2011 UPDATE: I get a lot of emails about this article and it has not been updated since 2006. So, I wanted to add this bit to make it clear: pieces marked WL 1895 are fakes, frauds, etc. They are not antiques and were not made in 1895, but more likely 1995. To be correct, they are not counterfeits because they don't look like any known real antqiues: I'd call them "fantasy decorator pieces," worth whatever you feel comfortable paying for a late 20th century piece with no historical value what so ever.
I used to have some doubts about these, but I've done enough research to know for certain these are modern pieces, maybe made in China. You will find antique dealers who swear these are the real thing, but that's because they overpaid (okay, way overpaid).
Wong Lee, Wah Lee, Wa Lee or William Lowe?
If you don't want to read all of this, here is my conclusion as of January 9, 2006:
The mystery of the WL 1895 crown and laurels pottery mark
I have now received two reports saying that pieces with this mark also had a "made in China" sticker on them, and I now keep an eye out for similar pieces when going to estate sales, etc. Based on those sticker reports and some other Chinese pieces I have seen, I do now believe that the WL 1895 mark is from China, where they have produced some beautiful pieces that have wonderful artificial aging (of course, there are many more pieces not-so-beautiful, with
obvious fake aging). Also, this month (Jan. 2006) a new episode of Antiques Roadshow (USA version) had a woman with anapparently old ceramic punchbowl on a ceramic stand. It had what appeared to be a an English mark on the bottom. She paid perhaps $150 or so for the bowl but the appraiser said there was no such English mark known and that the bowl was a reproduction probably produced in "Southeast Asia." He also said it was worth about what she paid for it (and she then told how she had turned down a $800 US offer for it). Based on that, my own further research and such things as the United Wilson mark shown below, there clearly are some nice fake old English pieces coming out of Asia.
I have not seen proof of the supposed "Wong Lee," but whomever is responsible for the WL 1895 works did a great job and these pieces certainly deserve some value in their own right, albeit not nearly as much if they indeed from 19th century England.
Pottery maker's marks can often be confusing and certainly that is the case with the mark shown to the right: the crown and laurel leaves surroundings the initials WL and the number 1895. We will call this the WL1895 mark
Is it the mark of 19th century English potter William Lowe or is it the mark of a year 2000 Chinese maker who left even fewer traces than did William Lowe a century earlier?
Pieces with this mark that sell as Lowe pottery have sold for hundreds and reportedly even thousands (maybe one or two thousand US dollars). But, if the mark actually is, as some claim, the mark of a modern Hong Kong company, variously called Wong Lee International Co. or Wong Lee Production Co., then pieces may only be worth 10% as much as a Lowe piece.
Thus far these is no evidence that the Wong Lee pottery company actually existed, even though they purportedly produced the WL1895 pieces in about the year 1999-2000 after being founded in 1995. There is in fact a Wong Lee International Company, but it is a Hong Kong clothing company founded in 1976, not a Y2K pottery company (see: http://www.thepotteries.org/allpotters/978.htm).
We'll get back to Wong Lee, but first let's learn a little more about William Lowe, the other WL.
Lowe appears to have started in the pottery business beginning at about 1865 in England's Staffordshire area, more specifically in Stoke-On-Trent and its town of Longton (that area's pottery history is wonderfully presented at http://www.thepotteries.org/ which says "Stoke-on-Trent is a unique city in England.
It made up of six distinct towns: Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton - collectively known as THE POTTERIES.").
At the website http://www.thepotteries.org/ you will find documented details about William Lowe including "John Tams and William Lowe were two pottery companies who came from a partnership "Tams & Lowe" which split up in 1874" and elsewhere on the same site, in Tam's bio, "About 1865 he [Tams] entered into partnership with Lowe, manufacturing in St. Gregory's Pottery, High Street, Longton. The partnership was dissolved about 1873."
