When I first moved to China, I knocked around the back streets and roads, as I always do. During my explorations, I bought a few old teapots. Personally, I always rely on my own judgment in buying art. I have made my own art, in a number of mediums; I bought my first ceramic art, back in 1970. I studied art, I have had friends who are artists, and I have been dealing in various forms of art since that first purchase (which was sold only with the sale of my country inn, in 2000). I did not spend a lot of money on those teapots, and I liked them. As it turned out they were fakes of very famous teapot art, so I was not off the mark in my old teapot appreciation.
Over the years, I have learned a lot about Chinese Yixing zisha teapots, old and new. As it turns out, for old teapots, many people started making copies (fakes) of old teapots and aging them (bathtub full of dirt; then, dry). Actually, I am familiar with the basic techniques from my business making furniture and folk art reproductions and my other business of buying and selling the real thing. To make aged painted furniture, for example, we used old nails and milk paint and buried it in manure for a week. Brass can be aged by putting it in a place with fumes from ammonia. Then, we just used old glass with bubbles in it to make cabinets that looked antique. The point is that that is nothing new. People have been making both fakes and reproductions of many forms of art for many years.
In teapots, the situation is much worse, on a number of fronts. First of all, the way in which teapots have been signed by an artist, off and on, over the past several hundred years, is with that artist’s or factory’s stamps, which have the Chinese characters of their names, sometimes, somewhat stylized. The stamp is usually on the bottom of the pot, which appears to have begun with the Gong Chun teapot. Later, marks were also included on the underside of the lid, and underneath the handle, although there are variations. We have also heard of a tradition that the direction of the stamp should be along the axis of handle and spout facing front, but, then, we have seen that particular rule also violated. Before the late 1800’s, it was also common for carved lettering to appear on teapot surfaces. Some specific details also apply to certain periods. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, wooden seals were used with Chinese characters but no actual names. In the 1960’s, a cooperative was formed, and all teapots were stamped only with Zhong Guo Yi Xing.
However, it was also common, during that period, for artists to put their own seals under the lid. During the cultural revolution of 1966 to 1976, artists were not permitted to put their seals on teapots but were assigned a number. The point is that it is easy to make a copy of the stamp from the original stamp impressions on original teapots, which can also be done with carved lettering. Before the 1960’s, impressions of the original seals were taken with red wax, which made a slightly smaller seal that the original. These days it is done by computer. In comparison, it is much more difficult, for example, to forge the written signature of an artist, Chinese or Western, although that also is not impossible, and many forged paintings of past artists have turned up over the years. In fact, the use of a black light can also sometimes help to reveal fakes, in paintings.
The next thing is materials. As I mentioned, when we made reproductions of furniture and folk art, we used nails that were made by a company the same way for 200 years. We used milk paint that was also made the same way for several hundred years. Then, we could also get hardware that was antique, and we could even get wooden boards that were several hundred years old. We, then, finished pieces with our own homemade finishes, using the same materials that had been used for making finishes for hundreds of years. In teapots, there is old clay available because, for example, teapot artist families have been buying clay from Yixing mines for many, many years and have passed some of it down through the generations. However, one of the real differences for older clay and older teapots is that the particle size of the rock powder making up the clay was about twice as large, in the mid-Qing Dynasty, about three times as large in the early Qing Dynasty, and about five times as large, in the Ming period. Thus, at least you should expect teapots to appear rougher, the further back you go, although that same sort of roughness can be seen even with more recent clays.
