Buying antique tiles can be a frustrating process as often things don't turn out quite as well as expected. At fairs and markets especially in the first rush one can overlook things which one hoped that the seller would have pointed out but on the web where one is dependent on sellers' images and descriptions the risk is different. There is plenty of time to view the images but they are only images and not the same as seeing the real thing so descriptions of condition are necessary. Descriptions often only cite the marks obvious in the image like chips to the edges and avoid the less obvious surface marks which can be seen with the tile in hand, some dealers even crop their images so that the edges are not seen or photograph tiles in such lighting and positions that the damage appears less obvious. We provide full on images complete with all edges and pedantic descriptions of surface condition. We try not to leave any room for conjecture, we rarely use phrases like 'commensurate with age' and when we do only with our detailed descriptions. Having been buying from photographs for decades, well before the advent of the internet and eBay, we understand how images can be misleading and do our utmost to ensure that our images are true and our descriptions thorough and precise.
We don't try to win a bit here and there, we seek to have happy customers that will come back in the knowledge that they receive at least as good as they expected. We get many 'better than expected' remarks maybe because our descriptions are so accurate and people are used to being a little disappointed. In particular we describe surface marks like extremely light marks caused through cleaning and light fair wear and tear that others ignore. One of the frustrations of collecting antiques is when one sees an item from some distance, across a room for example, and it looks appealing and but as one approaches the marks become apparent and the final result is some disappointment, this is often the case with surface marks like wear and scratches. Edge chips are the most immediately visible marks but one's eye is draw to the design in the middle of the tile and marks there may be more disappointing long term. We want customers to be very pleased with their purchases from us and have no regrets.
Unfortunately to some extent there is a tendency to group all web sellers together including some of the unrewarding internet auction sales but just as there are reputable brick and mortar antique dealers there are some on the web too. We provide good images of our tiles and so looking at a tile in the hand straight on will be just like looking at one in our images. When tiles are tilted to catch light at an angle surface other marks may become apparent so we give thorough descriptions of all marks even those barely noticeable and not described by others but which may be seen on careful inspection as if you hold the tile just so in the right lighting conditions as one would in a shop or at a fair or market.
How We Describe Marks
- Mint - extremely rare, as good as the day it was made and it was a good one that day too with no manufacturing imperfections.
- Perfect - no damage at all, very minimal wear or tear, minor factory faults permitted.
- Very Fine - very tiny marks that have negligible visual impact.
- Excellent or Fine - very minor damage only.
- Very good - minor damage but marks are not very detracting.
- Good - marks are apparent but do not seriously detract from a close up inspection of the tile.
- Fairly good - held in the hand marks can not be mistaken but may be visually wished away as other aspects of the tile are very good
- Average/Fair - from a distance of a few feet, as a tile would be viewed in a Victorian fireplace, most imperfections are barely visible.
- Poor - worn glaze, chips or scratches that detract from the design which nevertheless shows it's strengths.
- Very poor - the tile must have a powerful attribute, (design, artist, manufacturing technique) to appeal to the serious collector but may serve as a teapot stand etc. or background object for the person who likes antiques to be used and look used.
- Rough - the tile must be very rare
- Fair wear and tear - few, light marks which are very difficult to see and only visible on very close inspection, as indeed one can often find with brand new objects.
We avoid words like fleabite, nibble, etc. as they are rather vague, I have seen chips as large as half an inch described as fleabites. Nibble has a specific meaning in tile and glass trades. to remove small pieces of material that are impractical to cut off. Purpose tools are readily available one can buy nibbling pliers or 'nibblers' for use in tiling or glass fitting work.
Frit & Fritting
Frit is a type of material added to glass and glazes, fritting is the process of adding such materials.
In the quality antiques world frit and fritting have specific meanings relating to a production fault in chinese porcelain occurring on primarily pre mid 18thC wares at the rim and other thin extremities where the piece got hottest in the kiln. A frit is a single burst glaze bubble, fritting is several frits, similar to glaze losses they ideally just expose the undamaged surface of the porcelain body. Technically speaking caused by the glaze not having fixed to the porcelain body at firing temperatures. more.... Frit is now increasingly used as a word to avoid saying chip and so it is wrongly used.
The Free Dictionary gives the etymology, Italian fritta, from feminine past participle of friggere, to fry, from Latin frigere, to roast, fry.
Nibble, fleabite and frit are most often used in descriptions of tiles to avoid using the proper word chip!
