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The Cau Mau Cargo

Under the title 'Made in Imperial China' a vast cargo of 18th century Chinese porcelain recovered from a shipwreck in Vietnam's southernmost Cau Mau province was put up for auction in the Netherlands' capital of Amsterdam. The three-day sale, organised by Sotheby's, began on January 29, 2007 with some 76,000 porcelain pieces ranging from fine blue and white tea sets to porcelain boxes and mugs to polychrome figures.

They were among the nearly 100,000 artefacts found on the Cau Mau wreck which was salvaged betweeen 1998 and 1999 by Cau Mau provice in collaberation with the Vietnam History Museum. 'On its way from Canton to Batavia the ship probably had a fierce fire and sank off the coast of Vietnam,' Nguyen Dinh Chien, head of the salvage committee, said 'China was then closed to foreign trade.'

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 daytrawling for porcelain. In fact they brought up 35,000 pieces,' said Marcus Linnell, Sotheby's Export-porcelain expert in London.

While much of the porcelain was produced in the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, a number of pieces from the Dehua kiln complex were also found in the cargo. Some bear the mark of Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned for just 14 years); the date at which the ship, a Chinese junk, sank can therefore be put somewhere between 1723 and 1736.

The wealth of Jingdezhen was derived solely from the manufacture of porcelain, and work was always comparitevely easy to find there; even the blind, crippled and children could be employed in grinding the cobalt that was used for decoration. Père d'Enterecolles, who lived there at the beginning of the 18th century, wrote that the total population was one million and that there were 18,000 families of potters living in the city. 'Everyday', he goes on to say, 'ten thousand loads of rice and a thousand pigs are eaten, not to mention quantities of horse and dog meat.' He also states that 3,000 kilns were kept burning throughout the year, and that at night the red glow above the city gave the impression that it was on fire.

From the shapes and patterns of the pieces found on board, it is clear that the porcelain was destined for Europe and illustrated the scale of the China trade. The junks brought valuable shiploads of saltpetre, raw silk, porcelain and tea to Batavia, while the European traders offered silver, tin, pepper, sandalwood, birdsnets and other tropical import products as barter to purchase tea and porcelain.

At the outset, Europeans drank tea mainly for medicinal reasons: 'It purifies the blood, dispels heavy dreams, chases away stupidity, and strengthens Venus.' When they started to drink it for social reasons as well during the first half of the eighteenth century, China's ports began to attract an ever-greater number of western merchants. With much of Europe hooked on the drink, the Dutch East India Company and other European companies lined up in Canton to get a piece of the action.

Aside from the porcelain, other artefacts on the ship also survived, among them bronze dishes, lamps and chinese coins, all of which would most probably have played a vital part in the lives of those who manned the ship. Perhaps the most intriguing and revelatory of all the other artefacts found were two carved seals one of which was personal seal of its owner Pan Tingcai, a prominent hing merchant.

The Chinese had much disdain for the European traders; they called them Fan Kwae, or foreign devils. They restricted the traders to a quarter-mile strip of land along the waterfront of Canton, where the factories, or hongs, were located. The hong buildings, rented for the two-to three-month trading season, each flying the flag of a different European nation were an exotic site for a first-time visitor. In his memoirs, the English diarist William Hickey wrote of Canton in 1769, 'The magnitude and novelty of the architecture must always surprise strangers ... the scene upon the water is as busy as the Thames below London Bridge.'

Not far from the European factories in Canton were those belonging to the hong merchants. Each nation dealt with an assigned hong merchant, who was responsible for receiving incoming cargo and fulfilling outgoing orders. He was answerable to the Chinese government for all behaviour and business dealings of the Europeans during their stay in China. Negotiations between the hong merchant and the supercargo (a businessman at sea) were usually carried out through a 'linguist', or interpreter - the Chinese were forbidden to teach their language to foreigners.

Loading the ship for the return was done with great care. The porcelain wares would be carefully placed at the bottom of the hold, along with pig iron, tin, or any other available heavy items, serving as a base on which the main cargo - tea - would remain dry. the base or ballast would also act as a counterweight for the masts and sails, holding the vessel steady in the open sea. Raw silk, textiles, lacquer, spices and drugs would be stored anywhere space could be found on board.

Despit this dramatic history, and a subsequent 280 years on the seabed, the condition of the Cau Mau cargo was remarkably good - a consequence, no doubt, of their inherent quality: the vast majority of the piecse having been made at the kilns of Jingdezhen - the city where all the Chinese Imperial porcelain was produced and the place, therefore, associated with the finest of Chinese porcelain

If you decide to purchase a piece of the Cau Mau cargo - or indeed any cargo - you should note the following points:

Loss of glaze or a slightly matt finish is acceptable.
Check condition carefully, small fritting to rims or fine hair cracks can be acceptable but disfiguring damage will affect value.
Barnacles are intriguing but will affect value.
Most of the pieces sold through Sotheby's, Christies and other major auction houses should have some form of provenance in the form of a sticker attached to them; but these can be lost or removed and, in particular, the Hatcher cargo does not always retain its stickers.
Buy pieces from dealers who specialise in Chinese ceramics.
Patterns vary so try to buy a piece which is interesting and a good example of the pattern.