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 of domestic life during the Tang period and the treasures have been unearthed in huge quantities since 19th century archaeologists began uncovering the past.
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?
UK dealer Lynne Elliott of Millennia Antiquities, whose business is based in Lancashire, 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 clamp-down on illegal exports, prices are rising again.”
The Tang Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific, from Manchuria and Korea in the north into Vietnam in the south. 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. Situated at the eastern end of the legendary Silk Route, the city 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. Different races and religions provided a heady cultural mix that was reflected in the artefacts of the city’s craftsmen.
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, a porous and permeable common clay. Ranging in colour from almost white to buff, red, or brown, depending on the mineral content, the figures were produced in three basic ways: moulded; hand-crafted with individually made parts combined or thrown on the potter’s wheel. The earthenware was fired in kilns at a temperature between 600 and 1100 degrees Celsius.
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 of figures, 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 high levels of lead poisoning in the glaze mixes.
A safer method evolved some centuries later and glazed figures enjoyed a revival in the Ming period. Today, collectors tend to prefer either glazed or unglazed figures, although good, glazed examples are usually more expensive, costing several thousands of pounds.
Of all the pottery animals, horses are particularly evocative of Tang society. For good reason, horses were symbols of prestigious status and a measure of wealth and power in Tang China. Pottery horses were not modelled on the native Chinese Przewalski pony, a small and stocky animal not suited for the demands of the mounted cavalry who were facing the skilled horsemen of the Steppe, but on thoroughbred horses.
It was in the search for such horses to the west of China, as well as for the lands of the immortals, that the Silk Route was opened. The Chinese bartered thousands of bolts of silk for such coveted thoroughbreds.
Horses were also used for sport. Polo was introduced to China from Persia in the early 7th century and became a popular pastime enjoyed by both men and women. The emperor kept 40,000 horses in his stables, both for games and for war.
Pottery models of the horses are most commonly found in two poses: prancing with one leg raised, or standing four-square with head slightly turned to one side. Horses with warrior riders or occasionally entertainers were also made, particularly to protect the entombed from evil spirits.
Less expensive was an unmounted horse with a groom or guardian figure. They come in a variety of sizes, unglazed or glazed and sometimes with painted decoration.
The main market for tomb figures is in the West, particularly America, and leading dealers and auctioneers hold sales and exhibitions of rare and sought after pieces. Tomb figures also now appear at antiques fairs and markets and are still to be had at affordable prices. Small, unglazed items can be had for under £100, although finer examples will be much more. Fine quality pieces should prove to be good investments, particularly when the market begins to dry up, as it must in the long term.
Tomb figures are rarely in pristine condition. Their age and fragile nature means that almost all works have suffered some damage in the past. Value is not affected entirely by condition and modest restoration, so long as it was carried out by a professional, should not significantly affect the price of a figure. Age and authenticity is more of a concern.
Although tomb figures came out of China and were once imported quite legally into Britain, the export trade is now strictly forbidden, and the Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on smugglers. It is a capital offence for Chinese people to trade in tomb figures and a corporal offence for Westerners caught in Chinese territory.
Historically, however, sufficient numbers have been in circulation in the West for long enough to ensure they have a well-documented history. Most dealers will buy only from such collections that are known to have been in the West for a generation.
Lynne Elliott said: “Collectors should buy from reputable dealers at vetted fairs and get to know the specialists.” She has been trading for more than 10 years and is highly selective in her choice of stock. “Experience in these matters is most important. With replicas being sold around the world in tourist shops, gone are the days when the general antique dealer could be sure of the authenticity of any old piece of Chinese pottery.”
A thermo luminescence test will determine the age of a tomb figure and dealers who sell expensive pieces will usually provide a test certificate. Oxford Authentication Ltd is one company which carries out such tests, extracting a small plug-like sample from the object which is laboratory-tested. The tests cost upwards of £200 per item.
Pictures show, top: A Chinese Tang period Sancai (or three glazes) glazed pottery horse with official
Below, left to right: A painted pottery Tang period figure of a female attendant. Complete with its own Oxford Authentication Certificate, it is priced at £3,450
A group of Chinese Ming period glazed pottery attendant figures
A Chinese Tang period group of painted pottery figures as favoured by the rich to join them in their tombs and the afterlife