Please don’t call it a teapot museum. Nirmal Sethia probably wouldn’t like that. The Indian billionaire is a man who refuses to drink any tea served with milk or sugar. Tea, he declares, is a serious matter and so is the business of making, transporting, holding and serving it.
The latter is so important that Sethia, 75, has amassed one of the world’s leading collections of tea accessories, a 1,700-item strong assortment dating back to the 10th Century BC and ranging from a Song Dynasty “hare's fur" tea bowl to a silver teapot with a wooden handle engraved “N” which was used by Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Named after his late wife Chitra, the collection also includes a silver and enamel 1910 Faberge tea caddy that is thought to have been used by the Romanov royal family of Russia, a 17th Century German gilt monkey “trinkspiel,” a 19th Century Sevres tea service bought by France’s King Louis XVIII and a late 18th Century silver teapot and stand given to Sir Winston Churchill’s daughter on her wedding by her father’s wartime office.
Valued at up to £160m, the assortment of tea treasures was pronounced the ”world’s finest and most comprehensive private collection of historic teaware” by the organisers of last year’s LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair, where pieces from the collection were given a rare London viewing.
Now, the N Sethia Foundation is building a permanent home for the Chitra Collection in London, where tea aficionados will be able to be inspired by more than a millennium of tea-bearing vessels.
“To preserve the tea heritage and culture, our company is the only company in the world to have supported the creation of a collection like this,” says Sethia. “It’s the biggest collection of its kind in the world and has objects of great provenance.
“It also includes an Egoist teapot that I designed that has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the most valuable teapot in the world.
“An exhibition of some of the collection has been shown in Kazakhstan because its president wanted to celebrate his 75th birthday and we lent his government 98 pieces.
“We have also been told by the Russian ambassador to the UK that the Hermitage in St Petersburg wants to take the collection.
“But the collection will remain with our foundation and now we want others to be able to see it here. This is the most unique collection.
“Nothing in the world can match it and it is my expression of gratitude to the UK to have an archive of it there.”
The archive is due to be completed later this year. However, it will only be open by appointment with the N Sethia Foundation.
The love of tea goes back more than 60 years for Sethia, who left his school in London at the age of 14 to become an apprentice tea taster.
He later worked for a major tea importer, started Sethia Tea Estates in Kolkata, India and bought a tea plantation in Assam.
After the age of 24, Sethia got involved in jute that was used to make rope and bags. However, in 2000 he returned to tea to help his nephews found a business called Newby Teas with the mission of reacquainting the world with the inspiring culture of tea.
Newby Teas, which is 49 per cent owned by the N Sethia Foundation charitable trust, has a tea factory in Kolkata and sells its high-end products to five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as through Sainsbury’s supermarkets. The company’s biggest market is Russia, while N Sethia Group employs more than 5,000 people worldwide
“The industry had been polluted and corrupted to a stage where the history and culture of tea had been forgotten completely,” he says. “Tea has a glorious industry but not many people knew about it.”
The early years were a struggle and four years later, the businessman was stressed by the difficulty of the task he had given himself and on the verge of closing down the company but was urged by Chitra to carry on.
“My wife said ‘please don’t do that,’” he recalls, “and told me that I was the one to make history in tea. I had to try to do something different.
“All my life I have been a contrarian. I have always believed that I was born not to be common. And in 2004 I decided that if I have to do something different, the first thing to do is to revive the tea culture and the best way to do that was to preserve the character of tea.”