Sunken Treasure Teapots from the Deep

Sunken Treasure Teapots from the Deep

Many people collect Yixing all around the world, and several even have vast, museum-caliber collections, but none are like Lucas Goh of Malaysia. Lucas' passion for Yixing teaware glimmers in his eye, like a small boy with a new toy, as he holds his pots, polishing them before presenting them to his guests for inspection. He has avidly collected Yixing these last six years, reading, studying and handling enough pots to attract the attention of the Malaysian government, which now consults him about anything Yixing related. Nevertheless, it isn't his expertise that sets him apart from all other collectors, nor is it the size of his collection, which is rather large. Lucas is unique because his love of teapots has taken him where no other has gone, to the bottom of the ocean. Most of the valuable pots in Lucas' collection were purchased, but they aren't his favorites. His best pieces are the ones that Lucas helped dig out of the ocean floor. He has been involved in two separate sunken-ship excavations, one of which he found himself. The information garnished from one of the sites provided valuable insight into the sales, packaging and transportation of early Yixing (AD 1830) - much of which was completely unknown prior to the excavation. The second shipwreck, the one Lucas found himself, dated from the Song Dynasty and contained no Yixing, though there were some exquisite canisters, bowls, plates and even tea cups and pots. Lucas’ finds have made him famous in the Yixing world, though he wasn't motivated by fame. "Are you kidding?" he asked, "When they found the first ship and contacted me to ask if I would date and appreciate the pieces by phone after they were excavated, I said "I'll be right there,' I was on a plane before they could even respond."

Lucas lives in Kuching, on the eastern part of Malaysia. He began collecting Yixing teapots in the year 2000. He says it was love at first sight. "A friend asked me one day if I had ever spent 1000 Ringgit (300 USD) on one thing." When Lucas answered "of course" his friend then asked him what he had bought. Lucas realized that he couldn't think of a single thing, besides the obvious necessities like his house and car. He says he realized that he had nothing to show for his money. His friend then handed him his first teapot. "It's a piece from the 1980's. It isn't worth a fortune, but it makes nice tea." Lucas indeed dove into Yixing with a verve way beyond even the friend that introduced him to it. He flew to conventions and met other collectors, visited the best museums and read every book he could get his hands on.

"Of course one can buy a whole cabinet worth of new Yixing teapots for the price of this one," he explained handing us a Qing Dynasty Zhuni,, "but the quality is worlds apart." The clay used in the Qing Dynasty was made from unadulterated ore mined in Yellow Dragon Mountain, Yixing, and is very different than what is used today. Furthermore, all of the pots at that time were handmade. "They also used a wood-fire kiln that burned a very special kind of tree for fuel called '松树'. This kind of wood is oily and the evaporated oils make a difference in the firing of the clay. No one is doing it like that today." He then handed us a few Yixing pots and asked us to pour water into his sink. Afterwards, he smilingly put a new pot in our other hand for comparison. The Qing pot poured smoother, softer and definitely felt better in the hand. "But that's not the real test." he said pulling out some old loose-leaf Liu Bao tea. Lucas said that the improvement in taste and depth of the tea alone makes them worth the higher price. "Also, I mentioned why I started collecting teapots earlier, for investment. These antique pots are constantly appreciating in value. Some of them have even doubled just in the time I've owned them, but new Yixing will never do that." Lucas said he hopes he never has to sell any of his pots, as they are worth more than money to him now.

Lucas also warned us to beware of any merchants in China selling antique Yixing at cheap prices. "All Qing dynasty Yixing-ware is expensive. Even broken pieces can be sold to collectors for quite a sum." He mentioned that several factories in Yixing are busy making fake antiques that they coat with oil, wax and other substances to make them look old. "Qing Dynasty Yixing pots are often very simple in character and lack the stylistic changes that happened later." He explained that the rim where the pot turns upward often curves in a discernable way and the spout also will curve differently than what is produced in modern times. "Very few antiques are still left in China. I'm not saying that they can't be found; they can, but most of them have been exported." He laughed, "Chinese vendors have been selling fake antiques to foreigners for centuries. It's nothing new."

Lucas showed us his most prized possessions, pots crafted by the renowned master Cheng Shou Zhen (1865-1939). "Zhen-ji" was the first Yixing potter to receive international acclaim, winning an award at the International Pottery Fair in Panama in 1915. Lucas is very proud of his two pots. He said he actually has a third that is a fake. Even though the fake Cheng Shou Zhen cost him a fortune, he shrugged, smiled and said it was all part of the process. He explained that he didn't know which of his first two was the fake for quite some time, until he researched more books, saw more of Cheng Shou Zhen's work and purchased his third. "It's obvious that the rim and spout of the fake are incorrect. No one can copy Zhen's unique work, not when one knows what to look for."

