It was the autumn of 1398. In his Nanjing palace, Ming dynasty founding emperor Hongwu was about to issue an edict that would forever change the way the Chinese brewed tea. Having grown weary of the laborious manner in which powdered tea (the predecessor of modern-day Japanese matcha) was prepared by the elite in the preceding Song and Yuan dynasties, Emperor Hongwu decreed that all tribute tea would be in the form of loose leaves.
The consumption of loose leaf tea itself was nothing new, but the practice was associated with peasants and the working class. Hongwu might have ascended the dragon throne, but he had grown up as the son of peasants. His decree to establish a new norm represented a watershed moment for the literati, inspiring the creation of new types of teaware. Pots and cups to steep and sip tea replaced tea ewers, bowls and bamboo whisks.
By the early 1500s, tea drinkers were experimenting with teapots made from different materials. Porcelain was the most common, followed by pewter and silver. The clay vessels from Yixing in Jiangsu province, however, were gaining popularity among the connoisseurs.
Known simply as Yixing zisha (literally, “purple clay”) teapots, they were moulded from clay found only in Yixing. Examples include duanni, zini and hongni. Typically left unglazed, the clay’s mineral constituents coupled with its unique porosity and heat retention properties meant that such teapots lent themselves extraordinarily well to brewing tea. In An Account of Yangxian Teapots, the first known monograph on teapots from Yixing – known as Yangxian before it was renamed – that dates back to approximately 1640, Ming dynasty poet-author Zhou Gao Qi wrote: “Teapots made from such clay are able to enhance the colour, fragrance and flavour of tea. Those made by renowned craftsmen weigh very little but cost 10 to 20 pieces of gold. As a result, the price of gold now is rivalled by the price of such clay.” Indeed, in the 21st century, such teapots – and especially those made by famous potters and ceramic artists such as Shi Dabin, Chen Mingyuan, Shao Daheng and Gu Jingzhou – are still much sought after for their peerless tea-brewing properties.
For instance, at China Guardian’s 2010 Spring Auction in Beijing, a 1948 zisha teapot made by Gu Jingzhou sold for a staggering 12.3 million yuan (S$2.5 million). Holding the record as the most expensive Yixing vessel sold by an international auction house, however, is a pumpkin-shaped teapot. It was previously in the collection of K S Lo, founder of Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong. Bearing the seal of Chen Mingyuan and dating back to the Kangxi-Yongzheng period (1661 to 1735), it went under the hammer at Christie’s Hong Kong in June 2011 for HK$8.4 million (S$1.5 million).
But the acquisition and appraisal of Yixing teapots and accessories are not without challenges. “It is important to compare and study seal marks and any inscriptions carefully, and to consider the weight and patina,” explains Chi Fan Tsang, head of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department at Christie’s Asia Pacific. “Condition is also important as Yixing teapots crack easily. Fissures, especially on the mouth rim and handle, are extremely fine, making them difficult to spot with the naked eye. Provenance and any published material will add to an object’s value.”
While Tsang is optimistic about the market for collecting antique Yixing vessels, she cautions: “Do not necessarily think of buying for investment; that way you will never be disappointed. The future of the Yixing teapot market is healthy as long as buyers do their homework and, as with most cases in the world of collecting antiques, seek advice from specialists.
“Antique Yixing teapots will always be collectible. There is an increasing awareness for good quality Yixing on the market in recent years and, since quantity is limited, this will keep the chase more enticing for collectors.”
(Related: Why you should be drinking more tea)
Training to spot Yixing teaware
Currently, there is no scientific method for appraising antique Yixing teaware. Determining authenticity is reliant on one’s knowledge and experience, and through examinations of the styles – such as the subtle curvatures of spouts and handles – and eccentricities of particular artists and potters.
Chi Fan Tsang, head of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department at Christie’s Asia Pacific, advises collectors to handle as many pieces as possible before buying. “This gives an understanding of what a ceramic vessel should feel like in the hand, its weight and the quality of the painting, if any.” She adds that it is crucial to pay attention to shapes and proportions, and the clay used.
Lim Soon Huat
An accountant by training, Lim Soon Huat was introduced to Yixing teapots when he was a secondary school student by his Chinese language teacher. “I was only about 17,” he remembers. “During lessons, my teacher would brew tea on the side and share it with all of us. It made me fall in love with tea-drinking.”
In 1995, Lim purchased his first teapot that was crafted between 1978 and 1983 for RM20. But his collecting journey really took off only from 1997 when he moved to Singapore, where he has a business in signage and printing. Today, his collection includes over a thousand antique Yixing teapots, which is likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The majority are dated before 1949, with a bulk of them made during the Qing dynasty. His most prized is a Meirenjian teapot named for its beautiful curves that resemble a woman’s shoulders. It was made between the 40th and 60th year of Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1735 to 1796. “I can’t estimate its current value but I would never sell this pot,” says Lim. “It’s a priceless item. Generally, teapots from this era are auctioned for about $70,000.”
To the 47-year-old, collecting antique Yixing teaware is an enjoyable pastime that complements and elevates his interest in drinking tea. Monetary rewards are not his primary consideration, but he recognises the high investment potential.
“Appraising the quality and value of old Yixing teapots is complicated. Compared to teapots, one is probably better off investing in watches. However, if you truly love Yixing teapots and you know the market well, it is as good an investment as any. I treat my collection as a hobby and an investment.
“I used to buy these things cheap but over the years, they have seen a manifold increase in value. Also, with the greater scarcity and demand today, I am able to trade some of my earlier acquisitions to upgrade my collection.”