The other thing about teapots is that, although actual original teapots by a famous artist have a definite appearance, that is only an approximate circumstance. First of all, since each is made by hand, there might be slight variations from one to the next, although minor. Secondly, there is nothing equivalent to, for example, the “signature” brushstrokes that one might observe in an oil painting by a famous artist, for teapot art. For example, we recently saw a copy of a teapot by a contemporary artist with whom we are familiar. There was nothing at all wrong with it, technically, but it happened that the signature was put at an improper place, according to our knowledge from owning an original. In fact, we would have bought the copy, but it was also priced at a higher price than we have to pay for originals. More importantly, part of the actual learning process for making Yixing teapots is to copy those of your mentor and of other famous artists, so copying masterworks is even built into the instructional system of the art. We even have an artist friend who specializes in making copies, down to the last detail, of famous teapots, although he does not sell them as anything more than reproductions. We see other great copies of famous and not so famous contemporary and past teapots, all around. From what we hear from our dealer sources and from our sources, in Yixing, itself, over ninety percent of the famous-name or antique teapots that have been sold over the last few decades, as originals, are actually fakes, especially those that were sold to foreign buyers, during that time. We have seen similar numbers quoted in other articles about antique teapots.
Yixing teapots have been sold to the rest of the world for several hundred years, having been shipped with tea by European tea companies to European countries. Even as early as the late 1600’s, both Dutch and English potters made fake Yixing teapots because the ones being imported from China were all the rage. Others were also shipped to Asian countries, for example, gongju teapots to Thailand. So, it is not impossible for old Yixing teapots to be found outside China, in addition to those that were not shipped outside but were later purchased by foreign buyers from mainland sellers. However, with those shipped in earlier centuries, you have to figure that not many were shipped, in the first place, and few survived since most people did not consider them to be that special and ceramics are easily breakable. Even the Sunbeam Tiger automobile from the 1960’s that I owned in the 1990’s only had about one third of the original production left by that time, just twenty-some years later. In addition, as you go back in time, there were very few teapot artists; it is not the thousands that we have, today, someof whom mass produce teapots. As a result, Yixing teapots bought by foreign buyers from China over the last several decades are considered by most of us, in China, today, to be fairly suspect.
We recently were, in fact, approached by a foreign seller who said he wanted to sell his collection of about one hundred antique teapots beck to China. Over the last several years, many foreign sellers have sold their teapots through local auctions, knowing that there was a price bubble in some sectors of the teapot market. This seller, who approached us, through the internet, sent us some pictures of rather common looking teapots, which he told us to show to any dealer and they would immediately know what they were. Now, we are not experts in antique teapots, but we know some, in dealers, and in Yixing multi-generational teapot art families. We also see thousands of teapots, both old and new, at the many teapot dealers, shops, studios and galleries that we pass through. We see fakes that are sold as fakes and fakes that we know are fakes from experience. Indeed, we had seen similar teapots, somewhere in our wanderings, but we sent the pictures along to our experts, too. What we got was ridicule for wasting their time.
In the end, making copies has been part of the art, itself, and copies and fakes have been around for centuries. The first wave of copies, in the twentieth century, was actually commissioned by several respected companies in Yixing and Shanghai, in the early 1900’s. They had the best artists of the day make copies of famous teapots from earlier periods, originally intended as reproductions. Eventually, those showed up in circulation offered as authentic, in later years. There was another wave of making fakes of all sorts of teapots beginning in the 1980’s, prompted by increased foreign demand due to the normalization of cross-strait relations with Taiwan, and it continues into today. Indeed, China is, now, famous for its copies of everything, and we see all sorts of things copied, from cigarettes to IPods and more.
Of course, as with any other art, provenance is a key in purchasing old and new teapots. For newer teapots, artists actually make up hand-written certification that it is their teapot, and that can be passed on from one owner to the next. It is much like getting the publisher’s certification for a 20th century lithograph by a famous artist. That is at one extreme. However, we even know a contemporary teapot artist who told us that he met a Taiwanese man at an exhibition, in New York City, who bought what was supposed to have been a teapot made by that artist, and he had paid around $20,000 for the teapot. He even had a written certification, but when the artist examined it, he said that the certification and the teapot were not genuine. He could tell because, although the forged hand-written signature was very good, the artist is actually left-handed, and the certificate was signed by a right-handed person. Our friends, in Yixing, who are both teapot artists and historical teapot scholars, tell us that often they see foreign collectors, who truly believe that they have authentic teapots because the good fakes are the only ones that they have ever seen or owned. I have even seen others comment on that in articles and blogs.
