“Yiwu” cakes and “Qing” pots

I find that there are two things that the web will never run out of — puerh cakes purporting to be of Yiwu origin, and yixing pots that are supposedly Qing dynasty.

Let’s just pause for a moment to think — how likely is it that there will be an endless supply of such things on the web?

Take Yiwu tea for example.  I remember in 2006, every cake out there claims to be Yiwu.  Of course, if you’re selling young puerh, you want your tea to be from Yiwu — it’s the most famous of the mountains, and for the most part people have no way of telling if you’re lying or not.  So, you slap the words “Yiwu” on a cake and voila, it’s Yiwu, and you can sell it for 10x what you could if you call it Jiangcheng.  Add words such as “old tree” “wild” and the names of a few villages, instead of just “Yiwu”, and it seems more authentic.  Now you can sell it for 20x the original price.  Never mind that the amount of tea out there that claims to be Yiwu probably outnumber the amount of tea that the whole Xishuangbanna county produced in a year.  It hasn’t stopped people from doing it.  In the last few years producers have gotten more, well, inventive in their claims.  “Yiwu impressions” and that kind of name are now more common.  Consumers have caught on, and so the game has to change for the sellers to stay ahead.

More recently, we seem to be seeing the same thing with Yixing pots that claim to be Qing, at least in the English language world.  Somehow, everybody has a Qing pot to sell, often for the bargain basement price of under $1000.  Many of these so called “Qing” pots are suspect at best, frauds at worst.  A walk around Taiwan or a search online can yield many similar looking pots for a fraction of the price, none claiming to be Qing, and to think that such things can be had for the price on offer, well, I have a whole bunch of Qing pots to sell to you for $500.  When an authentic piece of work can go for thousands in the place where it came from, why would anyone sell it for hundreds online?

Unfortunately I find the tea business to be full of such sorts of schemes and half-truths.  Somehow, there’s always a supply of buyers ready to jump in for things like this.  Be careful out there; tea “masters” abound who are only too happy to take your money from you.


Comments

“Yiwu” cakes and “Qing” pots — 6 Comments

  1. Dear MarshalN,

    I’ve been travelling and just caught up with some blog reading upon my return. I read this post and thought both points needed a little elaboration from another point of view.

    There’s a lot of tea grown in Yiwu. The fact that some people exploit this by mislabelling tea from other regions does not change the provenance of the many tonnes of tea produced in Yiwu each year. There’s more than enough Yiwu tea to make decent premium puerh each year, and definitely much more than enough for any western tea vendor (or even all the western puerh tea vendors) to have a seemingly endless supply if they wished.

    There are also quite a lot of late qing pots in existence, in the same way that there’s quite a lot of 60’s puerh cakes in existence. On one hand, there’s not a lot of either, but on the other there’s more than most people could afford to buy. The price of either can vary wildly too. Just because a pot can sell in Asia for >$1000 doesn’t mean it cannot be bought for a lot less. Dealers often buy collections of pots, with the price offered being a fraction of the sum of the market value of each individual pot. I’m always amazed by the level of affluence reached by some of the bigger sellers/wholesalers of tea and teaware in Taiwan. There are healthy profit margins at play for these people who have been in the business for a long time, have contacts and can afford to buy in very large quantities. If they were to then sell on the pot at e.g. 1/3 of the market value wholesale, they still make a decent profit. If the final vendor, instead of multiplying the price by 3 to reach the market value decided to multiply by 1.5, they still make a profit. The profit isn’t as much as they might potentially make in other markets, but if they’re happy with that, then there’s no problem.

    As an example, I sell some 1993 7542 cakes in the west. A tea shop in Kunming offered me almost twice the price I sell these cakes at in the Western market. I declined the offer because I didn’t feel comfortable bringing these cakes to Kunming for a quick sale. So on one hand you might say that the market value of these cakes is $500, but I sell them for $300 – following your reasoning, there must be something suspicious or fraudulent about this. It’s simply not the case. It’s just a case of having access to wholesalers in the tea world who are able to give decent discounts off the market price through buying in quantity and/or having bought at the right time.

    Some scepticism can be healthy in certain situations, but it can often be counterproductive too. It’s easy to just look at one side of a situation and cry ‘fraud’, but it takes much more time and effort to evaluate the situation as a whole.

    best wishes,
    nada.

  2. Nada,

    I think you have to admit that you’re taking the “qing” label of the teapots you purchase at face value from your source. That is, you have limited special knowledge of old yixing pots, certainly not enough to go into the business of authenticating antiques and reproductions.

    That said, going through the archives of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, you can find auction lots of 4 Qing dynasty yixing pots going for under US$1,000 and auction lots of single Qing dynasty pots going for US$200 or less. Pots that fetch in the >US$1,000 are usually exquisitely detailed, have silver/pewter/gold details, robin’s egg or other rare glazing, etc.

