Antiques: Collectable Afterlife for Tomb Figures; Christopher Proudlove Seeks Chinese Pottery's Treasures

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), March 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Antiques: Collectable Afterlife for Tomb Figures; Christopher Proudlove Seeks Chinese Pottery's Treasures


COLLECTORS of ancient Chinese artefacts owe everything to the death rituals of society during the period. Like the Egyptians, the Chinese held strong beliefs about the afterlife. The wealthy and privileged members of Tang society, a Golden Age which lasted from 618-907 AD, took with them into their tombs all the luxuries money could buy.

Preparations for burial, which began well in advance of death, included the purchase of hundreds of pottery ming qi, or "articles of the spirit" - such as figures of servants, musicians, attendants, domestic and foreign animals, guardian spirits and vessels from everyday life.

Surviving tomb furnishings are important historic social and cultural documents and the treasures have been unearthed in huge quantities.

Twenty years ago prancing Tang pottery horses sold for tens of thousands of pounds. They were rare, remarkable collectors' items that always attracted attention. Then came the looters and the smugglers. Until recently, when Tang horses came up for sale, prices started in the mid-hundreds. So why did values fall so dramatically in this fascinating area of the antiques market?

Lancashire dealer Lynne Elliott of Millennia Antiquities put me straight. "Ten years ago tomb figures were flooding out of China via Hong Kong and prices fell to a point where they reached levels in line with market demand," she said. "The widespread availability made Tang and other pottery figures affordable and increasingly popular with ordinary collectors, but since the Chinese government clamped down on illegal exports, prices are rising again."

Tang China was cosmopolitan and tolerant, welcoming new ideas and other religions.

Literature, painting and the ceramic arts flourished.

Chang'an, China's capital, was one of the busiest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. At the eastern end of the legendary Silk Route, it boasted two million inhabitants including an estimated 200,000 foreign residents. Indians, Persians, Turks, Arabs and Jews were there to trade in a wide range of exotic merchandise making its way from east to west.

Merchants, servants, entertainers, courtiers, monks, dwarfs and their animals were popular subjects for the artisan potters. The strange features of these foreigners, with their large noses and hairy faces, proved striking to the Chinese, and were a gift to the craftsmen.

Relatively low-fired and light bodied, Tang pottery is typically composed of earthenware. Ranging in colour from almost white to buff, red, or brown, the figures were produced in three basic ways: moulded' hand-crafted with individually made parts combined' or thrown on the potter's wheel.

The hallmark of Tang tomb wares is the sancai, or three-colour, lead-silicate glazes. These were produced by melting lead with clay and then finely grinding the resulting glassy material before mixing it with water for application to the already fired earthenware.

Using a transparent glaze as a base, iron oxide was added to produce tones ranging from straw to amber to dark brown, copper oxide was added to impart rich greens or cobalt oxide was added for dark, vibrant blues.

There is usually an unglazed area above the bases, because the potters were not able to control the flow of the lead glazes during firings. During the seventh century, many figures were fired with a clear glaze or left unglazed with features painted on them. This was because potters faced an early death from lead poisoning. A safer method evolved some centuries later and glazed figures enjoyed a revival in the Ming period. …

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