The Ewer In The Sea

In 1999, a great quantity of Chang Sha ceramic bowls and ewers suddenly emerged from nowhere and swarmed many antique shops in Singapore. The bowls and ewers were painted with abstract floral scrolls and  whirling circles in green, orange or even red colors, which are lively and remains brilliant despite the age of such wares for almost one thousand years after production. However, the sandy and porous surface of the body marks a clear sign of corrosion by the sea  water. We can easily come to the conclusion that a ship wreck could have been found in the nearby ocean. 

Changsha Ewer

Changsha Pot

Chang Sha is the capital city of Hunan province in China, and the yellow glazed wares shot to fame during the Tang dynasty about 900 over years back. The wares were fired between 1150 to 1200 degree Centigrade.  Relatively speaking, this range of temperature is considered low firing, and the ceramic pieces are not totally porcelainized.  This explains why most of the pieces discovered from the kiln sites were cracked or broken. The rarity of complete pieces sent the price of Chang Sha wares escalating in recent years.

The large quantity of these sea salvaged Chang Sha bowls and ewers cast doubt and aroused suspicion among the collectors on their authenticity. A rumor was so spread that some unscrupulous antique dealers in China specially commissioned the production of these fakes and sank them deep in the sea for three to five years. When recovered, the natural wear caused by the salt due to the long immersion created a whole lot of  ?make believe? treasures. It remained as a puzzle to the Singapore collectors especially when the price for each item was pegged at as low as only one hundred Singapore dollars. A tug of war ensued between the dealers and the collectors as a heated argument took place when a refund was demanded for some pieces which some ?experts? claimed to be fakes.

Subsequently, there was this story that of late, a ninth century sunken ship was discovered in the Indonesia sea  in  a salvaging expedition conducted by a group of German traders. A huge store of Tang dynasty crockery and utensils which include thousands of Chang Sha bowls, ewers and jars were retrieved from the wreck. Local Indonesian workers were employed to clean wash and pack these treasures for transport to an Europe country for auction. It was said that the workers would hide away some beautiful items and resell to the antiques dealers. In turn, the Chang Sha bowls and ewers were exported to Singapore to a reap of better profit.

It was the time when most Asian countries including Indonesia were under the siege of a financial crisis as a result of a profiteering conspiracy on the currency stock exchange market carried out by the American tycoon, Mr. Soros. The Indonesian currency rate nose dived to an all time low. The collectors in Singapore benefited a lot from the good exchange rate that they purchased the antiques at an unbelievable cheap price.

The collectors who wavered and hesitated in the buying spree were not to blame as the characteristics of genuine Chang Sha wares were not clear to them. If we take a close scrutiny, we would be able to identify the following features:

  • The body of all Chang Sha wares were covered with a layer of white or whitish translucent slip, which may outpour  to the bottom portion of the ware in the form of a powdery layer
  • The colorful scrolls drawings were painted on the slip, and these color pattern are under glazed that you can find air bubbles above them
  • There are crackles all over the glaze, and under a normal magnifying glass, you will see the crackers squeeze into a network like the wing of a housefly. The crackles curve up and detach along their edges from the clay body. It looks just like the surface of a paddy field after a long spell of drought. Generally, they are light and soft in appearance, and smooth to the touch.
  • You can find green color of copper oxide, brown or reddish color of iron oxide and even black color of the iron oxide. However, unlike the tricolor tang San cai wares, the blue is non existent in the Chang Sha pieces as cobalt was not used yet as a coloring agent. Instead, the copper may reflect a stinge of bluish green under the glaze because of refraction, but not what we see the solid blue color in the case of tang san cai.
  • The clay is grayish brown like the ash of the joss stick.
  • The drawings are of the free hand style and skillfully executed in lively contours.

I  have in my possession some such bowls and ewers which I bought for a song during this period. All the items I checked perfectly match and fit in well with all the above descriptions. I made a further comparison with some fake pieces that I bought years ago for learning purpose, and confirmed that fakes are always fakes  which can not stand the test of time. The findings therefore prove that the story of a ship wreck discovery has the credibility.

 True enough, the Chang Sha bowls and jars all now disappear from the market except for a few defective bowls lying lonely in the dark corners of one or two antique shops.




By:  Lim Yah Chiew
       27  March 2001