A shipwreck yields cargo of treasured porcelain





[Last] week in Amsterdam, Sotheby's [began] selling 76,000 pieces of Chinese Export porcelain recovered from a circa 1725 shipwreck off the coast of present-day Vietnam. Because it was bound for the western market, the cargo reveals the era's fads and fashions in Europe, and precise details about the arduous journey made by goods in demand...

"In the 18th century, if it took two years to get something, it was still worthwhile doing," says Marcus Linell, Sotheby's Export-porcelain expert in London. "There was this incredible passion in Europe, and America as well, for tea and for coffee -- stimulating drinks that were not alcoholic. And if you want to drink a hot drink, unless you have porcelain to drink out of, it's something of a problem."...

The cargo [being] sold at Sotheby's...includes thousands of tea bowls, teapots, jugs, mantel vases and figural pieces, such as a rare ewer in the form of a monkey. Though many pieces were recoverable in good condition, the sale also includes lots of fascinating "sea sculptures" - nested porcelain pieces welded together by encrustations.

The sale is being held in Amsterdam because the wreck took place on the trading route of the Dutch East India Company, as the loaded junk made its way from Canton to the trading center at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta)...

"The cargo was an accidental find by Vietnamese fishermen. They pulled up their nets, and there was porcelain in them. They quickly discovered that the porcelain was valuable, and they went out day after day trawling for porcelain. In fact, they brought up 35,000 pieces."

When news of the find reached the Vietnamese press in 1998, Linell says: "The government jumped in, mounted an official salvage operation, and forced the fishermen to return what they had found." Eventually, 130,000 pieces were recovered from one ship, an indication of the huge amounts that were exported each year.


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