The connection with Tams is very important once you look at the reproduction of one of Tam's 1886 ads from the Pottery Gazette (a sample shown to the left, but to see the whole ad, go to http://www.thepotteries.org/adverts/tams.htm).
Two things can be seen: Tam's mark was a crown and laurel leaves with initials inside. And, the ad shows several examples of the types of pottery produced by Tams. At http://www.gotheborg.com/marks/20thcenturychina.shtml.bak ("Gotheborg") you will read a claim that, "A rumor that has it that this [WL1895] mark should be of "William Lowe", is incorrect. There are no similarities in type of wares or with any marks used by Wm Lowe."
Well, looking at Tam's ad shows clearly that Lowe's former partner used a mark very much like the WL1895 mark and made items much like the WL1895 pieces in circulation. Tam's ad say he produced "Printed and Decorated Dinner and Toilet Ware of all kinds in White and Ivory boides. Novelties in Raised Flower Goods [Majolica??], also Vases, Fancy Bread Trays, Jardines, Egg Baskets, Jugs, Kettles, Teapots, &c." Clearly, Lowe himself could not have been a stranger to a crown and laurels marks and larger decorated wares.
Gothborg and another "pro-Wong Lee" site each make the claim that the only kinds of pieces produced under the WL1895 mark contain metal. Gotheborg puts it this way, "Always with crackled grounds and with bronze (ormulu) fittings." This is echoed on the website of CS Marshall, who is credited on other sites as the source of the Wong Lee theory. On http://www.porcelainmarksandmore.com/ Marshall writes of the WL1895 pieces, "The pieces themselves are always porcelain and bronze contraptions and are treated to look old, especially the bases."
Well in fact they don't always contain bronze or any other metal. At the top right of this page is a piece I owned: not a trace of metal on this majolica vase, not even gold leaf. Searching through the internet finds other examples of non-metallic WL1895 pieces, including three-piece tureens.
So we now see that two things in the "pro-Wong Lee" claims are wrong: the claim that there is always bronze (or other metal) in these pieces and the claim that these types of pieces and the style of the mark were somehow improbable for Lowe.
Lowe did do some lovely dinner plates under other marks (for which there is no controversy) and much of that work indeed does not look like my majolica vase or any of the other WL1895 pieces. But designers often did very different types of work depending upon who they were working for or when they were working. It is believed that William Lowe may have worked from 1865 to about 1930 (Tams worked until 1919) so he certainly would have done many different things in those 65 years. We simply cannot discount Lowe as being WL1895 on the basis of the types of wares produced. Just today, while researching this article, I came across some certified Lowe pieces produced in 1897 for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. I had thought it odd that my WL1895 majolica vase had lovely delicate flowers on one side, but on the other it had flags and standards surrounding symbols of royalty. Well, much to my surprise, Lowe's Diamond Jubilee designs are mostly flags and standards, albeit recognizable British flags as opposed to the unidentifiable flags on the vase. Collector Cafe's website writes about, "A particularly nice gilt rimmed Diamond Jubilee cup and saucer made by William Lowe - incorporating a cartouche strikingly flanked by flags and standards." That phrase "a cartouche strikingly flanked by flags and standards" also perfectly describes the one side of my vase. Lowe also used cartouche, flags and standards in the early 1902 when he produced commemoratives for King Edward's coronation.
Let's address another claim of those who say the mysterious Wong Lee company produced the WL1895 work: namely that the pieces were made beginning in 1999 or 2000. Well, I have seen examples of Chinese "reproductions" which were artfully aged and look for all the world like the real thing (check out Universal Wilson pieces). So, even though my WL1895 vase has a wonderful crazing and an old look, that alone cannot preclude it from having been produced perhaps just a few years ago. However I contacted someone else who owns and was selling a WL1895 piece: they claimed to have owned it for 15 years, which means it would have to have been produced no later than 1990. They also say their piece has no crazing. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has an ownership date for a WL1895 piece.
