Due mainly to the media involvement over the recent discoveries of shipwrecks in and around the South China Seas, so called "Cargo Collections" have been fetching high prices through the auction sale rooms. So what is special and what are these Cargoes. I would now like to give a short history of the main discoveries. There have been small junks found in rivers and inland waters carrying pottery, and obviously other boats in the China Sea have been found, but the difference being these were not generally en route to Europe with fine porcelain in their holds like those of the tea ships.
The cargoes carried by Dutch, Portuguese and British Merchant Ships from the China mainland included ceramics, Tea, Silk and Ivories. All of which are fairly light weight. As the ceramics was the heaviest, the most stable, and more importantly the least likely to be damaged if exposed to water this part of the cargo was stored in the very bottom of the holds. Here it added ballast to the ship, to give stability at sea. The problem with the bottom of cargo holds was that they were often damp if not totally awash by water at least by the end of the voyage back to Europe. If the other parts of the main cargo were stored in the bottom of the hold then they would obviously have been ruined.
Above the ceramics the tea was stored in large tea chests. The silks and ivories were stored above the water line on or near the top deck as this was the most easily damaged and most lucrative part of the cargoes. Within the Captains quarters exotic spices and eastern remedies were carried. Here they were safest from water damage and from pilfering by other members of the crew.
When the ships foundered it was usually far into the Indian Ocean but as the trade with the Far East was such a vast one many ships inevitably were lost in the more shallow seas around the Asian mainland and it is these which are the ones which are now being located often by long research, and at last are able to deliver their long awaited cargoes. One account of the perils involved in salvaging the Vung Tau cargo talks about large sea snakes and eels!
Hatcher Cargo So called as it was the first of the cargo sales and named after Captain Hatcher and his team of divers who were responsible for its salvage. Like some subsequent ones to follow it was held by Christies in Amsterdam this time in June 1984. It is the smallest in volume so far of all the cargoes and at the time Michael Hatcher was unsure whether he would be able to make any profit on the salvage. The vessel carrying the cargo was wrecked around 1640 during the time known as the Transitional period. Many count the Hatcher Cargo as having some of the most sophisticated pieces as it included reticulated bowls and even the plain white ware is fine with a smooth white glaze. As with all the following cargoes the lots were marked by a special provenance sticker, often if the lots were in pairs the sticker on one of the pieces may be missing but all single pieces should still have the sought after label. As this was the first sale many of the pieces were put in very large lots a practice which has continued through all the sales.
Nanking Cargo This cargo was also salvaged by Captain Hatcher and included over 100,000 pieces of blue and white porcelain as well as 2 very important cannons and 125 rare Chinese gold ingots. This was the wreck of the Dutch Vessel Geldermalsen which sank around 1750. The auction was held for 5 days in April-May 1986. Some of the prices realised at Auction were world records for certain pieces like the largest of the dinner services and for enormous job lots of Tea bowls and saucers. Many of the purest collectors started at this point to cast aspirations at the amount of porcelain coming up from the sea bed, saying such things that the pattern was becoming boring and the salt had adversely affected the glaze. There is a variation in the patterns and many collectors of early English blue and white seek pieces of the cargoes as they can see the patterns that inspired some of the factories in England. As for the salt denaturing the glaze it has in some cases added to the appeal of the object as it is part of its history.The first cargo was sold very quietly but this second one was the first one that received full media attention and caught the romantic imagination of the public.
Vung Tau. Like the Hatcher cargo this also dated from the Ming reign although late it was part of the Transitional period. Some of the most popular pieces out of this cargo have proved to be the miniature baluster lidded pots and the much larger garnitures. Like the earlier Nanking Cargo there was also a wealth of tea wares namely hexagonal tea bowls and saucers intensely decorated with stylised flowers. There were other patterns and designs but this has proved the easiest to obtain and the most collected.The cargo lacked some of the refinement of The Hatcher but still has much to offer the collector. Like the earlier cargoes it was sold off in large lots and in each lot there were good and not so good pieces. Many of this cargo has suffered with salt ware to the glaze and added barnacles.
The Diana. This cargo was manufactured around c1816. This also caught the romantic imagination of the public as the captain of the unfortunate vessel is thought to have gone down with his ship. The vessel sank in 1817 in the Straits of Malacca on her way from China to Madras.The ceramics from this cargo are of a heavier quality than the earlier ones but they did include some armorial ware of "The New East India Co." This would have been highly decorative with lavish use of colours and gold leaf. The normal blue and white ware was boldly painted the most popular being known as the Chrysanthemum pattern, also included were some chestnut baskets which have been sought after.This Diana cargo has enabled a new breed of collector to become established the Cargo Collector. As there have now been four cargoes salvaged there is enough variety of shapes, ages, patterns and colours being circulated for these people to go looking for pieces to add to their collections.
