Fetching HK$5.28m at Poly Auction, aged Pu'er tea remains an emerging luxurious commodity

On 10 July, Poly Auction Hong Kong’s 10th Anniversary auctions was unveiled by a rare pu’er tea and teaware sale. The most expensive lot went to a 1920s 7-piece pu’er tea cake weighing around 2.24 kilograms, having sold for HK$5.28 million (around US$672,000) after fees.

In recent years, the market for aged pu’er tea has grown tremendously and it has become the latest collector’s item to rise to luxury status. Last year at Poly Auction Hong Kong, another 7-piece century-old pu’er tea fetched a whopping HK$13.8 million (around US$1.7 million), meaning each piece is valued around HK$1.9 million.

With an increasing demand in the market, a wave of craze for pu’er tea has ignited – what is so special about pu’er that people would spend big dollars on it?

Lot 1548 | Seven pieces of antique pu’er tea cakes, ‘tong xing hao', xiang qingji
Circa 1920s
Weight: approximately 2246g
Non-fermented tea
Estimate: HK$3,600,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,400,000
Sold: HK$5,280,000 (around US$672,000)

Produced from the Yunnan province in southwestern China, pu’er tea is a post-fermented tea which is known to enhance its quality and flavour through aging. Mellow with a one-of-a-kind scent, decades-old pu’er could said to be a ‘drinkable antique’.

Since imperial China, pu’er tea had already been a prized commodity, traded to Tibet in exchange for horses through the famous Tea Horse Road – which stretched across the mountainous vistas between Yunnan and Tibet, and even all the way into Siberia, India and Thailand. These trades made tea industry a bustling and lucrative business at the time.

Ancient Tea Horse Road

Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress, collection of the Palace Museum

During the Qing dynasty (1636–1912), pu’er industry in China flourished and reached its peak. Fascinated by its unique aroma and health benefits in the view of Chinese medicine – easing digestion in particular, pu’er tea had become the royal family’s favourite, where 66,000 kilograms of pu’er of the highest grade was to be tributed to the royal court in Beijing each year.

Much like fine wine in the West, tea was an important part of the palace life in China. Across different dynasties in ancient China, fine pu’er was served during royal ceremonies, competitions, literary gathering and lectures. And Qianlong Emperor’s famous affection for tea had further elevated its status as a high-class commodity, as he once said, ‘How can the Emperor be without tea for a single day?’

The blue inner ticket of the present lot

At the end of Qing dynasty, Hao Ji Cha, century-old antique tea, was produced by private tea brands. A competitive industry then, the brands started to develop its characteristic by creating a unique style in the selection of raw tea leaves, packaging, and trademark design.

Among all tea brands at the time, five names prevailed others, including the brand of the present lot, Tong Xing Hao. Founded in 1733, it was the first tea brand in Yunnan to be formally registered and one of the largest tea houses in China.

As fake teas of inferior quality emerged, the antique tea cakes produced by renowned brand were usually packaged with inner tickets that provide information such as leaf type and claim of authenticity. In the present lot, the blue inner ticket with black label is still clearly visible.

The blue inner ticket with black label of the present lot

Its long-garnered status aside, another thing that pushed up the price of antique pu’er tea is its rarity. Pu’er teacake demands pedantic storage and is best kept in darkness with moderate humidity – which poses challenges to many pu’er connoisseurs, especially when Hong Kong, notoriously known for its humid weather, has been an essential hub for tea trading from the past to present.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1530 | Six pieces of pu'er tea cakes
Weight: Approximately 2020g
Estimate: HK$880,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer Price: HK$880,000
Sold: HK$1,056,000 

Lot 1547 | A piece of antique pu'er tea cake, 'tong xing hao', xiang zhiqing
Circa 1920s 
Weight: Approximately 321g
Estimate: HK$660,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer Price: HK$680,000
Sold: HK$816,000 

Lot 1522 | Eighty-four pieces of pu'er tea cakes
Weight: Approximately 30kg
Estimate: HK$400,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: HK$400,000
Sold: HK$480,000 

Auction Details:
Auction House: Poly Auction Hong Kong
Sale: Rare Pu’er Tea and Teaware Auction
Date: 10 July 2022
Sale Total: HK$16,003,200 (around US$2.03 million)