Inaugural Sotheby’s Tea Auction Traces the History of Chinese Pu’er Production

Liz Catalano
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A new collecting category is steeping at Sotheby’s this month. The company recently announced two dedicated online auctions of rare teas and teaware from China’s rich and extensive tea culture. Based in Hong Kong, the auctions are available online from December 8 through December 16, 2021. Sotheby’s inaugural tea sale presents a rare selection of pu’er and vintage teacakes that trace the history of tea drinking from the Qing dynasty to the present. In the company’s latest effort to tap into emerging markets, Sotheby’s tea auction presents rarities from every corner of the tea table.

“Following the many recent ‘firsts’ at Sotheby’s, including the launch of spirits sales, the introduction of sake, and the addition of France as a new location for our regular series of wine and spirits auctions, the introduction of tea at our global auctions comes as a natural progression for our business,” says Jamie Ritchie, the Worldwide Head of Sotheby’s Wine, about the online events.

Pu’er teacakes. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Pu’er teacakes. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Records of China’s tea culture extend as far back as the Qin dynasty (200 BCE) and before. Early dynastic scholars discussed the medicinal benefits of tea drinking and presented the drink as a favorable alternative to inebriating wine. Over the centuries, tea drinking became both an everyday activity and a culturally significant ritual. Dynastic tea ceremonies sometimes held religious significance, and tea connoisseurship flourished as a symbol of sophistication and status. 

Accompanying the booming demand for tea was the need for tea utensils. Teaware became particularly popular during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE). During that period, tea preparation and conservation was a complicated task that included mortars, teapots, bowls, steamers, and at least two dozen other items. The development of ceramics also ran alongside the spreading tea culture. Sotheby’s Echoes of Fragrance online auction of teaware tracks the evolution of these items and their many variations. 

In this sale, bidders will find a broad display of tea items. Leading the lots is a carved tixi lacquer tea bowl from the Yuan dynasty (estimate: HKD 300,000 – $400,000 / USD 38,500 – $51,300). Several rare Jian bowls from the Song dynasty are also available. These black-glazed tea bowls were favored by upper-class tea drinkers for their elegance, and Buddhist monks appreciated their resemblance to the celestial realm. The available Jian bowls are conical and particularly uncommon.

A Jian silver-streaked ‘hare’s fur’ temmoku bowl, a Jian russet-streaked ‘hare’s fur’ temmoku bowl, and a spotted bamboo and lacquer leaf-shaped tea tray. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
A Jian silver-streaked ‘hare’s fur’ temmoku bowl, a Jian russet-streaked ‘hare’s fur’ temmoku bowl, and a spotted bamboo and lacquer leaf-shaped tea tray. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s Tea Treasures online sale highlights the tea itself. Top lots include a selection of pu’er teas dated as early as 1900. Produced in China’s Yunnan province, pu’er is a traditional variety of dark tea notable for its fermentation process and distinct flavors. Tea leaves must be dried, rolled, dry-roasted, pressed into a cake, and then left to mature for several years. Much like wine, whiskey, sake, and other fermented drinks, the taste of pu’er improves over time. 

Detailed and correct labeling is especially important for pu’er due to its delicate fermentation process. At the end of the Qing dynasty, private companies carefully branded their teacakes and labels. The government eventually standardized the labels in the circular Ba Zhong Yi Cha design, which is now synonymous with vintage pu’er.

Chen Yun Hao (White Ticket Black Wording) teacake, 1900s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Chen Yun Hao (White Ticket Black Wording) teacake, 1900s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Among the notable lots in Sotheby’s tea auction is a Chen Yun Hao teacake from the early days of the Republic of China. This variety, White Ticket Black Wording, is the highest quality pu’er produced by the brand. Sotheby’s notes that the available teacake has well-proportioned buds that yield a sweet and soft taste. It comes to auction with an estimate of HKD 900,000 to $1,200,000 (USD 115,400 – $153,900). 

The other available teacakes date back to the mid-20th century. This encompasses the state-owned period of tea production. Though pu’er production was initially limited in scope, certain vintage varieties gained significant followings and appreciation for their flavors. Blue seals are particularly prized today. Various blue label teacakes from the 1950s with estimates of up to HKD 500,000 (USD 64,100) are available in Sotheby’s tea auction this December.

A Blue Label Iron teacake (Lake Blue), 1950s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
A Blue Label Iron teacake (Lake Blue), 1950s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Pu’er production diversified significantly after 1996. One of the first batches of teacakes produced by a limited liability company will come to auction with an estimate of HKD 240,000 to $300,000 (USD 30,800 – $38,500). Formerly known as the state-owned Menghai Tea Factory, the rebranded Dayi company packaged these cakes in a distinct purple tissue paper that stylistically strayed from the old pattern. The taste and properties remained roughly the same. 

Online bidding for Sotheby’s tea auction will close at 11:00 PM EST on December 16, 2021. The parallel teawares sale will close simultaneously. Find the full Echoes of Fragrance and Tea Treasures catalogs on Sotheby’s.

Looking for more auction world news? Auction Daily recently explored the rise of ultra-contemporary art in the market.

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. She regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients. A Chicago native, she holds a BSW degree and is based in Pennsylvania.

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