The Tek Sing (True Star) This was a large ocean going junk which left Amoy bound for Jakarta in January 1822 and the manifest records a cargo of teas, silk, vermilion, glass beads, Indian inks and loads of Chinese ceramics and a crew and passenger complement of 1600. When the ship sank in the Gaspar Straits there was a great loss of life despite the British Indiaman vessel under Capt. James Pearl efforts to save both people and cargo. The cargo of ceramics although primarily of the 19th century did include a substantial amount from earlier centuries, which has proved highly desirable amongst collectors. The 19th century ware was mainly destined for the markets in Jakarta where the large wealthy Chinese community would purchase it, and is often referred to as Straits ware. The markets for this ware in Europe were very limited with the rise of the European Porcelain factories. The ceramic pieces were domestic wares and a few decorative pieces. Most of it was either blue or white or Blanc de chine from the Fujian Province.
The Binh Thuan. This is dated to the first decade of the 17th Century. On the 21st July 1608 the representative for the VOC (Dutch East India Co.) wrote to say that “I Sin Ho, the Chinese merchant while returning with his junk was lost at sea somewhere near Cambodia” It is impossible to prove that this is the Binh Thuan wreck but position, cargo manifest and ceramic type match very closely.The non-perishable part of the cargo consisted of Chinese manufactured goods – Zhangzhou porcelain which came from the Fujian province of South China and cast iron pans. In the South East Asian markets these were easily traded and would fetch a high price. The porcelain was also wanted by the Europeans – The Dutch, British and Portuguese – for the ‘Inter Asiatic Trade’. Zhangzhou porcelain relied on a few shapes – saucer dishes, bowls, covered boxes jars, jarlets and small plates. Although often referred to as coarse ware with much kiln grit adhering to the base the decoration can be fine and intricate. When salvaged the cargo was sold through Christies in Melbourne, Australia, on 1st and 2nd March 2004. Many of the lots being sold to Far Eastern buyers. As before in some of the larger lots the provenance stickers seem to have only to have been applied to half of the items.
The Hoi An Hoard. This cargo had laid untouched off the coast of Vietnam for 500 years until it was properly excavated over 3 years by the Oxford University Marine Archaeology Dept. who had been commissioned by the Vietnamese Government. The very poor conditions, bad weather and very deep water meant that it took over 3 years to bring the cargo to sale in America. Due to the involvement of Oxford University the facts that were gleaned from the wreck are quite fascinating. The vessel was 30 meters long and carbon 14 tests date he vessel from 1449 plus or minus 50 years, and although Vietnamese ceramics are notoriously hard to date they have a proposed date of 1430 – 1480, but late 15th century is a safe working estimate. Originally the cargo was from the Chu Dau hamlet beside the Thai Binh River in the Red River Delta, 6 kilometres northwest of Hai Duong. The excavations showed that the junk sank late in the sailing season, as they were able to find evidence of the exotic fruits, which it carried. Perhaps it was an over loaded cargo hold with early storms which caused the vessel to come to grief. The cargo included a wide variety of ceramics including the rare Chinese Interregnum pieces, and also vast quantities of Vietnamese ceramics. These showed a wonderful range of shape and design, from water droppers modelled as toads and figures to ewers jars dishes plates and tea ware. The decorative design includes a dominance of fish birds and landscape patterns as well as some unusual geometric ones. Archaeologists also found 20 rat skulls, one cat skull, coins from the Yonglo reign in China (Early Ming dynasty), fish bones in storage jars (red snapper and Albacore), and several species of fruits and nuts.
The Cau Mau. A large ocean going Junk sank 90 nautical miles south of the Cau Mau Peninsular settling at a depth of 34 meters making life difficult for the divers. The wreck was found to contain over 130,000 pieces of porcelain. The boat was en-route to the Dutch trading station at Batavia (modern day Jakarta). The cargo has been dated around 1725 from the reign of the emperor Yongzheng. The cargo reflects the west's new found desire for porcelain cups, tea bowls and saucers, teapots and mugs from which to drink tea, coffee and chocolate from. A large ocean going Junk sank 90 nautical miles south of the Cau Mau Peninsular settling at a depth of 34 meters making life difficult for the divers. The wreck was found to contain over 130,000 pieces of porcelain. The boat was en-route to the Dutch trading station at Batavia (modern day Jakarta). The cargo has been dated around 1725 from the reign of the emperor Yongzheng. The cargo reflects the west's new found desire for porcelain cups, tea bowls and saucers, teapots and mugs from which to drink tea, coffee and chocolate from.