Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Much Would You Pay for This Tea Jar?

Last week, this tea jar sold at auction at Christie’s . . .

. . . for $662,000.

So maybe you’re asking yourself, what is it, and why would anybody pay that much for it?

This is what’s called a chatsubo, or a tea storage jar. In the old days, they used these to transport tea leaves and store them until they were ready to grind and drink. I wrote in my last post about the special ceremony that involves the opening of the new tea for the year. During that ceremony, the chatsubo is put on display in the tearoom and given to the guests so that they can look at it more closely.

This particular jar is what’s called “o-meibutsu.” Meibutsu is a term that refers to certain very old tea utensils that came from China to Japan during the centuries when tea ceremony first became popular. These items were very highly valued by tea practitioners not for their intrinsic value, but for their aesthetic value.

This particular tea jar originally came from Chin during the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century. During the late sixteenth century – the lifetime of Sen no Rikyu – it was owned by a series of merchants/tea practitioners, and recorded in some famous tea diaries. In fact, there’s a letter from Rikyu himself that accompanied the piece at auction (the description I read didn’t say what the letter was about, but presumably it was an authentication of the jar). During the 17th century, it became the property of the Tokugawa shogunate (the military rulers of Japan), and then it passed through a variety of nobility and wealthy Japanese hands until it finally came to this auction. Like all meibutsu, it has a poetic name (mei), which is Chigusa, “Myriad of flowers.”

Recently, I was in a class where the teacher was talking about meibutsu. He said that in the old days, when those items were brought to Japan, the tea masters spent a lot of time really looking at the utensils used in tea and comparing their characteristics to determine which ones were the best, and for that reason we should study the same utensils so that we can learn from them. Of course, unlike the 16th-century tea masters who used meibutsu in their gatherings on a regular basis, the chance of someone in America seeing a meibutsu object outside of a museum is pretty darn slim. Mostly we rely on photos, and maybe a glimpse of one if we do visit a museum in Japan. That’s why it’s kind of exciting to me to think that we have a meibutsu object here in the United States. It’s like a living piece of tea history – or maybe even tea legend – is a little bit closer to home.