If you’d asked me not so long ago what I knew about ancient Japanese tea jars, I’d pretty much have been stumped. I’ve been studying and writing about tea for more than eight years. But I don’t recall hearing much about these items until I ran across a recent book called The Story of Chigusa: A Japanese Tea Jar’s 700-Year History, by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky. Which is being issued in March 2014 in paperback under the name Chigusa and the Art of Tea (mentioned earlier on this blog in my article here).
I’m sufficiently in the dark regarding these jars that I assumed that Chigusa was a generic term used to describe them. But that’s apparently not the case. Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), as it turns out, is the name of the particular jar discussed in the book, one that was made in southern China and wound up in Japan, where it was used in the chanoyu, or Japanese tea ceremony. All in all, as the previously mentioned title suggests, it’s been in circulation for a rather impressive seven centuries.
The authors are not just casual observers in all this, by the way. Cort is curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in Washington, DC, where the object in question will be displayed for much of the first half of 2014. Watsky is a professor of Japanese art at Princeton University, where the jar will be on display at the Princeton University Art Museum in late 2014 and early 2015. Though the item is rather well travelled, this is actually the first time it has been displayed in the United States.
One of the most interesting facts about this ancient object is that it comes with an in-depth back story attached. I don’t know if this is normal where antiquities are concerned, but I suspect not. In this case, as one description puts it, “The remarkable documentation and artifacts that surround Chigusa-including inscriptions, letters, ceremonial accessories and storage boxes-narrate a fascinating history of ownership and enjoyment. Few jars with comparable documentation survive in Japan or elsewhere.”
If you’re thinking that a Chigusa might look good in your own tea cabinet, keep in mind that it is a rather rare object with a long, detailed and well-documented history. Which is shorthand for it ain’t cheap. In 2009 the famed auction house Christies sold off an object titled, An “O-Meibutsu” Stoneware Tea-Leaf Storage Jar named Chigusa (Myriad of flowers).” Though they anticipated that it would sell for a paltry $100,000 – $150,000, the final tab ran to a rather impressive $662,500.
Which means that for now I’ll be sticking with the ceramic tea jar I bought for the princely sum of ten dollars. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t even bothered to give it a name yet.
See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.
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