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The Enduring Beauty of Tomb Pottery

It is often said that Chinese collectors are loath to buy works from tombs for fear of disturbing the spirits of their ancestors. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. Throughout millennia, farmers relished digging for buried objects found in countless surrounding tombs, as much as they did digging for their crops. Until recent laws passed by the Chinese government prohibiting the sale of burial objects, the market for this material was lucrative.

Three Storytellers, China, Han dynasty (Lot 1011, Estimate: $6,000-8,000)

As tomb pottery began to enter the art market, Western collectors, and a few Chinese collectors, were delighted by the charm and beauty of tomb pottery. Dating to the Tang and Han dynasties, elegant figural sculptures, animals, and daily use objects, made of terra-cotta, reached the Hong Kong markets. The simplicity of line and form coupled with the animated facial expressions and realism greatly appealed to the modern eye. The demand was so great it was gradually diminishing the supply of materials, resulting in the manufacture of numerous reproductions which were made from similar clay and fired in similar kilns as the ancient objects. 

Pottery Male Attendant, China, Han dynasty (Lot 1006, Estimate: $200-400)
Pottery Court Lady, China, Tang dynasty
(Lot 1008, Estimate: $800-1,000)

Many of these reproductions show up on the market today. Attractively deceptive, potential buyers are often reluctant to purchase them without a thermoluminescence analysis, a scientific test of the clay authenticating the date of manufacture. 

Pottery Ox, China, Han dynasty (Lot 1004, Estimate: $800-1,000)

If you, too, become enchanted with the history and beauty of tomb pottery, but do not have the fortune to find an object that has been tested, you can trust the trained eye of a specialist who can often tell the difference between the original object and the reproduction. Most often a reproduction lacks the spirit captured in the original. 


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