Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Precious pots raised from the deep

There are two Vietnamese blue and white pots in our house, a bowl and a plate, decorated respectively with fantastical fishes and dragons. We purchased them from a street vendor on an unforgettable holiday and we’ve treasured them ever since.

Click here to see a slideshow of the Ca Mau porcelain

Brand new “antiques” they might be, but no matter. Ironically enough, in the same street was a tailor who made the Business Manager (Mrs P) a silk dress. While she was being measured up and fitted out, I was taken to a backroom to see the owner’s collection of real Vietnamese antiques.

The tailor’s wife explained that the pottery had been brought to the shop by fishermen who

often pulled in their nets and found stuff in them dredged up from the seabed. Interestingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, they were decorated with designs similar to our fantastical fishes and dragons.

I could take my pick, pay the necessary and no one would trouble me at customs, I was reliably informed, specially if I hid the piece away in my luggage wrapped in a dirty shirt.

In true journalistic style, I made my excuses and left. Were in not for our fish and dragon pots, I’d be at Shrewsbury, Shropshire auctioneers Halls next week bidding for some of the porcelain pictured here.

It is what’s left of a massive consignment of 18th century export porcelain salvaged from the Ca Mau, a Chinese junk which sunk off the Vietnam coast in 1725.

Following two successful auctions of the stuff last year, Halls are hoping for similar enthusiasm from collectors when another 1,000 pieces go under the hammer.

The first part of the collection, sent for sale by a Staffordshire collector, sold for £16,000 in March. In December, the second consignment of 440 pieces sold for £7,500., Assuming that demand might be becoming satiated, there could be some bargains this time.

Halls fine art director Jeremy Lamond, the specialist in charge of the sale, told me that the Ca Mau was engulfed by an intense fire while sailing 90 miles south of Canton on its way to the Malaysian archipelago.

The fire, burning at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, may have started in the kitchen as cast iron cooking pots were found welded together.

The heat was so intense that it fused together some pieces of its precious cargo.

The junk lay undisturbed for more than 280 years until, in 1998, two Vietnamese fishermen snagged their nets on some of the porcelain and began to haul it from the deep.

Before the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information stepped in, the fishermen had managed to bring to the surface over 30,000 pieces.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government decided to sell a proportion of the 130,000 pieces that had been salvaged and sent 76,000 to auction at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam.

The sale over three days in January 2007 saw the Ca Mau finally unload its cargo to an eager market in the West after a gap of two centuries.

“Shipwreck porcelains are a fascinating subject and shed much light on history, human and marine archaeology and commerce,” Mr Lamond said.

“They represent in their purest form a time capsule, sealing in the fashion of the day represented by the most popular shapes and designs.”

After the discovery of the Nanking Cargo by Michael Hatcher in the 1980s, there have been many shipwreck porcelain sales at auction including Vung Tau, Tek Sing, and Diana.

The number of pieces offered have been breathtaking, usually 100,000 or more per sale and reflect the size of these cargoes in their day and the demand for such wares throughout South East Asia and Europe.

“To the student of porcelain, shipwreck artefacts present a unique window on the past. They are obviously not fakes or reproductions and such pieces are ideal for learning by handling,” Mr Lamond said.

“If a shipwreck has been thoroughly excavated, then dating is usually quite precise and it would not be difficult for a keen collector to pick up wares from shipwreck porcelains offered on the current market from ships dating from the Song and pre-Ming dynasties right through to the 19th century! “Arranged in chronological order, this would give the scholar a snapshot of Chinese taste and design throughout the centuries for as little as a few hundred pounds.”

The Chinese export trade to Europe in blue and white porcelain tea wares reached its zenith in the 18th century and catered for a burgeoning middle class demand for durable and attractive blue and white porcelain tableware.

In the early 18th century, when the Ca Mau sank, the principal companies dealing in the export trade were the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the East India Company of London.

Although the Ca Mau was destined for Batavia, the major part of its cargo was to be shipped on to the Netherlands and some of the porcelains were painted to Dutch taste with churches and traditional European scenes in the so-called Scheveningen design.

A great deal of the Ca Mau cargo consisted of tea bowls, saucers and saucer dishes for the mass market painted in cobalt blue against a white porcelain ground which are ideal for collectors, being easy to display, relatively inexpensive and often utilising a myriad of different patterns.

The Halls sale is next Wednesday March 11 with viewing from Saturday Mar 7. Estimates start from £120 for 30 saucers. Further information from Halls on 01743 284777.

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