Oh, one quick notes on dates: Marshall claims that "The date '1895' was choosen in commemoration of the end of the war between Japan and China exactly 100 years before the Wong Lee Productions Co. was founded." China lost that war so it would be a strange thing to celebrate via a pottery mark 100 years later.
I have contacted CS Marshall in hopes of getting some source information for the whole Wong Lee theory. At this point no parts of it can be proven and many parts are simply wrong. It may well be that the WL1895 pieces were in fact produced in China in the late 20th century, but, the facts presented so far do not support that.
On the other hand, we have no way of linking WL1895 to William Lowe: no old catalogs or ads, no references in old books. That in itself does not prove or disprove anything because the glass and pottery world is full of marks, some obviously quite old, with no supporting documentation. The styles and designs -and even the style of the mark - are very probable for Lowe. It would be easier to sort this out if the WL1895 works were clearly not something Lowe would have done, but, as we have learned, that is not the case: he might well have done these pieces - the majolica vase, the ornate porcelain/brass urn, the tureens, etc.
My purpose in writing this article is to provide guidelines to anyone buying and selling WL1895 pieces, but more importantly to gather any more clues that can help solve this controversy. When you consider it may mean whether is a piece is worth $60 or $600 (or much, much more) the Wong L. versus Will L. debate is an expensive controversy.
Frankly, I'm rooting for William, but I cannot completely discount the Chinese origin. Gotheborg lists pottery marks from "'Wah Lee Factory Made' Factory Owner's dating: 1960." There is also on the Gotheborg site reference to a Wa Lee company: "The Wa Lee Factory opened on Ping Chau Island in 1953 and closed in 1968. Ping Chau is a remote small island, one hour boat journey from HK island, with only a few inhabitants. The factory was one of five or six on Ping Chau and at most employed 80 workers. The decorators was trained by experts brought there from Jingdezhen. The reason the factory was closed in 1968 might have a connection to the cultural revolution which started in 1966/67." Ping Chau is a now uninhabited islet that is 90 minute ferry ride from Hong Kong island and it is considered part of what used to be colonial Hong Kong. I think the Gotheborg site meant to refer to Peng Chau Island (located close to the main part of Hong Kong) which does have ceramic-painting cottage industries. However those industries didn't begin until about 1960 and it would be interesting to find out if a part of then-British Hong Kong (which Peng Chau was) would have actually been forced to close because of a revolution in Communist-controlled mainland China, which Peng Chau was not a part of in the50'sand 60's.
Jingdezhen is called the "Ceramic Metropolis of China" (and has been so for 1,000 years) and the Ping Chau workers could have been well-trained, but relations between Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China then were such any experts from Jingdezhen would likely have been smuggled out of Jingdezhen. It would have been probable for that small Wah Lee factory to produce the WL1895 styles and designs. It also probable that the wares could have had a WL1895 mark. After all, the mark (and the crazing in the WL1895 pieces) are very similar to the offerings from United Wilson, a noted Chinese maker of antique-look pottery that has a European-style mark and artificial crazing. Look at their marks as seen on Gotheberg.
I could see how "Wa Lee" could mutate into "Wong Lee," but there's a big difference between 1960 pottery from a remote factory that was total handcrafting, and a year 2000 factory in 21st century Hong Kong. Certainly by Y2K Hong Kong labor costs had kind of priced out handcrafting in HK. In fact I found a large modern Wah Lee industrial ceramics company that well may have begun with that 1960 Wah Lee porcelain factory.
If the Chinese origin theory is true, then it seems likely that it might have been, not Wong Lee, but rather Wa Lee or maybe Wah Lee that used the WL 1895 mark.
I would like to hear any info or thoughts you may have. Maybe we can come up with a definitive answer.
Heard today (Nov. 10, 2005) from someone selling a WL1895 piece on eBay: this one has a sticker which says "Made in China." That certainly supports the China origin, but I would want to see another with the same kind of sticker. I also found a piece on eBay which has a dark mark, not the usual red. This is another ceramic and bronze piece which appears not to have any crazing.