Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Yixing find

my small (but growing) collection
In this part of the country (maybe everywhere, I don't know) we have these places called "antique malls."  Its usually a very large building with rows and aisles of shelves and display cabinets in which anyone can rent a small space to sell their old items.  There are dozens (or even hundreds in very large buildings) of individual sellers with items for sale in any one 'mall.'  Its sort of like an enormous concentrated yard sale but without all the outgrown kids clothes and toys.  Inevitably, each seller's rented space tells a little story.  This person was a big collector of figurines, that person was probably a war veteran... I'm always curious about the stories behind the items on the shelves.

I was recently browsing through one of these antique malls when I came upon a small but interesting display cabinet.  Several shelves were full of paraphernalia from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Bright red stamps and booklets and commemorative coins, all with pictures of Chairman Mao.  Another shelf displayed a variety of fine porcelain pieces and an opium pipe.  Yet another shelf was stacked with a dozen large rolled up scrolls, some with fine calligraphy and others with beautiful paintings.  Although the price tags on these items seemed to reflect that the owner knew something of their worth, nothing seemed unreasonably expensive.

Of course, the item that caught my eye was a small yixing tea pot.  The knob of the lid was a carved goldfish and it sat on three more goldfish as the feet of the tea pot.  As I looked at it closely through the glass I could see that the workmanship, while nice, was not top quality.  The goldfish were a little crudely modeled, their eyes painted with a shiny black glaze.  The spout was slightly misshapen too, and was attached to the pot without smoothing down the seam.  I didn't buy it at that time but found myself thinking about it more and more as one week, then two went by.

It wasn't hugely expensive--well under $100--and given the quality and history of all the other items on the shelves from this particular seller, I started to think it might be a worthwhile purchase.  I decided to go back today to have another look.  The color of the clay was dark and purplish -- a good sign, I thought.  Of my small collection of tea pots, my best (and most expensive) pot is the one I purchased from Best Tea House in Richmond, BC.  It stands out from the others by its deep purple-brown color, and I remember that many of the high quality teapots that were for sale at BTH were that same dark color.  Looking again at the yixing in the antique mall I could see it was also a similar color.  Is that a guarantee of good quality?  I know better than to think that, but at least its an indication of the possibility.

I had the sales clerk remove it from the cabinet so I could handle it and take a closer look.  Everything was intact.  No chips or cracks.  The fit of the lid was perfect and snug.  The best surprise was when I opened it to look inside.  There was another little carved goldfish down in the bottom of the pot!  That's what clinched it for me.  High quality or not, it was just too cute to pass up at that price.  If only I knew something of the story behind this yixing and all the other items on the shelves.  There were clues, though.  On another shelf were about a dozen old photos.  The newest of them appeared to be taken in the 1940's or 50's given the appearance of the photos and the Western-style clothing worn by the very beautiful and fashionable Chinese women in them.  A few of the photos were portraits of what appeared to be highly decorated soldiers and men in uniform (Chinese).  Some of the photos were much older, showing pictures of what appeared to be very dignified Chinese men and women and families, all wearing very traditional and formal-looking dress.  I purchased two of the photos, shown here.  The lower picture of the group of men had the date "1885" on it.

I have no idea of the quality of this tea pot.  When I brought it home I noticed streaks of what looks like black ink or paint on it.  Had someone wiped it with a dark pigment to highlight the details of the goldfish, or maybe to make it appear older than it really was?  There was a curious silvery powder inside the pot too, that had accumulated around the carved goldfish and which had settled into the 7-hole screen.  I have NO idea what that would be from.  I tried to wipe off the black streaks with water but it didn't affect them at all.

As for the maker's marks, there's a well-defined stamp on the bottom of the pot and a not-so-well-defined stamp inside the lid.  I have no idea what they say or signify, but at least it didn't have "Made in China" anywhere :)   I asked the people who run the mall to give my name to the seller in the hopes that he'll contact me and maybe tell me something about the photos and the items he has for sale.  It seems a great shame to lose the stories of the people connected to these beautiful things.