In the two decades he has been collecting antique Yixing teapots, Eric Chua has amassed over a thousand, some of which are displayed at his restaurant. Chua’s love affair with them began in his formative years, when he accompanied his father to the now defunct Zhong Qiao emporium to shop for tea and teaware.
“It wasn’t until 2000 that I started collecting Yixing teapots on a more serious level,” says the 47-year-old. “And it was my love for tea drinking that led me to buy my first teapot at a flea market in Chinatown.”
His extensive collection has since grown to include teapots dating back to at least the 1800s and it is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One that he holds dear is a modest looking piece made from a vermilion coloured clay called zhuni, bearing Chinese seal marks of Mo Yuan Zhai Yi Tang Zhi and Fu Ji, both indications of authenticity. Although simple in form, the intricate workmanship suggests it could have been made by someone as talented as Wang Yin Chun, one of the most accomplished Yixing masters of the 20th century.
“I bought this about six years ago for a little over $2,000,” Chua says as he places the pot, no larger than the size of a kiwi fruit, in his palm. “Today, it is valued between $10,000 and $20,000. It was this that catapulted me into collecting antique Yixing teapots and opened up an entirely different world.”
Another gem in his collection is a remarkably rare teapot dating back to the early 1800s, which he acquired at an auction in 2015. The exterior is covered in an exquisite, creamy white glaze known as fencai, and the teapot holds a removable strainer.
“Old teapots are becoming rarer and harder to obtain,” Chua says, adding that potters of old, who laboured in an era of hardship and manual work, took their craft far more seriously. “The workmanship on these features a kind of meticulousness that just isn’t found on modern teapots.”
Within the quiet confines of his tea room at his private residence, Daniel Tay brews tea in a pot with a patinated surface that softly glows. “It’s a puerh tea from the 1970s,” he discloses. Sitting back, he takes a few moments to relish its flavour in silence. A smile of satisfaction breaks across his face as he enthuses: “You get a very different sensation when you brew well-aged vintage tea in antique Yixing teapots.”
It was in fact Tay’s relentless pursuit of the most appropriate tea-brewing vessels that led him to antique Yixing teapots. “I first started buying them about 10 years ago. At the time, it was not a serious hobby yet,” he says. “Gradually, I found myself buying more antique Yixing teapots and admiring the beauty and quality of the clay and workmanship.”
Tay’s rate of acquiring teapots may have slowed in the last two to three years as he’s been using the time to focus on his current collection, but when an attractive offer presents itself, the 50-year-old is not one to pass it up. Just last year, Christie’s UK put up a lot featuring an elegant Yixing teapot decorated with fine reticulated panels on the sides and lid, surmounted by a lid knob fashioned in the shape of a squirrel. Taking advantage of the fact that the Emperor Kangxi-era pot from the 17th and 18th century was going for below what it would normally cost, Tay purchased it at a price he found satisfactory. “It’s rare to come across such offerings, and I really like how unique it looks and feels.”
At present, he is happy with a concise and carefully assembled collection of about 50 teapots. His estimation of its value is conservative – at about $10,000 – although the actual market value of some items may be much higher.
Tay believes it is important for collectors to buy at the right time and at the right price. Part of the fun, he says, is in treasure hunting and collecting at attractive prices.“But the greatest joy of owning antique Yixing teapots is in admiring their beauty and using them for tea,” says Tay. “I don’t necessarily buy them as investment pieces, but I do see them as individual works of art with a functional purpose. It is true that many pieces gain value over time, but the greatest reward is in using them and seeing them develop better patina. That, above all, gives me immense satisfaction.”
If there is a seasoned collector in Singapore who is familiar with how the prices of antique Yixing teapots have skyrocketed, it would be Kenny Tan. He started collecting them in the late 1980s by following his friend, a seasoned collector and experienced buyer, to countless shops and homes.
By the 1990s, his personal collection had grown to include several teapots dating back to the Qing dynasty.
He says, “Very few people collected Yixing teapots in those days. I even ran an ad in the papers every Saturday offering to purchase them. In one instance, I bought close to 200 teapots from the family of a collector who had passed away suddenly. They did not know what else to do with the collection.”
Tan, 55, now owns a collection numbering about 7,000 teapots, which he has acquired through auctions and sourcing in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia. The majority date back to the Qing dynasty and the 20th century.
He also has two teapots that are as old as the Ming dynasty (from 1368 to 1644). The value of his entire collection is estimated to be several million dollars.
His crown jewel is a zisha teapot made for the imperial court of Emperor Qianlong (1735 to 1796). ”I came across this in the late 1990s or early 2000s. It belonged to an antique dealer who purchased it in the 1960s for US$1,000. He even showed me the original receipt,” Tan relates. “It took me two years to convince him to sell it to me. I paid $8,000. Today, it would fetch several hundred thousand dollars at an auction.”
Two other notable teapots in his collection were made by Gu Jingzhou, whom Tan considers to be one of the greatest Yixing masters. “There is no one person in all of history who has ever made a teapot that sold for more than Gu Jingzhou’s.”
When it comes to their investment potential, Tan is confident. Current market prices indicate that a high demand.
Teapots he bought for less than $50 in the past can fetch $1,000 today, and those that he bought for $1,000 fetch more than tenfold the price.
“Rare, good quality antiques are naturally scarce,” he asserts confidently. “The market for antique Yixing zisha teapots exists not just in Singapore, but also in China, Thailand, and it is growing. In another decade or two, they will fetch even higher prices. It’s a consequence of supply and demand.”