Teapots from Yixing, in the coastal province of Jiangsu, north of Shanghai, were being made in the 16th century, and possibly earlier. But in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, under the Kangxi emperor, production was raised to a new level with the use of the brightly colored enamels that were discovered at the time. They were made of a porous clay found only in the province, which absorbs some of the tea infusion as it brews, slowly building up an inner coating that retains the tea’s flavor and color.
“These teapots maintained the best flavor, color and aroma of the teas,” said Taha Bouqdib, president of TWG Tea, a gourmet tea brand. “Connoisseurs of Yixing teapots, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, do not hesitate to spend a fortune to collect certain ancestral teapots signed by celebrated potters — not unlike collectors of Sèvres, Saxe or Herend porcelain in Europe.”
Not only are tea connoisseurs interested in the Yixing pieces, but art collectors as well.
Yixing teapots come in many shapes but their designs are usually simple and often strikingly modern. A plain-looking 1948 Zisha teapot by the grand master Gu Jingzhou, adorned with calligraphic engravings, sold for a record of nearly $2 million at a China Guardian auction in Beijing last year.
“This price really reflected the teapot’s maker, who is considered the most important 20th-century master potter,” said Julian King, Bonhams’ specialist in Chinese art. “In the Beijing market there is a particular emphasis on contemporary masters for Zisha teapots. Like contemporary art, some people prefer to buy contemporary stoneware where they feel there is no authenticity issue,” he said.
“Yixing potters during the late Kangxi period really did excel themselves in their art as exemplified by the works of Chen Mingyuan,” said Tsang Chi Fan, senior specialist in Chinese ceramics at Christie’s Hong Kong.
In November, Bonhams offered several 18th- and 19th-century teapots in a Hong Kong sale of pieces from the Gerard Hawthorn Collection, described as one of the world’s greatest single-owner collections of Yixing stoneware. Julian King, Bonhams’ specialist in Chinese art, said the 100 lots auctioned were rivaled only by the K.S. Lo collection, donated to the Hong Kong Museum and now housed in the Flagstaff Tea Museum in Hong Kong Park.
While many teapots in the Hawthorn collection were mass produced, and thus commanding prices less than $4,000 a piece, some pieces soared above $100,000. Though rising in the past couple of years, prices for Yixing stoneware have lagged behind other ceramics, such as Qing dynasty imperial porcelain. Yixing pottery offers new collectors an opportunity to buy affordable pieces now that can turn a profit later.
photo credit: christie’s