Enfilade

At Auction | Fourteen Lots of Porcelain from the ‘Geldermalsen’

Posted in Art Market by Editor on February 6, 2017

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Diane KW, The Geldermalsen Triptych: The Harvest, The Catastrophe, The Politics, 2013; found Chinese porcelain shards with digital ceramic transfers (Groninger Museum). The large basin shards in this triptych work recount their history from the order and production of decorated porcelain pieces (The Harvest), to the shipwreck (The Catastrophe) and loss of the porcelain, to the storm of controversy after the sale of the salvaged pieces (The Politics). The triptych was part of the exhibition At World’s End—The Story of a Shipwreck: Works by Diane KW (Honolulu Museum of Art, January — April 2014).

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21143854810An upcoming auction in Atlanta recalls a 1752 shipwreck, a 1986 auction and monograph, a 1992 article, a 2014 exhibition, and lots of questions about looted artifacts. There’s a measure of wry tragedy in the fact that this week’s sale takes place at Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery. In a Borgesian universe, one might imagine a litany of items with similarly dubious histories on offer at the gallery. Please, someone write that story! It would make for a fabulous reading at a HECAA luncheon. Or maybe it would work as a theme for structuring a conference panel. Wanted: proposals with rapacious villains, international stakes, ethical quandaries, and plenty of misinformation (‘alternative facts’ to use the current jargon), all as reception history for material that is of genuine scholarly significance. –Craig Hanson

George L. Miller, “The Second Destruction of the Geldermalsen,” Historical Archaeology 26 (1992): 124–31.
Abstract: This review of C. J. A. Jörg’s book on the Chinese porcelain from the Dutch East India Company ship Geldermalsen, which sank in 1752 [The Geldermalsen: History and Porcelain (Groningen: Kemper Publisher, 1986)], addresses some broader questions involved in the destruction of shipwreck sites for commercial profit. These questions grew out of the issue of what relationship scholars should have with those who destroy sites and acquire objects from them. The first part of the article is a review of Jorg’s book, followed by a commentary on the problems that collecting from looted sites raise.

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Blue and white porcelain cups and saucers recovered from the shipwrecked Geldermalsen in 1985
(Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery, Atlanta)

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From the auction press release, via Art Daily (5 February 2017). . .

When the Geldermalsen ship crashed into a reef and sank in the South China Sea during its return journey to the Netherlands in January of 1752, it claimed the lives of eighty crew members who went down with the vessel’s precious cargo of tea, textiles, gold, silk, lacquer, and porcelain. As part of the fleet of the powerful Dutch East India Company commissioned for the Zeeland division, the loss of the mighty Geldermalsen hardly went unnoticed.

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The press release mistakenly dates the Christie’s auction to 1985. While the catalogue was released in December of 1985, the auction itself took place in April and May 1986. Image from a 2011 article on Hatcher from China.org.cn.

Over two hundred years later, a successful salvage expert named Captain Michael Hatcher would excavate the ship and its contents, giving new understanding of eighteenth-century trade demands and the rise of porcelain’s availability. Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery will offer fourteen lots of blue and white porcelain from this incredible salvage from the personal collection of one of the expedition’s private backers. The auction is slated for February 10, 11, and 12, with 11am start times all three days, online and in the firm’s Atlanta gallery at 5180 Peachtree Boulevard.

Hatcher, along with his partner Max de Rham, a marine geophysicist, led a successful team of divers who unearthed the precious bounty that would catapult its already famous hunter into superstardom. ‘The Nanking Cargo’, as it became known by its sale at Christie’s Amsterdam in April of 1985 [sic], contained a massive trove of the aforementioned blue and white porcelain, which was originally potted in China’s Jiangzi province bound for European markets. The sheer scope of this find shed light on the true nature of the market’s demands, as traditional experts had always believed the records kept by the DEIC [Dutch East India Company, or VOC] had exaggerated their shipments of porcelain. Safely protected underwater by the tea loosely packed in wooden crates, the porcelain in the Nanking Cargo represented the range of influence eastern artisans had over western tastes during the eighteen century.

Hatcher and his team had the untouched archives of the DEIC in Holland to thank for locating the whereabouts of this famous—and suspicious wreck. Due to the nature of the disaster—in well chartered waters by one of the world’s most esteemed shipping companies—the DEIC spent weeks interrogating the survivors who had made it to present-day Jakarta on two open boats. Not only was an entire cargo worth of precious porcelain and trade goods missing, but so was the gold, at first believed to be hidden by the survivors. With such detailed records on hand, Hatcher would embark on months of searching, believing his efforts to be worthless until they unearthed the treasure from a three foot layer of silt and coral.

The excitement generated by the find was evident during the first frenzied days of the cargo’s namesake auction at Christie’s Amsterdam. International interest—both financial and historical—had taken hold and this caught the attention of the Chinese government, who tried unsuccessfully to bring the porcelain back to its country of origin. Maritime salvage laws permitted the cargo to go across the auction block, where it broke numerous records and raised a staggering $20 million USD.

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