Delicate blue and white porcelain tea bowls and saucers, plates and platters, all painted with traditional Chinese themes. Porcelain so thin that you can see light through it. How did something – actually a treasure trove of something – so fine and delicate, survive at the bottom of the South China Sea for 235 years?
This is the “Nanking Cargo”, a name given to a 150,000-piece hoard of Chinese porcelain and 125 pure gold ingots that was auctioned by Christie’s Amsterdam office in 1986.
This precious cargo had finally arrived at its intended destination of Holland, only 235 years later than planned.
The first time I ever encountered a piece of this exquisite porcelain was at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg. I had to know more…
The Geldermalsen was an immense cargo ship belonging to the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company. She was one of six ships that had been commissioned for the Zeeland division of the Dutch East India Company. This ship weighed 1,150 metric tons, a workhorse christened in 1746, built for long voyages and for carrying huge cargos. Geldermalsen’s maiden voyage in August of 1748 took her to exotic locales like Java, China, Japan and India. The ship had to travel great distances and many months between ports, and the crew were busy loading and unloading cargo many times depending on the port. After a close call with pirates off of Goa in March of 1751, Geldermalsen headed back toward Canton to join the other ships of the East India Company – almost three years after she had originally left Holland.
The Fateful Voyage
In Canton, a new crew came on board. Geldermalsen’s new captain was a 33 year old man by the name of Jan Diederik Morel. Morel oversaw the inventorying and loading of the final cargo to be taken on before the ship headed for home. Along with 239,200 pieces of porcelain, the detailed cargo manifest notes textiles, tea and lacquerware. There was also a chest containing gold pieces.
The ship left Canton in December 1751. On January 3rd, 1752, after 16 days at sea, the weather was fine and the seas were good. The captain, believing he was oriented properly based on the sighting of a small island used to set course, gave orders to head south.
Just after dark, the boatswain saw breakers in front of the ship and yelled a warning, but it was already too late. The Geldermalsen crashed into a reef that was just below the surface. She managed to get free, but because of an incorrect order given by Morel, she ran onto the reef again. By this point, the ship was damaged beyond being seaworthy. One of the lifeboats was also damaged while being lowered, and out of an original crew of 112, only 32 men survived.
How the wreck was discovered
When the survivors of the wreck arrived in two open boats in what is now Jakarta, they were interrogated for weeks about what had happened. Because the gold was missing, there was suspicion that these “survivors” had somehow taken the gold and stashed it. How could such a disaster happen in such well-charted and well-traveled waters?
The records of these interrogations lay in the vaults of the Dutch East India archives in Holland, untouched. The details in these old documents enabled a team of treasure hunters led by Michael Hatcher to locate the resting place of the Geldermalsen.
Salvage and controversy
Depending on whom you listen to, Michael Hatcher and his team were either reckless fortune hunters with no regard for the archaeological or cultural lessons to be learned from examining and mapping an old ship, or they were brave adventurers who combed the sea floor to find this needle in a haystack and raise whatever cargo they could.
Hatcher managed to salvage over 150,000 pieces of porcelain and much of the gold after months of fruitless searching. The wreck was located, covered over by three feet of silt and living coral. The porcelain had been protected from the sea because it had been packed in tea inside wooden crates so long ago. The tea not only provided a cushion but would also have been very saleable cargo in the 1700s.
When it heard rumors about an upcoming auction to monetize the cache, the Chinese government sought help to try to claim and repatriate the porcelain, as the country of origin. But international laws pertaining to maritime salvage operations were of no help. There were no laws compelling anyone to return the treasure to China.
The Auction April 28 – May 2, 1986
Christie’s Amsterdam offices were chosen to hold the auction of what was now known as The Nanking Cargo. Prices were originally not expected to reach lofty heights.
Then the international press picked up the story, and the frenzy began. The story attracted what was unprecedented interest for an auction of decorative art, as it was categorized. Christie’s Amsterdam office was besieged by requests for “absentee” bids from people who could not travel to Amsterdam for the auction. The staff registered 125,000 absentee bidders and an additional 5,000 who planned to be present at the Amsterdam Hilton for the auction. Christie’s printed 12,000 catalogs, which was their biggest printing ever at that time.
The five-day sale broke every record in the book. Eight auctioneers worked in shifts to sell the 2,800 lots. The Chinese government sent two experts on Chinese porcelain to the auction in Amsterdam, hoping to buy some of the lots. Christies gave the Chinese paddle number one as a courtesy. Sadly, they had no opportunity to raise that paddle over the course of the auction, as they couldn’t even afford the opening prices for the lots.
When the final hammer fell on day five, the total amount realized was over $20 Million U.S.[Kaili Bisson: The Nanking Cargo (2013)]
Christie’s Amsterdam: The Nanking Cargo: Chinese Export Porcelain (28 April – 2 May, 1986) [plates]
Private collection, Madrid