Most chips are approximately circular so these sizes are based on a the diameter of a round chip, where we say a tiny chip is 3mm we might also describe an oval 4mm x 2mm chip as very small, to some extent it depends on how it impacts the visual pleasure. However most chips are readily visible in the images so their visual impact can readily be seen. It's only the very tiny and minute chips that one can't always see in the images, some can't really be seen and it's rather like as one may feel chips when handling a tile in a shop or at a fair. How far a chip penetrates in to the face of the tile is considered important, a long narrow chip on a corner or along an edge, aka flake or slice, is not as detracting.
description metric imperial minute 1mm 1/25 inch very tiny 2mm 1/12 inch tiny 3mm 1/8 inch very small 4mm 1/6 inch small 5mm 1/5 inch medium 6mm 1/4 inch largish 9mm 3/8 inch large 12mm 1/2 inch
Of course it's only really the minute and very tiny chips that need pointing out because as our images are maximum quality so anything bigger can usually be easily seen in the image.
Chips and firing imperfections to the backs of tiles are usually ignored unless they also appear on the front of the tile or materially affect the strength of the tile.
Glaze Chip or Glaze Loss: A chip that only affects the glaze, no clay is missing.
Flake or Slice Chip: A chip on the edge, usually near a corner, that is mostly along the edge of the tile and barely reaches in to the tile surface.
Wear: Where the glaze has worn and the clay is revealed, usually on the edges of tiles where the tile has moved against it's frame or on raised outlines of majolica tiles where something has rubbed against the surface as perhaps tiles used in trays.
Roughness: Where clay is visible through the glaze at the edges of the tile, may be several minute edge chips in close proximity or fettling or wear. Usually just the tips of the edges and penetrating no more than one millimetres (1/25th inch) on to the surface of the tile. Obviously the less the roughness is the less it is visible in the image, just as in real life. Often caused in handling prior to or during original installation and may be contributed to by the manufacturing process where the glaze and/or clay is weaker at the tip of the edge.
Hairline crack: A crack in the tile that has not spread and looks like a hair on the surface of the tile. Will not deteriorate unless the tile is abused (e.g. dropped on a hard surface but that's not recommended anyway :-) ). Some will have been there since manufacture, occasionally when glaze ran down the side in the kiln it stuck the tile to the kiln furniture and was caused upon it being removed.
Hairline: Common abbreviation for hairline crack. Sometimes dealers abbreviate hairline further down to just 'line' which is confusing.
Partial hairline: A hairline crack that only appears on one surface of the tile, front or back, therefore does not go all the way through the tile. When on the front usually appears like a straighter crazing line. Hairlines often continue with a crazing line just in the glaze and it is not always possible to determine where the boundary is.
Frost damage: Most evident in cracks in the clay parallel with the tile surface caused when a damp or wet tile is frozen. As the water expands (water starts to expand as temperature drops below four degrees Celsius) and solidifies within the clay it forces the clay particles apart. Resisted by the fused glaze at its most extreme it can cause flakes of glazed clay to delaminate from the main body.
Many surface marks can only be seen on close inspection with the tile tilted to catch the light, most are not at all visible when tiles are displayed normally in a frame, stand or rack, and only in the hand. Surface marks are more obvious on plain coloured glazed areas, the darker the glaze the more readily seen and less obvious on fussy transfer printed tiles with a colourless glaze, they are almost as inevitable as crazing.
Stun mark or bruise: where the impact has compressed and so slightly fractured the glaze but the glaze has remained in place. Usually looks like a tiny patch of dense crazing.
Stun or bruise line: where a blunt object has been dragged across the tile compressing the glaze and causing tiny fractures in it but not breaking the surface, looks like dense crazing.
Stun or surface chip: as above but the glaze has come away resulting in a lost chip
Rubbing: Very short, exceedingly light scratches resulting in a small area that is more matted than scratched, usually near corners, edges and on high spots on embossed tiles. Often no more than fair wear and tear, perhaps even through daily dusting every day for decades, likely near the edges on tiles that were framed or in furniture - as the tile was cleaned it rubbed against the frame.
Scuffing: Like rubbing but more intense, short light scratches which for the most part are not normally visible when the tile is viewed straight on.
(Surface) Wear: As rubbing but more intense possibly revealing the clay, visible when the tile is viewed straight on but still maybe only if you know where to look. Most often on high points on embossed majolica tiles.
Extremely light scratches: Where the tile may have been cleaned a little too enthusiastically perhaps with a scouring pad. Invisible except on very close inspection with the tile tilted to catch the light. May include tiny stun marks and other very minor defects that are equally difficult to catch.
Very light scratches: Again where the tile appears to have been cleaned a little too enthusiastically, perhaps gently with very fine wire wool. Possibly also small, thin, light scratches to the glaze surface only. Difficult to see even on close inspection with the tile tilted to catch the light. May include tiny stun marks or other minor defects that are equally difficult to catch.
