A Tang Dynasty Changsha Bowl

Contributed by Jo Groarke, SEACS member and ACM docent

The time had come to dip my toes into the world of ceramic collecting. Not only was I approaching a two-year membership milestone with SEACS, but I’d also recently graduated from the docent training programme at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM).

A well-known proverb, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, sprang to mind as I perused the auction house online catalogue of a large collection of Asian ceramics and works of art.  The collection was described as being owned by a ‘well-known and avid’ Singaporean collector.  While browsing from the comfort of my sofa, I saw a piece I had to have—a Tang Dynasty Changsha bowl.  Similar bowls formed part of my mentor tour at the ACM.  This was going to be my graduation present to myself!

The bowl was hard to find at the auction house, hidden in one of the dark back wall display cases. I decided this was a good sign—other hopeful buyers may not be able to find it! The label confirmed it was Tang Dynasty. It also noted ‘some wear to the glaze in places’, especially to parts of the rim with associated fritting. Unfortunately, the collector hadn’t listed this piece in his inventory so the bowl’s provenance was unknown, likewise, there was no certification.

For reassurance, I took some photos and drove to the ACM to compare the auction house bowl with the Changsha bowls on display in the Tang Shipwreck Gallery.  It certainly looked authentic to my inexperienced eye and so I found myself confidently and successfully bidding on auction day.

A fellow society member kindly shared photos of two replica bowls she had purchased at Changsha in Southern China a couple of years ago. One of her bowls had almost the exact same design as my stoneware bowl. It’s interesting to compare the old and the new. The stylised vapour and cloud motifs are strikingly similar. However, the brush strokes used to create the free-hand design are a little more fluid and graceful on the Tang bowl when compared to its modern replica. 

So, the nagging question, was my bowl authentic?  In researching the piece, I discovered the person who previously owned the bowl was an acquisitions adviser on Chinese antiquities for the University of Singapore and, coincidentally, one of the founding members of SEACS.  Sadly, he had passed away.

The previous owner’s identity has assured me of the authenticity of the bowl. Ironically, now that I know his identity, I have regrets about not buying more pieces at the auction. It was a real lack of foresight on my part and I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to access such a sizeable and affordable collection again in my lifetime. On a positive note, my little purchase has strengthened my connection to Changsha bowls. Not only do I see my bowl at home every day, but also hundreds of Changsha pieces forming a sea of bowls whenever I guide visitors at the museum. 

Readers interested in learning more about Changsha bowls are encouraged to read Liu Yang’s “Tang Dynasty Changsha Ceramics” in Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Singapore: National Heritage Board, Singapore, (2011), pp. 145-159.