This type of thick earthenware takes its name from the island of Majolica off the coast of Spain were it was first made centuries ago. Italian ceramicists followed with their versions in the 1300s and 1400s. According to author Frank Farmer Loomis IV in Antiques 101, "By the late 1800s, colorful motifs depicting cabbages, fruits, ferns and asparagus were being created in France, Germany and England." Pieces were made in the United States in the 1800s as well.
Achieving Majolica's Distinctive Look
A soft earthenware ceramic, majolica is formed with plaster of Paris molds to achieve it's raised patterns. The first base coat of glaze is lead-based, and then brightly colored metal oxide glazes are applied on top. The ceramics then receive another firing.
During the second firing, the glazes interact creating the rich colors majolica pieces carry so well. These colors, and the unusual and varied objects they decorate, attract collectors to this distinctive type of pottery with intensity.
Many majolica artists looked to nature for inspiration. Ocean themes, farm animals, fruits, and exotically colored plant motifs all find a home within the decoration of many of these vividly colored pieces. Some majolica items, especially those depicting reptiles, sea life, and other types of living creatures can be remarkably realistic looking.
Makers of Majolica
The majolica most often collected today, which was developed by ceramics expert Herbert Minton and chemist Leon Arnoux, debuted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. This "new" Victorian art form actually represented a culmination of ceramic artistry and glazing techniques spanning centuries according to Charles L. Washburne, a majolica expert, in an online Antiques Council article.
Many pieces of majolica had no identifying marks. Some of the most notable English majolica manufacturers that did mark their wares are Minton, Wedgwood, Holdcroft and George Jones. Two of the most recognized American names are Griffin, Smith and Hill (pieces marked Etruscan) and Chesapeake Pottery. Items with these marks, especially the English versions, can be quite expensive with some of them selling in the thousands although most list in the hundreds.
One pattern found fairly frequently, combining pinkish-coral colored seashells with dark sea-themed greenery, is known as Shell and Seaweed. It was produced by Griffin, Smith and Hill (Etruscan) in Pheonixville, Pa. in the late 1800s.
How Condition Affects the Value of Majolica
According to a Collecting Channel article no longer online, majolica from the Victorian era is often found with crazing. Some pieces may even have chips, cracks or repairs. Joyce Worley noted in her article that this type of damage is common considering the age of these pieces, which can be true, but she also said it doesn't have much bearing on the price. This might be true for the oldest examples, but those are not usually the ones found by today's collectors.
All collectibles are more valuable if in pristine condition. The only exception to this rule is with extremely rare examples, which would apply to majolica as well. In those instances, damage, especially if minor, is more forgivable.
Overall, it would be more accurate to say that majolica pieces may still hold value if found in a damaged state, but the value will not be as high as if the piece were in perfect condition. The severity of the damage would also come into play. Many of the life-like pieces of majolica have parts that can easily be broken off, a piece of a crab's claw, for instance. If a large chunk is missing, this will greatly diminish the value of most pieces.
Learning More About Majolica
If you're interested in learning more about majolica, the most recommended resource is The Collector's Encyclopedia of Majolica by Mariann Katz-Marks for Collector Books (now out of print but still available through online book resellers). And with numerous convincing reproductions on the market, taking a look at a good reference guide always makes sense before making major investments in antiques and collectibles like these.
Also, examining as many genuine pieces as possible as you are learning is paramount when it comes to feeling out fakes.