January 22, 2021

Is My Chinese Pottery Horse Authentic?

Lark Mason, Jr.



Ceramic objects differ by the type of clay and the firing temperature. This guide is for low-fired, earthenware models made from the Han through Tang Dynasty in China, roughly the early 2nd Century BC through around 900 AD.Models made of horses, people, and other forms were intended to accompany the deceased into the next world and were not intended to be regularly handled nor have any other utilitarian use. Professionals in the museum and art business look for these  clues to determine condition and authenticity based on the history of the pieces as well as years of examining these types of wares. 


Large Chinese Pottery Prancing Horse, Sichuan Provence, Han Dynasty
Large Chinese Pottery Prancing Horse, Sichuan Provence, Han Dynasty, available on iGavel Auctions until January 26, 2021


 Chinese tomb pottery models were made over many thousands of years and models of horses were primarily created during the Han through the Tang dynasty. These models come in a variety of styles and sizes. The largest were from the Sichuan region and can be glazed or unglazed and the finest examples usually are in a Sancai glaze (three color) that usually is in tones described as chestnut, straw, or green. More unusual are those with blue. These glazes were lead-based and have a very fine crackled appearance under a loupe.

Chinese Sancai Glazed Figure of a Horse, Tang Dynasty
Chinese Sancai Glazed Figure of a Horse, Tang Dynasty, Sold on iGavel Auctions for $16,888


Painted pottery horses were modeled in clay, usually in molds which were then painted after removal from the kiln. Some of these models were covered with a cream to white colored ‘slip’ which is a finer clay surface that provides a more finished appearance for the horse and highlights the painted pigments. 

Many horses were equipped in the tomb with fabric, horsehair, or other materials to augment the pottery model. These organic materials rarely survive and are almost always missing. Han horses often have large ceramic bodies with separately modeled heads, tails, and legs made of clay or wood, which if wood, are usually missing due to rot.  


Large Chinese Pottery Walking Horse, Sichuan Province, Han Dynasty
Large Chinese Pottery Walking Horse, Sichuan Province, Han Dynasty, Available on iGavel Auctions until January 26, 2021

Horses have heavy clay bodies with slender legs that either are free standing or attached to a rectangular base. If glazed, the glaze will help stabilize the pottery because it provides a protective surface over the ow-fired clay model, repelling moisture. If painted, moisture will wear away the painted decorative elements and even the clay slip. When viewing a pottery horse, do so with an appreciation of the condition of the tomb. 

Buried underground, tombs were supported with wood beams and clay-tiled roofs and walls. Over time oxidation could cause heat buildup and fires that would burn through the wood supports. Water seepage would also cause instability to the underground structure. When the structure collapsed or partially collapsed, the fragile pottery objects in the tomb would not withstand contact with a hard surface but would survive a gradual seepage of wet or moist soil slowly entering in and around the objects.    


 Damage also occurred during the removal of the items from the tomb. Some items came from direct excavations where the earth was removed, and the objects slowly revealed. Others were deep underground and tunnels dug down into the tomb, which in many instances still remained intact. The narrow ‘well’ dug to the tomb would usually be in a small dimension and large pottery objects might have to be purposely and carefully cut to remove in sections. Damages from natural patterns of contact with water and burial are different from those broken out of the tomb which could be purposeful or by accident. In both cases, most tomb pottery models were restored or repaired, and the surface sometimes has a fine random series of minute dark particle pigments that the restorer airbrushed over the damaged areas. 

Typical areas of damage are the neck, which is often broken through at the base, the legs usually at the lower part of the leg, ears, and sometimes through the main body. Occasionally elements were missing and in the mix of broken parts in the tomb these were gathered together and then pieced onto the damaged horse. Sometimes these augmentations are very obvious because the proportions are odd. Other times the replacements are not clear, and these can be very difficult to discern from a broken and repaired area using the original material.

Broken and damaged pottery horses are not unusual and most earlyChinese pottery figures are damaged and repaired or restored. The degree of damage is what is important and the location of the damage. Damage in a prominent and very noticeable location is detrimental to the appeal of the object because it changes the way the object is viewed. Damage in areas that are easily concealed is less problematic.

TL Report for Large Chinese Pottery Prancing Horse, Sichuan Provence, Han Dynasty
Thermoluminescent report from Oxford Authentication in England indicating the scientific testing results from clay samples of a Sichuan Province Han horse, iGavel Auctions


One of the ways that dating is confirmed is through a thermoluminescent test or TL test, and the premier testing organization for art and antiques is Oxford Laboratories in England. Small samples are drilled into the clay body in several locations to verify that that the overall figure is of the same date and origin. Samples are then sent to England, tested and a report issued for the tested object. 

Detail showing the side of a large Sichuan Han dynasty pottery horse showing the remnants of the white clay slip that once covered the body, note the reddish brown clay body and the circular discolored area on the rump which may be pitting that was filled-in with a slightly different colored clay, this will likely appear as a different color under a black light

A separate pottery tail often found on Sichuan Han dynasty pottery horses, note that the color of the clay is gray, typical of this particular type of horse

Detail of a pottery horse foreleg showing showing a slight discoloration of the material used to cover the break at the upper leg and above the knee and immediately below the knee, a break of the leg in the background is also visible beneath the knee, these will appear as a different color under a black light

Detail of nose of horse showing finely crackled lead glaze and straw and chestnut colors common on Tang ceramic pottery models

Underside of base showing repaired breaks, visible by slightly different tone of clay