A few months back, my assistant was careless with a contemporary teapot that we have in the gallery and broke it. To make up for it, she went to a dealer, on Shamian Island, in Guangzhou, near the White Swan Hotel, the most expensive foreigner hotel, in town, who she thought might tell her where to get it repaired. Instead, he sold her an exact replica of our teapot that he said was made by the artist’s grandfather. It had a stamp on the bottom that was the same family name, and it was made to look old. Fortunately she paid only around $40 for it because after I got back from a short business trip, we called the artist, and she told us that her grandfather never even made teapots. So, there are even fakes, on the market, by people who never existed, which is something you could only know, if you have the right connections. It even seems that some of those foreign buyers do not even know the proper history of the teapots that they have bought. For example, just the other day we saw an advertisement on a Taiwan E-bay-like website to sell a gongju teapot, which teapots were actually made in the late Qing Dynasty, but on the website it said that it was from the Ming Dynasty, only a few centuries off the mark. Even the experts sometimes have trouble either detecting copies or in dating teapots. It is said that some experts are still arguing over the authenticity of the original Gong Chun teapot housed in the Museum, in Beijing. Of course, the Gong Chun teapot has been copied over and over, though the centuries, and even some of those copies can be valuable. In fact, we have a nice copy, and we see copies with various variations, everywhere, in the teapot markets.
At the other, provenance usually consists of the chain of ownership of the item. In that regard, sometimes a certification from a reputable art dealer is enough. On the other hand, I once bought a 19th century European painting by a known artist, from a reputable dealer with whom I had had many past dealing, and he had gotten it from a restorer, who gave his guarantee that it was authentic. In the end, I discovered that the artist’s name, just like one of our current artists, Xin Ming Xuan’s name, was misspelled in some major references about art 19th century artists, and the incorrect spelling was that, which was used to sign the painting I owned. Apparently, the restorer had “restored?” the signature, too. In the end, the dealer did take it back, but I saw it some years later, offered, again, by another dealer as an original.
As we said in another recent blog, we like to take the guess work out of art, at least, to the extent that that can be done. To that end, in teapots, we have contacts in many of the older artists whose work is being sold, in both originals and copies. We also have contacts in several teapot art dynasty families, so we can completely authenticate some teapots back through over a hundred years. We also have friends who have done a lot of dealing and research in older teapots, who know all of the tricks and pitfalls in the fakes markets.
As I said, I am not a superme expert in antique Yixing teapots, but I have a lot of on the ground experience in general teapots and the teapot markets, in China. I have been an expert, in a number of fields, including quantum field theory, functional analysis, securities and econometric analysis, merger arbitrage, securities law, fine inn keeping, art, making “antiques”, investment psychology, life in Modern China. I have also learned that one can find and use experts to help fill in knowledge and experience, and I can learn from them while I am using their services. In the end, currently, we do little buying in older teapots unless they are simply nice older teapots at reasonable prices, whether or not we know the name.
We like good art, and, while we would never say that a price on a work of art was too high just because of the dollar amount on the price tag. I have spent millions of dollars, personally, on art over the years. However, as an investor, I understand reasonable versus bubble prices, no matter if it is oil prices, the price of the Chinese stock market, prices for folk art from the 18th century, or real estate prices in Guangzhou (the real arbitrage, there, is to rent: we pay Y3,000 per month rent, whereas the owner has a mortgage of over Y8,000 per month = losing proposition for the owner). Teapot prices are already too high for works of some contemporary artists, never mind those for works of famous dead artists. A true indicator of that fact is the number of foreign sellers over the last few years who have put their old teapots up for auction, in mainland China. In other Chinese art, everyone is looking to go the other direction and sell outside the mainland, be it in Hong Kong, London, or New York.
You can see some Yixing teapots and links to some other antique teapot sites on our site and blog. You can easily find a number of references about zisha clay, Yixing teapots, famous teapot artists over the last several centuries, and teapot art by searching the web.