Light scratches: Scratches to the glaze surface that may barely be seen when the tile is viewed straight on and in the image, may include small stun marks or other minor defects.
Medium scratches: Will usually be visible in the image but perhaps only when you know where to look and will similarly be visible with the tile in hand. We don't usually sell tiles with visually detracting scratches unless the tile has otherwise worthwhile characteristics. Scratches on very light coloured tiles and transfer printed tiles are usually less detracting than a similar scratch on a coloured majolica tile, the darker the colour the worse a scratch is likely to appear.
Bloom: Appears like very fine dust or like a cloud on the glaze surface, usually only visible on close inspection or with the tile tilted to catch the light. May be a manufacturing imperfection.
Furring: Usually in and around crazing, limescale or similar that has leeched out from the body of the tile due to repeated wetting and drying similar to efflorescence on brickwork.
I would emphasise again that many dealers completely overlook surface marks in their descriptions even to the extent that clearly visible light scratches are ignored even whilst other lesser marks are noted. We do not do so, there is no limit to our pedantry in this regard much as with fine porcelain dealers and coin dealers we take great effort to try and find marks and report them rather than hope the customer will not notice or not think it worthwhile to query.
One of the lesser understood defects usually ignored by sellers and often mischaracterised by collectors and dealers alike. A flake is a piece of glaze that has come away or that may come away should the tile be mishandled, usually very small or tiny and around the edges of the tile where it has been compressed, sometimes the glaze will still be attached to a sliver of clay. The explanation of it's cause is a little complex so bear with me.
First one has to consider where the largest dimension of the tile is, it is on the edge of the tile just over the tip of the surface where there is a little glaze thickness to add to the overall size of the clay body.
Flakes occur most often with tiles fitted in to furniture and when they were a tight fit in to the timber. Should the furniture get damp, and that does not necessarily mean have been in a damp environment but have been subject to normal humid summer weather, both the timber and the tile will expand a little causing pressure on the edge where the glaze has run over. This in itself can cause minor glaze flakes but should the tile have been subject to vibration, for example through cleaning, even dusting, or in a house on a busy road (there were many more buses in the past) the flakes may be a little extensive.
Should a flake come away the worst that will be seen is a small chip, a tile will have to be mishandled for this to happen and the chip can be glued back if even if it is large enough to be worthwhile. Given how most collectors display their tiles or how tiles are fixed the likelihood of a flake coming away to reveal a small surface chip are remote but we always mention them for accuracy the only caveat being that we may include them in terms like 'roughness' or chips to the edges where the chips are quite numerous.
I reassert that this type of defect is often overlooked or misunderstood and I am sure that almost any collector will find examples of flakes that have not come away should they closely inspect the edges of their tiles and that they have not considered to be of any concern. Which they are not unless the tile is mishandled and then the worst that can happen is a small chip.
Manufacturing Imperfections or Factory Faults
We tend to be more critical of manufacturing imperfections than many others and take account of them when pricing so tiles in similar condition will be priced differently if there is difference in the original quality. The most obvious imperfections are usually noted by most dealers but we will also take in to account accuracy of painting especially on majolica tiles and on prints we account for smudges, creases etc.
Underglaze chip: A chip to the clay caused before the tile was glazed and which is glazed over
Glaze miss: A patch of the biscuit which was not covered in glaze or where the glaze is thin and the colour has not taken.
Kiln Dirty: A foreign particle, usually a chip from another tile or the kiln furniture, that has got stuck in the glaze during firing.
Firing crack: A crack caused by shrinkage during firing. Will not normally affect the strength or stability of a tile, when on the face usually sealed with glaze.
Blow: A hole in the glaze usually caused by an imperfection in the clay or glaze gassing off during glost firing.
Speck or spot:
- Literally where a spot of stain or glaze has been dropped on to the surface.
- Also applied to very tiny pieces of kiln debris.
- Some minuscule black spots appear in glazes from time to time, these are probably tiny pieces of iron dust caught in the glaze.
Roughness to edges: Often a combination of manufacturing where the glaze is thinner and the moulding pressure is slightly less at the tips of the edges and the tile being held in a frame. Whilst the tile may be a good fit in the frame when fitting some dampness, even high humidity, will cause both the tile and wood surrounding it to expand and put pressure on the tile edges. May also be accentuated where thick glaze has run over the edge of the tile as this adds to the dimensions. This is of course a common fault or effect especially in otherwise near perfect tiles from furniture and frames and not threatening.
