BLOG FEBRUARY 2017
Under the Deep Blue Sea: Unearthing History with the ʻNanking Cargoʼ
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 (DEIC) commissioned for the Zeeland division, the loss of the mighty Geldermalsen hardly went unnoticed. 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 is pleased to be offering in our February 10, 11 and 12, 2017 auction, fourteen auction lots of blue and white porcelain from this incredible salvage venture.
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, contained a massive trove of the aforementioned blue and white porcelain, which was originally potted in China’s Jiangzi province and 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 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.
Captain 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. Consider this your chance to own a piece of decorative and maritime history; perhaps it will inspire the treasure hunter in you!