Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tea Auctions – The Value of Antique Tea

L: 1910s Song Pin Hao, M: 1950s Red Label, R: 1950s Liu An Tea Basket – Understanding the Chinese market and the human element allows us to see the value of antique tea. (Source of photos from L & H Auction Hong Kong)

There is a reason why major tea auctions are held in Hong Kong and China. To put it simply - it is where the money is. Chinese clients make up the majority of bidders and spend prodigiously on tea. The best teas from China tend to stay in China. That said, not all Chinese tea buyers are passionate tea enthusiasts (much is the same in the affluent world of wine and single malt whisky). It is simply a business transaction that can be leveraged for further gains elsewhere. This may come in the way of future returns, building relationships with certain VIPs (gift giving is very much a part of Chinese culture) or to augment one’s reputation. Buying and owning a piece of rare and historical tea is more than an investment measured in financial terms. It is a symbol to convey social status, refined taste and culture. Winning an auction can also be an endorsement of stature and fame as a major auction will attract media interest and provide publicity. Therefore a highly renowned tea like the 1950s Red Label (aka Hong Yin) provides more than simply the tea leaves by a level of recognition and status by association. These qualities amongst others add to the allure of famous antique teas.

Old and antique tea by nature is very limited and through the many decades and century these teas would have had eventful journeys. Especially rare are the few that have passed by reasonably unscratched holding on to their original shape and form whilst developing their qualities for the better. There are unforeseen risks and many uncertainties involved in storing tea for long periods of time. Old tea that is between 30 to 50 years old would likely have come through some risky events. This may come in the form of social uprising, economic instability and even natural disasters. Century old tea would need to survive several owners and perhaps even the ravages of wars. The personal challenges and dedication required by the owner(s) to provide this kind of epic long term care alongside maintaining an ideal storage space is nothing short of extraordinary. Pitifully few teas emerge from such an epic journey and it is for this reason that the increments of age will often correspond to the rarity of a tea. Antique tea that has crossed different eras of social and economic reforms and/or represents a value or quality from the past that can no longer be replicated thus become even more highly valued.

It is amazing to think that this century old 1910s Song Pin Hao survived through the Chinese Civil War, Japanese Invasion, the Reign of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. (Source of photos from L & H Auction Hong Kong)

The quality of old and antique tea is enhanced with time. This belief goes beyond the maturation of the tea leaf but includes the changes and limitation of modern society and the functional system of today’s world. These changes take into account the deterioration of the growing environment whereby the biodiversity and fertility of the land and clean natural water sources have considerably been on the decline. This is especially true in China (Chinese factories have been the top manufacturers for supplying the world with a variety of products for over 30 years) where the growth and expansion of the economy have led to many malpractices that have polluted the natural environment and land used for agriculture. The abusive practice of commercial farming, irresponsible dumping of toxic waste from the mining of natural resources and big industry have often created havoc with the natural environment. Furthermore the loss of Chinese culture and knowledge, and skilled craftsmen from periods of social unrest and the transition from an era of heralded craftsmanship that once relied heavily on skilled human labor to that of a large scale industrial factory operation have greatly affected and changed the processing of tea and the resulting product. These changes can amplify the value of old antique tea when newer products are no longer reproduced with the same level of skill and quality as in the past. One such category of tea that bared the brunt of Communism and the Cultural Revolution is Liu An tea. Tea factories producing these supreme high quality tea baskets halted production for over 20 years in China at the height of the country's social upheaval. The modern productions of Liu An tea today have yet to recapture the magical quality in these antique tea baskets from the pre-1950s era. Antique Liu An tea baskets were meticulously and skillfully crafted, and presents a reminder to the glorious age of Liu An tea appreciation.

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