Dear Helaine and Joe:
Attached are pictures of three vases. The two uncovered ones are 10 inches high and the one with the top is 9 inches high. I am interested to know if you have seen anything like them before and what they might be called. They were owned by my great-grandfather who died in 1928. Just before he died, he took a freighter to Northern Africa for his health. So maybe these came from Morocco, which was one of his stops. As I've been told, he said these vases were called "moriacas," but the word means nothing to me. If you have an idea what they are, please let me know.
C. W., Manchester, N.H.
Dear C. W.:
One look at the photographs and we knew exactly what these were, where they came from and approximately how old they are. But the name "moriacas" threw us. We rolled it over in our heads, and then suddenly it made perfect phonetic sense, and we shared a big smile and an ah-ha moment.
First, let us say that these pieces were not made in Morocco, and it is unlikely that your great-grandfather bought them there on his trip. Instead, this set of three vases, intended to be a mantel garniture set, was made in Japan. (There were perhaps as many as five pieces at one time, with two more covered vases being possible.)
We wish a photograph of the bottom had been included with C. W.'s letter, but failing this, we note the buff-colored clay that appears to make up the body is consistent with items made in the Satsuma region on the island of Kyushu. However, a Tokyo or Kyoto origin cannot be ruled out without an examination of the marks (if any) and the clay body.
Viewing the photographs of the pieces from a distance, we thought they were very fine work, but a closer inspection revealed the artistry - though above average certainly - is not as fine as we initially thought. No, these originated circa 1920. They are of export quality, but they are very attractive and boldly designed with traditional motifs interpreted in a modern context.
Now, to work on the term "moriacas." We believe that C. W.'s great-grandfather meant "moriaga," which is a Japanese technique of decorating ceramics with raised clay and enamels. The technique uses liquid clay called slip that is applied in several different ways, including using a rubber syringe or bamboo tube.
Sometimes the technique was used to make outlines or raised borders, but it was also used to create areas of decoration such as the wisteria-like flowers seen on the vases belonging to C. W. The designs on the vases are quite dramatic and very colorful and relatively well done. But it is a shame the objects appear to be extensively damaged.
One top rim has been broken and glued back together, and we see a few chips here and there. To us, this suggests the condition issue may be worse than we can see in the photos. This limits our opinion of the monetary value considerably. In perfect condition, these might have been worth just a little south of $1,000, but in this condition we suspect a retail value of less than $500.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you'd like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at email@example.com. If you'd like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.