Black Americana Figural Butler Decanter CopiedBy Mark Chervenka
Black Americana Figural Butler Decanter Copied
Many ceramic items made in Japan before and after WW II are of interest to black memorabilia buyers. One such piece, with cross over interest to bottle collectors, is a figural decanter of a butler shown in Fig. 2. The original dates to the early 1950s and currently sells for $350-$450. A close reproduction is now out in the market that is being mistaken for old (see Fig. 1). The new example shown here sold for $140.
Both old and new are nearly identical in height, around 7½" tall. They share a similar decoration: both are painted in a black jacket, have yellow shirt buttons, black bow tie, and painted facial features. The head of each removes for filling the bottle. Liquid pours through the hollow right arm and out the bottle in the right hand. At first glance, new bottles look virtually identical to the originals shown in reference books. A first hand side by side comparison with a genuine decanter, though, shows some important differences.
The first area to examine is the head which forms the bottle stopper. The skin of the original butler's head (face and bald scalp) is hand painted with a brush which left obvious brush marks (see Fig. 4, Fig. 5). The face and scalp of the new butler are painted with a sponge or cloth dipped in paint; there are some swirls but no brush marks (see Fig. 3, Fig. 5).
Next, look at the back of the head. A fringe of hair is molded on both old and new. On the old, the molding is much sharper and more detailed (Fig. 5). The molded hair on the new stopper is much less detailed; the color is also different. The bald area on the original is a light almost honey colored brown; the bald scalp on the new decanter is deep dark chocolate brown, almost black. Eyes and mouth of the original are hand painted with good detail; the eyes and mouth of the reproduction show less detail and seem less lifelike.
Molded detail is also a key clue in the bottle the butler is holding in his right hand. The original has a sharply molded base that resembles a wicker basketweave typical of a wine bottle. The very fine molded lines that create the "basketweave" are individually hand painted with a brush in dark paint to emphasize the effect (see Fig. 7). The new bottle, by contrast, has a perfectly smooth surface with no basketweave pattern molded or painted (Fig. 6).
Many, but certainly not all, original decanters are marked under glaze with "Japan" or "Made in Japan". This underglaze mark would be a good indication, but not a guarantee, of age. That's because some originals were unmarked or marked only with a paper label that has washed off over the years. The new decanter does not have any permanent mark.
One last quick test is to compare the raised rim on the base the decanter rests on. This rim in originals is not glazed. This was a practical consideration to keep the piece from sliding around during use. The new decanter, made as a reproduction, isn't intended for practical use. The raised rim on the new piece has the same glaze as the surrounding areas.
Source of the reproduction is unknown but it appears similar to other Black Americana reproductions made by a potter in the upper Midwest.
Thanks to Jack Barrows for making old and new examples available.