the most elegant Art Deco piece ever made by the Noritake company (there is a color photograph of the piece on page 38 of Kottler Smithsonian exhibit catalog).With this—i.e., given my passion for Art Deco Noritake, the fact of these pieces and a few tales I had heard from other collectors who had been to London recently--you can imagine the high hopes I had, a few years back, when I finally managed to get to London and had an afternoon free for some antiquing.