Shopper in a Strange Land: Hunting for Ancient Ceramics in Taiwan
I was in the Yingge District in New Taipei City, Taiwan, about half an hour by train from central Taipei, where I was hoping to find a thousand-year-old Chinese bowl. The area has a quietly beautiful cobblestoned main street, lined with unexpected palm trees with iron cages around their trunks. You can see the mountains beyond the low, graceful buildings, until you turn onto one of the narrow alleys packed with one- to three-story shops, where cords of lights hang from the windows overhead and a sense of frenetic intimacy replaces the calm. If it’s made of clay, you can buy it here. It is to the ceramics enthusiast what the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is to the sushi lover.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a plan. My first mistake was trying to hire a translator on the street. I must have talked to 15 cabdrivers before finding one who understood what I wanted. He called his son Jim—a handsome guy in his twenties, also a cabdriver—who arrived to take me around on foot. To explain what I was looking for, I drew the distinctive V shape of a bowl from the Song dynasty (960–1279) in the air and said, “Simple, black or brown, and very old.”
I first became interested in Song dynasty tea bowls on a trip to Bangkok to buy rubies nearly 20 years ago, when I was working in the jewelry business. I thought I might buy one for my wife, so I visited a cramped, dimly lit shop that specialized in these bowls. I found them lined up on shelves, about 20 to a wall, each illuminated with its own halogen light. They were simple glazed bowls, all in earth tones, that widened dramatically from the base to the mouth. I remember thinking that they were the antithesis of the jewelry I dealt. I studied them, trying to look like a connoisseur. I picked up a small one—really no more than a cup without a handle—that I thought I might be able to afford. There was a stifled gasp, and I turned to see the tiny proprietor frozen in a half-standing position behind his desk at the back of the shop. “Would you please place the bowl on the shelf?” he asked me. “I will help you.” It turned out to be worth several hundred thousand dollars. I did find one in my price range—around $15,000—but didn’t buy it.
Why not? Two reasons: First, I was worried about having to explain to my wife why she should like it. Second, I felt like a bit of a faker. I trusted the authenticity of the bowls this fellow was selling, but I felt like I was pretending to understand an aesthetic language—like the guy who buys a Patek Philippe because he saw Michael Douglas wearing one in a movie. A collector should understand, in his bones, the thing he collects.
But after passing on the bowl, I was hooked. I tried to buy others at New York City auctions, only to be outbid in ways that made me feel silly—I was prepared to go to $20,000 for one, only to see it sold for over $100,000. As I learned more about Song bowls, I realized that part of their allure is that their value is so difficult to discern.
I’ve collected a number of precious things—Persian rugs, antique lace, pre-Depression glass lamps, German Expressionist lithographs, early American gold watches—but none have the superficial ordinariness, the self-effacing quality, of Song bowls. Some have glazes with names like oil spot, hare’s fur, and partridge feather, and range in color from whitish gray to celadon to russet. But the very best are just heavy black pottery. They look like an exceptionally pretty version of something you might find at your neighborhood ceramics class. According to Michael Bass, a specialist in Chinese art at Christie’s, these were considered ideal for the tea parties and contests that were in vogue in China a millennium ago, at which masters would whip the tea to produce a white head. In his 1049 essay “The Record of Tea,” the Chinese calligrapher and scholar Cai Xiang wrote, “The froth is seen most clearly in a tea bowl with a black glaze.”
Taipei—along with Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, New York City, and Tokyo—is an epicenter of the global trade in Song dynasty ceramics, which have become prized among wealthy Chinese collectors. “So many billionaires retire to Taipei,” said my old friend Marek Nowack, a wholesale dealer in rare antiquities. “The treasures follow the money.” Sometimes the treasures come west, too: two years ago, Sotheby’s in New York City auctioned off a small Song dynasty tea bowl, which the seller had purchased for $3 at a yard sale, to a dealer in London for $2.2 million. There are many fine examples of these bowls in the collections of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. If you’re looking to purchase one, there are reputable dealers specializing in ancient Chinese art, like J.J. Lally & Co. in New York City. Yingge Ceramics Street is one place where you might reasonably expect to find a deal, however—though Marek warned me to watch out for counterfeits.
Jim and I went into many different shops where he spoke with the owners. Some showed us ornately decorated bowls that I guessed were from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). After several hours, on a narrow street with more palm trees, he found a tile-roofed place he told me was called Happy Sam’s. It was stuffed with Buddha statues, tea sets, and tradi- tional Chinese porcelain with patterns of birds and dragons. After Jim asked for old bowls, the owner, a solid, shaggy man in a blue suit and a pink polo whom I took to be Sam, led us up a short staircase to a room full of cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling. We sat on a wooden bench where a middle-aged woman in a pale blue short-sleeved dress served us tea on a table covered in tiny green ceramic tiles.
The owner began bringing me brightly colored bowls, some ornamented with lotuses and other flowers, probably made in the past few hundred years. I kept saying, “no, thank you,” and Jim and Sam would shake their heads and laugh. We were on our third pot of tea when Sam brought out a wide-mouthed, grimy, and old-feeling black bowl with brown flecks. I inspected it carefully, keeping it close to my lap. “He says it’s from the Han dynasty,” Jim told me. “So, maybe two thousand five hundred.”
“Two thousand five hundred years old?” I asked.
“No, two thousand five hundred U.S. He doesn’t know how old the bowl is.”
The Han dynasty ended nearly 2,000 years ago. I knew the bowl couldn’t be that old. It looked like a Song dynasty bowl. It was thick enough, heavy enough. The black glazing was regular, and it caught the light. I could see red and purple tones beneath the black. There were brown flecks. It was the right size. There were a few small chips. It looked like the bowl I’d held all those years ago in Bangkok. It was, in fact, exactly the bowl I’d been looking for.
So I didn’t buy it.
As I admired the bowl, I kept thinking of the line “A fool and his money are soon parted.” Especially when the fool is a foreigner who can’t speak the language. A fool who is visiting a place for the first time and may never return. A fool who will pretend he knows more than he does for fear of looking like a fool. As we left, Sam grabbed my arm while saying something to Jim, who shook his head. As Jim drove me back to Taipei, I asked what he’d said. “Maybe for two thousand. If you come back tomorrow, he might sell for one thousand. I think it’s hard to know what is a real bowl.”
I kept thinking about it on the way home. If I’d gotten him down to a thousand, would it have been worth it, even if it turned out not to be an authentic Song bowl? What if I’d taken it to J.J. Lally & Co. to learn it was actually worth $100,000? My years in the jewelry business have made me permanently suspicious, and I was probably right not to buy the bowl. But as my plane flew over the Pacific, I felt a sense of diminishment. He who hesitates is lost. Twice now, I’d done it to myself. The siren of my Song bowl was still calling.
Next year I plan to go to Guangzhou, China, where they actually made Song bowls a thousand years ago. “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise,” William Blake wrote. I haven’t given up yet.