By 2001 he had already purchased enough real and fake antiques to have made a name for himself. In October of that year he received the email that changed his life. The Malaysian government wanted his help with a shipwreck they had found. Lucas said that when he was little he used to put silver trinkets in the small fountain pool behind his house and dive for them, pretending he was a treasure hunter. He said that the shipwrecks combined his two lifelong passions of Yixing and scuba diving. "Yixing is a treasure beyond any chest of gold. Who can help being fascinated by sunken ships, buried treasure and adventure under the sea?"

Desaru Qing Dynasty Shipwreck - Dao Guang Period (AD1830)

This ship, called the Desaru by excavators, sank beneath twenty meters of water just off the southeast coast of Peninsular Malaysia in the 1830's. The site was excavated in October of 2001. The ship measured about 34 meters long and 8 meters wide. It was carrying a cargo of well-stored Chinese ceramics kept in built-in compartments. It was loaded with Chinese blue and white porcelain, storage jars, Yixing teapot and various types of Yixing wares. Four different shapes of Yixing teapot were found on the ship, including three sizes: large, medium and small. 769 Yixing teapots were exhumed, and only one was made by a famous potter, Yang You Lan. It was a fortunate find as he is one of the most famous potters of the Qing Dynasty. Yixing-ware from the Desaru included brown-glazed bowls made from rare white Yixing clay and black, blue and green-glazed chamber pots. More unusual were Yixing covered boxes, found in three nesting sizes. These boxes, packed in sets of four, were also found inside the large storage jars. They were once green-glazed, but many were black at the time of recovery due to oxidation.

This ship provided scholars with unique information about the manner in which Yixing pots were packaged, purchased and shipped during the Qing Dynasty. There was very little quality control at the time. Merchants simply looked at an example in the factory, inquired about amount and purchased the pots without inspection. Even flawed versions of each pot were included in the order, proving that very few pots were wasted. The teapots were wrapped in a kind of grass that is suspected to be from rice plants and then sealed in large Yixing jars. At the time of excavation the grass had of course eroded, and the large pots had been filled with sand from the ocean floor.

In order to clean the pots enough that they can be used to make tea, at least a year of treatment will be required. Lucas said that he has only done this to a few pots. The process involves soaking the pot in hot water and saline solution everyday for a year, changing the water at least three times a day. After that, they will be cleaned by ultrasound. Some collectors believe that even after this process, shipwrecked pots will leave a rough feeling in the throat when they are used, but Lucas doesn't agree. Still, shipwrecked pots are much cheaper than other Qing Dynasty teaware.

Song Dynasty Shipwreck - (AD 970)

This wreck was found in April of 2003 off the coast of Tanjung Simpang, in the north of Sabah, at a depth of 12 meters. It carried a cargo of Chinese ceramics tentatively dated to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 AD). Some features of the ship and styles of artifact appeared to be even earlier. It was the oldest loaded ship found in Malaysia to date. The visible indicators of the wreck were stacks of bronze gongs, discernible above a layer of sand varying between two and three feet in depth, likely to have accumulated after the ship sunk. The ship appeared to have sunk when it struck a coral reef, perhaps damaged on the reefs extending east and west from Pulau Kalampunian. The scattering of pieces between the coral suggests that she may have broken up almost immediately. From the first dive, it became evident that extensive looting had occurred. Numerous deep craters had been blown over a large area, and large volumes of 『ceramics had been removed. Originally, there would probably have been stacks of ceramics loaded to the same height as the bronze gongs.

Now, only broken pottery and shards could be seen in the bottom of craters, between the stacks of gongs. Despite the looting, 303 ceramic artifacts (retaining over 50% of their original shape) were recovered, along with 250kg of shards. A brown-glazed kendi and teapots were of types previously unrecorded. The Qing Bai ewers, covered boxes and other brown-glazed wares had already been reported from other sites in Indonesia.

Olive brown-glazed bowl

The medallion is delineated by a circular engraving similar to what has come to be known as "type 3." The cavetto is incised with stylized scrolls, while the exterior is carved with a series of vertical lines. The bowl has a straight rim, a recessed base, creamy white clay and a high foot-ring. Several intact examples of these bowls were found.

Olive green tea bowl

The boundary of the medallion is an engraved circle, with stylized scrolls on the cavetto like most of the examples from the site. In most of these, the exterior was carved with a series of vertical lines, although some examples are plain on both the exterior and interior. The mouth rim is inverted and the base is recessed.

Brown-glazed teapot

This teapot has a slightly curved spout, which is cut flat at the top and has a plain handle. The glaze covered all but the lowermost portions of the teapot and the base. Both examples recovered have Chinese characters painted in iron oxide on the base. They were unique finds that had never been recorded before.

Lucas Goh is brimming with information about the history of Yixing-ware, and was gracious with his collection, wisdom and hospitality for the duration of our stay. We had the fortune to try several good teas brewed in Qing Dynasty pots and sipped from equally hoary cups. The teaware seemed to have a dramatic effect on the quality of the tea. We left impressed by Lucas and his collection. Lucas was right about the fascination of sunken treasure. After a sip of tea, one can't help but drift into visions of ancient junks crowding some Chinese harbor, each filled with teapots that would steep ancient teas as far afield as Indonesia.