Several months ago I bought these three beautiful Chinese tea cups at an antique store. They were inaccurately labeled “sake cups” by the seller. They have lovely detailed hand-painted figures and patterns on them with real gold accents and are about 2″ in diameter, perfect size for gongfu tea. I used them a couple of times using the traditional gongfu method with a competition-grade ti kuanyin. The cups have a very nice delicate feel in the hand – nice weight and thickness and feel on the lip.
I am generally an advocate of using utilitarian objects for their intended purposes rather than shelving them away, regardless of their fragility, value or rarity. But I also recognize that when using antiques in situations in which they come in contact with food and drink some care should be taken to ensure that they are safe to use.
Having read and heard a small amount about lead in antique glazes, I thought it would probably be prudent to check these teacups for lead. Unlike many cups which are unpainted or more simply glazed on the inside these are decorated in their entirety, making the determination even more important since the tea would be in contact with the surface most likely to be unsafe. So I picked up a lead test kit at the hardware store and, after carefully following the instructions, watched as the swab began to turn pink, indicating that there was indeed lead leaching out of the cups. I was more than a little disappointed that I would have to relegate these special cups to a display cabinet rather than using them, but I was glad that I had taken the precaution to test them rather than continuing swallowing bits of lead with my good teas!
Test kits for lead are readily available and not very expensive. The kit I bought had two swabs in it. It seems well worth taking the time to perform the test on any suspect items, just to be on the safe side. More about testing for lead can be read here.
This is an excellent resource for information on post-1875 Chinese porcelains.