This is a huge area that I am learning more and more about as time goes on. My friends consigned a large number of brass and some copper items with me and of course, before putting them in Space 23, I wanted to make sure I learned about the items.
For definition purposes – Copper is copper and brass is an alloy of copper, zinc, and other metals. Bronze, on the other hand is made of copper and tin.
First of all – hallmarks. Silver almost always has hallmarks – the stamps which can tell you whether it is sterling, coin silver, when it was made, where it was made, and who made it – which is great because with better provenience you can get better prices.
Brass and copper – not so much. This is especially true when you are looking at brass or copper from Korea, China, or Japan – which if it dates from the late 1800s to the present day is usually just marked with the name of the country it came from – which is done to comply with import laws. While much of this is very finely made by artisan craftsmen who did all the work by hand – since we know little to nothing of the maker or where and when it was made – the value on these items is often far below what similar hallmarked items from France, Germany, or England would be. This is a great thing for the buyer but for the collector or seller – it is not so good. If you are looking for brass implements, decorative items, or art – eBay should be your first stopping point. I’ll tell you why – dealers charge a premium in their shops because they are paying rent and utilities. On eBay, it is the buyers who set the market and there is plenty to choose from.
Still there is a lot we can tell about metalware from the stamps –
For example – if it says Nippon – then it is probably dated from 1890-1915 and from Japan. The Japanese during this period used the proper anglicized name of their country but after 1915, it was reverted to Japan due to confusion among American consumers. From 1915 to 1930 it would be marked “Made in Japan” and from 1945 to 1950 “Made in Occupied Japan” and then just Japan. Of course, this only applies to items made for export to the United States – not to items that were made to export to other countries or for Japanese domestic use. So, when you find a mark it tells you something.
But, here’s the hitch – before 1890 items didn’t have to be marked. So if it isn’t marked it could be from anywhere if it is old or made for domestic use.
Things marked KOREA tend to be made in the 1970s to 1990s – but there is some margin for error there as well since not all brass makers in Korea switched to paper sticker labels in the 1990s and there were some brass Korean items marked Korea in the 1950s and 1960s – though not nearly as many due to the Korean conflict.
If items are marked British Hong Kong they are almost certainly 1950s. In the 1960s onwards they would simply be marked Hong Kong. ROC or Republic of China is 1949-1980 but in the mid 1970s there was a period where the mark was People’s Republic of China – if it’s only marked China – that dates it 1891 to 1949 or more possibly from 1978 onwards.
I should point out that items which are marked (signed) with Japanese, Chinese, or Korean characters can be incredibly valuable – or not. My recommendation is that you don’t sell anything before you know what it is.
Finally, brass and copper items from India are plentiful and very cheap. While many of these are finely made, the market is flooded with statues, figures, and plates from India. In general, these things are not very valuable, but there are always exceptions.