Bloom or Matting: Areas of dullness like very fine dust or like a cloud in the glaze surface, a result of overheating in the kiln or contaminated kiln atmosphere or glaze formulation, usually only visible on close inspection or with the tile tilted to catch the light.
Crazing - is fine cracks in the glaze, sometimes one or two long ones but usually a fine web-like or cracked ice network. Crazing is not dirt or staining as is commonly misunderstood nor is it due to intense heat and it is not always readily visible. These errors are most unfortunately reproduced in many books, Barnard has the accurate explanation of the reason on page 66 plate 55. Crazing starts with one line and can remain so, or just a small area, this may be more detracting than consistent all over crazing alternately seeing an untainted area of glaze provided sufficiently large can compensate. Manufacturing flaws can contribute to crazing, a spot of kiln dirty can be the focus of crazing, a shrinkage flaw or crack from the firing will likely continue with a crazing line and it is not always clear where the boundary is.
Crazing is a near inherent feature of high gloss tiles, only a few percent of one hundred year old tiles do not exhibit crazing, even today manufacturers of high gloss tiles offer no guarantee that glaze will not craze. Crazing is caused by expansion of the tile body when it absorbs moisture. glaze is in effect a thin layer of glass on the surface of the tile which is impervious to moisture, the clay is porous can absorb moisture and when it does it expands a little. As the glaze can not stretch it cracks finely, this is crazing. Coloured clay tiles, usually buff, celadon, brown or red, are less prone to crazing, the clays are semi-vitrified and absorb less moisture and so expand less.
Clean crazing is not included in the description unless it is extreme, very pronounced or nonexistent - it is assumed antique tiles will exhibit some crazing. Crazing can be more noticeable in images than in real life, crazing in highly translucent coloured glazes like émaux ombrants glazes is more visible and usually appears worse in images than in real life. Conversely crazing in opaque glazes especially milk-white and sky blue (aka azure, celeste, turquoise) seems more persistent. On 'extra white' clay bodies with brilliant colourless glazes crazing can be near invisible even when held just so in the optimum lighting conditions.
Dirt in crazing in fireplace tiles is often black lead or soot which are very difficult to remove, small amounts of soot can even be found in tiles from furniture as candles and gas lighting were in use when the tiles were first made. Candles were often stood in front of glazed tiles so that they would reflect light into the room for example on a washstand in a bedroom. Rust where the the tile has been in contact with iron and there is moisture present also causes a very difficult to remove stain. Many people refer to stain/dirt in crazing as crazing following from inaccurate published 'information' rather than appreciating what the difference is.
Crazing adds charm and similar phrases are often used by sellers, in some circumstances maybe but for most collectors not. This arises from the architectural and fireplace trades for when many customers are presented with reproductions which are all too clean and originals with dirt in the crazing they prefer the later but these are tiles for a design scheme and part of their function is to look authentic and crazing fits the bill. Collectors however would usually prefer a tile that is as good as the day that it was made, no crazing and certainly no staining in the crazing is preferred. A perfect tile has nothing to distract from the beauty of the design, it correctly conveys the intent of the designer and maker.
With our high resolution images even the most minimal staining in crazing can be seen, it a tile is uncrazed we will note it, if there is no stain in the crazing we will say perfectly clean.
Iridescence: An effect that appears over time and is a bright metallic sheen on the very surface of the tile caused by mild acids either in the atmosphere or applied to the tile surface. Many cleaning solutions are very mild acids for example lemon juice and vinegar which were extensively used as cleaners in times gone by, the acid reduces the metal oxides forming the glaze colours leaving molecules of pure metal in the surface. Usually only visible when the tile is seen at an acute angle to the light source, rarely noticeable otherwise, it is rather like and sometimes confused with intended lustre finish. Sometimes called 'oil on water effect' and mistakenly praised as a feature it is true to say that on occasion particularly when it is consistent across the tile's surface it can look most appealing. Usually occurs near the edges of tiles where a little cleaning solution has been trapped behind a frame, only noticeable on darker glazes, green is the most liable to iridescence.
As a very common effect on antique tiles we will not note it unless it is visible when the tile is viewed reasonably directly, like clean crazing on old tiles if you look for it you can find it but for the most part it has no visual impact.
Verso (also called backs or reverses)
We often use the term 'verso' which means 'back', 'on the back of' and variations thereof in art and antiques. In the coin world it is the side of a coin or medal that does not bear the principal design, in the art world it refers to the back of the painting and drawing where the artist etc. may have written and so forth. It's just a little less wordy than writing 'on the back of', 'the back has' etc. every time and is clear in its meaning.
