In 5,000 years of tea drinking, tea bowls have changed very little in form across Asia. They are made predominantly of pottery, remain small in size and have no handles. While Europeans originally used tea ware imported from Japan and China, European porcelain makers would soon respond to complaints that tea drinkers were burning their fingers on tea bowls, and it was Robert Adams to whom the design of the handled teacup, saucer and teapot are attributed. His classical Greek and Roman designs became much sought-after.
Tea drinking dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient China, where it is said that Emperor Shen Nong embarked upon a long journey during which his court stopped to rest. Servants, boiling water for the emperor to drink, allowed leaves from a bush to fall into the pot, and seeing this, the emperor, a herbalist and scientist, drank it and found it refreshing. The practice of tea drinking quickly spread throughout the land. It was not, however, until Buddhist priest Yeisei, following a trip to China, returned to Japan with tea, that it was to be elevated to the art form that it still is there. It was not until the 1600s that the craze for tea would sweep through Europe.
The finest and most desirable teacups are made of porcelain of bone china. Porcelain is fired, then glazed and fired again, allowing for a very refined dish. Bone china is made similarly to porcelain, but finely ground bone ash is added to the clay. Stoneware and earthenware are also common in modern production, as it is cheaper and more durable for everyday use. The fineness of porcelain can be determined by holding a hand up to the light and holding a piece in front of it. If the outline of the fingers can be seen through the piece, it is a good indication of the quality of the porcelain.
Most porcelain and china manufacturers mark their wares with their own back stamps. These stamps often change every few years, and this helps collectors to date wares and attribute them to specific makers relatively easily. Tea wares stamped "Made in Occupied Japan" are difficult to find. At the end of World War II, the Allied Forces occupied Japan and insisted that all exports be stamped is this manner. The Japanese found this insulting, and, when they thought they could get away with it, stamped exports "Made in Japan." As a result, items stamped "Made in Occupied Japan" are rare and very desirable to collectors.
Imari ware teacups are much sought-after. The center of the Japanese porcelain production is in Arita on the island of Kyushu. Imari is the nearest port to Arita, and it is Imari that has become a synonym for Japanese porcelain in general. Ko-Imari, as old Imari of the 1700s and 1800s is known, was copied widely. Original pieces are rare and particularly collectible for their fine artistry, distinctive five color glazes, and gold and silver embellishment. When valuing Imari, it is important to ensure that any gold and silver decoration is still intact; it frequently wears off with age. European makers such as Meissen and Royal Doulton should also be sought for their high quality.
Any antique is worth only as much as one person is prepared to pay for it, and like all antiques, teacups can sell at prices ranging from a few dollars to many thousands of dollars. To value specific teacups, it is necessary to consider varying factors including the condition of the pieces, the quality of the decoration, the maker, its popularity and its rarity. Collectors should also take into consideration the location of the pieces, the sophistication of the prospective buyer and the seller and the number of other interested parties.