Fake Railroad China: L&N "Spongeware" Pitcher

In Summer, 2005, a questionable piece of railroad china surfaced in an internet auction. The piece was a "spongeware" pitcher about 7 1/4" tall and 5 1/2" wide at the base. Its color was base white with an irregular blue pattern that appeared to be made by dabbing blue color with a natural sponge (hence the name). On the bottom of the pitcher was the backstamp "Louisville & Nashville Railroad" followed by "Old Reliable" in quotes on the second line. The latter was interpreted by the seller as the manufacturer. The exterior was described as perfect, but the interior had considerable crazing (cracking of the glaze). The seller represented the piece as dating from the late 19th or early 20th Century and likely off a private car. Final auction price was well over three hundred dollars.

Unfortunately this L&N pitcher appears to be a recent fantasy piece. "Fantasy" railroad china is china that does not resemble anything actually used by the railroads, hence it cannot literally be considered a reproduction. Rather, it is china that simply has a railroad marking applied to it as if -- in a parallel universe -- it saw railroad use. See more on fantasy china. This particular piece was covered by Doug McIntyre, noted railroad china author, in a supplement to his book The Official Guide to Dining Car China. Doug generously provided the following comments:

"I saw the first ones in late 1994 at the Gaithersburg show. There were two there and I received calls on two others within the next few months. Based on information from others, approximately 10 of them turned up over the next several months. I found it odd that no one had heard of such a piece, then 10 -- that I can account for -- appeared in a matter of a few months.

Based on the reported locations of all that I became aware of, I would surmise that they were created in the Southeast . . . which makes sense based on the railroad.

I believe the pitchers themselves are newly made, as I have seen ones identical in dimension in shops which sell them as "replicas" of old pitchers. The plain pitchers I have seen are plain white, and the L&N ones are created by applying both the spongeware effect and the L&N markings (both in the same cobalt blue color) and then firing them in a decorating kiln. Decorating kilns fire at lower temperature than normal kilns used to harden base glazes and, as such, allow the decoration applied over the glaze to fuse and become part of the finish while not effecting the original base glaze. Decoration so applied can be felt as a separate layer as the decoration melts and fuses but does not melt the glaze below. I can't imagine many of these pitchers were made as this is the first one [on the internet] I have seen or heard of in many years.

The depth/darkness of the decoration varied greatly on examples I saw ranging from a light blue to deep cobalt blue -- another sign to me that these pieces were not done by a major pottery but rather done a few at a time by a small time operator.

On most of the examples that I saw the white glaze had checking, which might have come from the added time in the decorating kiln. The blue decoration did not show such checking, adding to the belief that it was added at a later date.

On the examples seen it appeared the foot or base of the base had been unglazed. To apply the markings to the base, they first applied a white glaze to the center, leaving un unglazed outer ring. The decoration was then applied and the bottom (except for the aforementioned outer ring) overglazed to encase the transfer and the white glaze beneath. This gives a very odd and decidedly "not old" appearance to the foot of the piece.

"Old Reliable" is the nickname of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad." [End of Doug's comments]

At the risk of repeating advice given elsewhere on our website, this L&N pitcher episode illustrates some key points that collectors use in detecting fakes:

  • Beware of anything that is previously undocumented and that shows up in *any* quantity. There are indeed railroad china patterns that are newly discovered, but these are very rare and almost always one-of-a-kind pieces, usually special tests or samples. Given several decades of research and collector scrutiny, the likelihood of discovering a new china pattern that was used on a railroad is low, not zero, but low.
  • Learn railroad china styles. Railroads were extremely concerned that the china used in their dining cars projected an image of excellence befitting the company. Generally, railroad china designs tended to be conservative and refined, some might even say "bland" by today's standards. While there were variations in craftsmanship among different manufacturers, authentic railroad china generally has a high quality appearance, even accounting for wear and tear. Any "railroad china" that looks gaudy or shoddy or that looks like a product of a country craft fair should be highly suspect.
  • Learn backstamps. The backstamp was (and is) the way that a china company indicated that they produced a piece. Not all railroad china had railroad backstamps but most had manufacturer's backstamps, and this can provide important information regarding authenticity. While the list of documented manufacturers that produced railroad china is fairly large, "Old Reliable" -- which was claimed as the manufacturer of the L&N pitcher -- isn't one of them. In fact, "Old Reliable" is the time-honored nickname of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, and the manufacturer claim should have been a red flag in the auction listing.
  • Finally, beware of the defense that an item is not "proven" to be a fake and that the "experts can be wrong". Yes, the experts can be wrong, but it is *not* the case that an item is considered authentic until proven otherwise. Rather, it's up to the seller to prove that the item is indeed authentic, especially in the face of evidence or consensus that similar items are fake. Put another way: between a seller who is financially motivated to say that his item is authentic versus a community of collectors who are mainly interested in keeping fakes out of the hobby, who would you trust?

Thanks to Doug McIntyre for his comments!