Backs of tiles aren't meant to be seen so we ignore the lesser imperfections which are mostly chips and firing imperfections unless they also appear on the front of the tile or materially impact it's strength. From time to time we have tiles that have been nibbled along the back usually to fit in to an iron fireplace frame or washstand back, we will mention this unless it is little more than the corner chamfered off only verso. Most of our tiles have all the adhesive residue removed if required (many of our tiles come from furniture and were fixed by nails around the edges or screws at the intersections rather than adhesive), should any adhesive remain it will be at most 2mm thickness and not materially impact fixing or displaying the tile.
Some minimal loss of clay can occur when tiles are removed from their backing, this surprisingly perhaps is most often found in tiles removed from furniture. Furniture glue when used is heated to become less viscous and adheres very well to the clay on the back of the tile a little of which can be left on the board when the tile is removed. Of course judiciously warming the board first will soften the adhesive and aid removal of tiles.
If a perfect example of the tile would be £100 then for:
£85 - £95
£80 - £90
£75 - £85
£70 - £80
£65 - £75
£55 - £65
£40 - £60
Quality of decorating and manufacture affect prices, one or two very small flaws are to be expected and make little difference but all are taken into consideration. In lesser conditions relatively common tiles will be marked down more than rarer tiles.
Shiny objects with a high brilliance have an almost universal appeal, from diamonds to fruit to polished surfaces. Most decorative objects have high gloss or polished surfaces and the brighter the shine the more appealing it is. Even a watercolour painting looks much more appealing when behind glass.
A purely technical definition fails to encapsulate the visual effect, a chip on one tile can and will have more or less impact than a chip of precisely the same dimensions on another tile. Descriptions therefore to some minor extent temper technical and aesthetic considerations, evaluating the visual impact of marks compared to how the tile would look if it in were perfect condition.
The standard of decoration, printing, colouring and glazing is taken in to consideration when evaluating. For my personal collection I will often prefer a tile perfectly made but with subsequent minor marks over a tile in perfect condition but with manufacturing imperfections.
The most distracting defect is where the focus of the design, usually the centre of the tile, is marked. This will be wear, stun marks, scratches or debris trapped in the glaze from the firing in the kiln. Chips to the edges may be more noticeable at first glance but are usually not so distracting in the longer term. Edge chips which are well away from the design and hence do not interfere with the design are less critical than a scratch on the focal point. Marks on the bottom edge are usually less noticeable than marks on sides or top edges as most people display tiles on a shelf. Where the tile has a decorative border, usually transfer printed tiles, small marks often blend in to the decoration and have less impact.
Some damage to tiles was caused to facilitate the original fitting of the tile. Most often this is corners cropped to allow a screw to be inserted at the intersection where four tiles meet. This is for dry fixing, most often in furniture but we have seen tiles on walls and ceilings held up by this method. Sometimes tile's edges were trimmed, when the edge was to be hidden by a cast iron frame in a fireplace or wooden frame in furniture this is usually quite crudely done. Where the tile was part of a slabbed panel on occasion the trimming has been done with such skill that it is difficult to see and is almost a work of art in itself. Damage for original fixing has slightly less impact on the value of the tile than subsequent damage.
Fireplace and architectural dealers often adopt a lower standard when describing condition with some justification when tiles are sold for refixing, most fireplace tiles have some edges hidden by the iron frame. Tiles sold as collectors items or decorative arts should use the same standard of descriptions as decorative pottery, metalware etc.
Top corners cropped for original fitting are well away from the design and don't detract too much. Cropped top corners are close to the leaves but well away from the focus of the design. The brightness of the flower draws the eye so the cropped corners don't detract as much. Here cropped top corners are quite close to the side flowers and the focus of the design not as strong. Being a single colour tile there is less to draw the eye away. Cropped bottom corners are well away from the focus of the design and have negligible impact The deliberate and expertly filed down left edge on the left tile is less of a detracting defect than the accidental glaze chip to the top right corner of the right tile. Cropped bottom corners are well away from the focus of the design and don't detract much at all. Cropped bottom corners are close to the design (but not the focus of the design). Even though the eye is drawn to the flowerheads near the top they do detract quite a lot.Fireplace Tiles
Sets of tiles for fireplaces are not required to be in such good condition as collectors tiles as they will be viewed from several feet away whilst seated in a chair or on a sofa rather than an individual tile which may be inspected close to. Damage to some edges is usually hidden behind the frame in cast iron fireplaces. Tiles in 'average' or 'fair' condition look just fine in a fireplace and restored tiles are quite acceptable, nevertheless many of our fireplace tile sets are in excellent order throughout.
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