    Regarding Yiwu, I read this post to concern productions that aren’t small batch, sourced-on-the-mountain teas like yours. More like, the “100% yiwu material with a limited production of 8000 kilos!” Count just a handful of 2009 productions with this claim, and you’ll find that they total several times the annual output from “zheng shan” Yiwu villages.

    ~jason

  3. Dear Jason,

    It’s true, a good fake could get past me personally quite easily. I think there’s few people with the detailed knowledge and experience necessary to spot good fakes. I didn’t take the seller’s claims of age at face value though. From time to time I’ve taken a random pot that I’ve bought from him to other, much more experienced people to verify. If that verification matches, which it has very closely on all occasions so far, it increases my confidence in the honesty and accuracy of his dating. It’s difficult to verify every pot, without imposing too much on the people kind enough to share their experience, but I feel that this process of blind verification of a random selection of pots is a fairly reliable method of authentication.

    I think it’s also important to buy from trusted sources. I’ve found these to be people with good social standing, have long experience in the tea/teaware business and whose reputation is much more valuable to them than a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars. Often this money is small change to them anyway.

    It’s difficult to sell old things. I’ve questioned myself a few times on whether it is worth the hassle or not. It’s much easier just to order a batch of new teapots from a potter, or easier still, a factory. The pots can be sent without my having to travel to the source to check them, there is no need for the hassle of authentication, and can be reordered whenever I like. With old things, there is none of this.

    I sell them, because I enjoy using them myself. I have been fortunate to meet people, some of whom you also know, with access to very good tea and teaware. Many tea people in the west don’t have this access to good tea and teaware of this kind. My wish was to open up this access a little.

    I hope we can have the opportunity meet and share a pot of tea someday.

    with warmest wishes,
    nada.

  4. Dear Nada,

    I always find the argument “X is rich and does not need the money after being in the business for so long, therefore X is more interested in his reputation and less on the profit” to be rather spurious. After all, they did not get to the point where a few hundred/thousand dollar is small change by not charging customers what the item is worth. That somehow they start doing so now, later in life, is quite unconvincing. One needs to look no further than someone like Zhou Yu — he certainly has the reputation and probably does not need the money, but nobody has ever described Zhou Yu’s wares or tea as being inexpensive. They’re good, but you need to pay a pretty penny for them, even at “friend” prices. In fact, those with reputations often are most capable of charging the highest prices for the same thing, precisely because of the authentication/trust factor. Examples are too numerous to name, and not just in the tea business.

    In the years I have been in the tea world I have yet to meet a professional or semi-professional tea/teaware seller who isn’t interested in profit. The idea that somehow the tea world is full of these altruistic vendors is always one I find most amusing, as if profit were dirty and wrong, but we do have a higher proportion of this type of vendor who likes this sort of rhetoric than many other industries. I have problems with price gouging or price discrimination, but I certainly expect people selling me stuff to make some money. To think that someone will sell at no profit or even at a loss just to protect or enhance a reputation is ludicrous.

    As for the matter of Yiwu tea, I think Jason’s reading is largely correct. We all know the tricks that are up the farmers’ collective sleeves, and there’s no need to repeat those here. I have a friend who’s been going to the mountains every season since 2003 and who still thinks he gets sub-par tea every so often. Suffice to say, I am certain that every year the amount of tea in the Kunming market for a new season of harvest labeled “Yiwu old tree” is far larger than the amount of tea produced in Yiwu in any given season. It’s just the way things are, and until we have some sort of strict and verifiable appellation control, that’s how things will continue to be.

  5. Nada,

    Feel free to reply to me via email to answer this question, but how do you assess who is capable of providing authentication for the old pots you have purchased? Are they well known and respected antique dealers? Is the authentication a professional relationship (i.e., they charge you and give you documentation attesting to their certification)? Do they have any relationship with your vendor or other reason (face, courtesy, etc.) to confirm what your vendor told you?

    I agree with MarshalN regarding profit on tea and teawares. I expect people to make a liveable and success-making profit, but not to rip me off. When a relatively mundane qing pot is listed for $1,000+ dollars, whose authenticity I must take on faith alone, I wonder what fool would pay more than the going price at an authenticated auction–especially considering the risk. Then again, with “cave aged” pu’er “from the 1940s” selling for hundreds of dollars per ounce, anything is possible!

    One can certainly be too skeptical, but such skepticism plays out in a different tea and teaware approach based on comfortable levels of risk for each person. MarshalN is almost entirely risk-averse, and you and your teapot clientele are willing to take on some risk. Different strokes, different folks.

    Jason

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