Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Ancient Tools of Chinese Teamaking

This item is SOLD.

Today I went to an estate sale.  It was an absolute bust.  On the way home, I spotted a sign that said “Attic in the Street”.  The whole block was shut down and it was full of yard sales.  I had to stop, because you never know.  I found parking and began to make my way through the tables.  A woman next to me started speaking with me and said she was an antiques dealer and there was a man with a jeweler’s loop studying cufflinks (which I later bought).  The competition was pretty rough.  A beautiful morning on a crowded street around 8:30.
I was making my second pass through on the way out and I spotted something.  I’ve been reading about jade lately.  So, I have the tone of jade in the forefront of my attention.  Spectrum really, because jade has so much variation.  Jade, or nephrite, can be nearly white to deep green and lots of other possibilities as well.  Anyhow, I spotted a near translucent piece of pale jade on a very short teapot.  It was interesting immediately.  Normally, I don’t go for Asian antiques.  Too much I don’t know.  Too much fake stuff.  It’s a challenge for me, not having grown up with any exposure to it.  But, this was interesting.  Not only did the teapot have a jade handle, but a jade spout and a jade knob on its little square top.

The Maker's Mark
of Fan Shuzeng

I picked it up.  My immediate reaction was that it was sterling silver.  It was covered in Chinese characters on one side engraved into the metal.  On the other, was a graceful flower.  It screamed old.  I carefully lifted the lid and inside was a large and intricate hallmark.  I had to buy it.  But, I had no cash!  I asked the man if he wouldn’t mind holding it for ten minutes while I hit the ATM.  Sure, he said, no problem.
Got cash, bought the teapot, and headed home, eager to do some research.  Chinese teapots are not my field of expertise.  I began reading about Chinese silver and realized that actually the Chinese aren’t well known for their silver work.  So, I thought, it’s pewter.  After a bit of searching, I chanced upon a website that had exactly what I was looking for.  A blog post: turned me on to the term “Yixing” which is the type of teapot I purchased.  From there, I got to Christie’s and saw that Yixing teapot with jade handle at auction in 2005 went for $3,466.00 and though the style is a bit different, I was getting excited.  Though it certainly seems costly, I spotted one nearly identical to mine selling out of Beijing on for about $10,000.  I don’t speak Chinese, so I needed to get more information and I found a guy named Chris in London who is an expert at pewter encased Yixing teapots.  Amazing!
I sent him the photos and he wrote back with the following incredibly scholarly email:

“Hi Nathan,
One Similar to Mine
Listed in Beijing
at 10K

Now that is very curious would you believe that earlier this week I saw another almost the same and inscribed by the same scholar.  At first I thought it was the same one but the poem is different.  I have attached the picture of the other one.
The scholar is Er Quan who was well known both for inscribing pewter pots and traditional style yixing wares.  Your pot doesn't appear to be dated, some are marked with a cyclical date in the chinese style, but yours would probably dates between 1830-40.  The inside would normally have a yixing inner lining with a seal  stamped on the bottom of the inside of the pot.  ON your pot if present it will on the raised section between the two feet.  Most examples I have seen signed by Er Quan the pots were made by Fan Shuzheng who was possibly one of the most prolific makers of pewter encased pots.

Inscription by Scholar
Er Quan on my Teapot

The shape of your teapot is actually derived from an ancient Chinese  bronze coin called a Spade coin.  I am not sure I have ever seen this shape in other materials but this the seventh one I have seen in pewter so quite popular.  If you are able to get a shot of the inside of the pot assuming there is anything inside to photograph I will try and confirm who the maker is.
Hope this helps.  If you have any other questions feel free to ask."
I had hoped that Chris could translate the poem for me, and give me a value for the item and I called on his obviously deep knowledge base for a bit more.  He responded with the following:

Flower Pattern
on the Teapot

"Thanks for the photographs.  I was right, it is definitely Fan Shuzeng.  Ah translate the poem, sigh I really wish I could but this is something only the very best Chinese scholars can do and sadly I am not even remotely close to being that.  Though the calligraphic style is quite accessible he uses early nineteenth century characters,  many of which have fallen out of use and not in current dictionaries but many have been simplified so most mainland Chinese would struggle with them.  The old style traditional characters are only used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.  To compound the problem the poems often use references that are very obscure to non Chinese scholars so even if you can crack the characters the results can seem very bizarre.  On one of my pots the poem made reference to drinking sparrows tongue which was pretty odd until I discovered that this was a type of loose leaf green tea!"
It is simply astounding that you can contact a brilliant collector in London and have all the information you could possibly need, including a price to end an extremely successful day antiquing.  Thank you, Chris.  And, here is his blog, which if you are interested in these types of teapots, you will find extremely informative:
As an addendum, a very kind scholar in Hong Kong translated the teapot!  It reads:

"Plum was adopted as a symbol of the literati.
They enjoy the wine under the moonlight."


  1. Nice piece. We promote Chinese Silver. Maybe we can write a guest blog article if you dun mind. Our website is at

    1. Absolutely. I would welcome your article, especially if you would consider allowing me to do the same. I would love to write an article on Chinese export silver for yours!