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Imagine you have recently inherited a beautiful piece of china from your grandmother. Family legend has it this piece was once official White House China – part of a set used by a past American president for official state occasions. But is that true? How can you tell if your piece of china is the genuine article or a reproduction?
Start by looking at the bottom of the piece of china. Throughout the history of china production, artisans and manufacturers have often put identifying marks on their work. These are called “verso” markings because they are placed on the backs of plates or bottoms of bowls and cups. So turn your piece over and see what’s there. You may find one or more symbols or words, either painted or stamped or raised. These marks can be very helpful in identifying whether your china is a White House original or a reproduction.
VERSO MARKING ON A SERVICE PLATE FROM THE BILL CLINTON OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE CHINA COLLECTION - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
Then, you should do some research on White House China. Do you know which president supposedly used your china? If not, you can find photos of past White House dinnerware online. Look to see if there is one that matches your plate. Read up on that president’s china, and examine your plate to see if all the details match.
BEAUTIFUL HAND-PAINTED DINNER PLATE FROM THE ULYSSES S. GRANT OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE CHINA COLLECTION - MANUFACTURED IN FRANCE BY HAVILAND & CO. - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
It may also help to determine what your china is made from. The word “china” is used universally to refer to all types of dinnerware, because the process originated in China thousands of years ago. But, in fact, there are three general types of china:
1. Hard-paste porcelain is made from the original Chinese clay known as kaolin, usually mixed with alabaster. Meissen was the first European manufacturer to produce hard-paste porcelain, in 1710. Modern hard-paste porcelain incorporates quartz instead of alabaster.
2. Soft-paste porcelain is a variation created by European manufacturers to replace imported kaolin with local clay such as that found near Limoges, France. You can tell the difference between hard- and soft-paste porcelain by holding the plate with your fingertips and tapping the edge lightly with a coin. Hard-paste porcelain makes a high-pitched note.
3. Bone china was developed in England in the mid-1700s. Whereas porcelain is very white, bone china is ivory in color because bone ash is mixed with the clay. Bone china is also very light and has a translucent quality to it. You can see that well if you hold your piece of china up to the light.
DELICATE FRENCH 1845 DINNER PLATE FROM THE FRANKLIN PIERCE OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE CHINA COLLECTION - IMPORTED AND DECORATED BY HAUGHWOUT AND DAILEY- PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
It is important to note that White House china is unique because each collection was custom-designed for a particular President and First Lady. Many of them were very hands-on when it came to working with the designers to create a pattern and choose colors. In America’s early days, administrations were allowed to dispose of “decayed furnishings” in order to raise money for replacements. So state china was often given away or sold, damaged or not, to make way for new dishes. This is one way your piece of china could have been acquired.
INTRICATELY DESIGNED SERVICE PLATE FROM THE LYNDON B. JOHNSON OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE CHINA COLLECTION - MANUFACTURED BY CASTLETON CHINA - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
Eventually, Congress passed a law drafted by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her Fine Arts Advisory Committee in 1961, which declared all White House furnishings to be historic property of the White House and not to be sold. Today, damaged or no-longer-used official White House China is deliberately destroyed. In fact, there is a funny story about a set of dessert plates ordered by Lyndon Johnson. The plates were not of expected quality, so White House staff members reportedly smashed them against a wall in the basement that had been painted with caricatures of presidential assistants.
ELEGANT DESSERT PLATE FROM THE 1817 JAMES MONROE OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE CHINA COLLECTION - MANUFACTURED BY DAGOTY AND HONORE' - PART OF THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
Unless you have reliable provenance – letters or other documents that trace the history of your china piece all the way from its White House days – the best way to authenticate it may be to consult an experienced appraiser or professional collector, like Raleigh DeGeer Amyx, who is knowledgeable about presidential state china.
World renowned collector Raleigh DeGeer Amyx has acquired a remarkable number of scarce or rare pieces of official White House China. Mr. Amyx’s passion for American historical artifacts has been his sole focus for more than 35 years. Mr. Amyx's collection is the largest privately-owned collection of extremely high-quality, as well as the rarest, Official White House China and Presidential China in the world. If you would like to engage in a discussion with Mr. Amyx about White House China, please contact him through the button below.