Certain shipwrecks call out to historians and treasure hunters alike. Titanic. Carpathia. Lusitania. And for collectors of Asian ceramics, the shipwreck of Hội An.
In the early 1990s, the crew of a fishing vessel began finding ceramic fragments in their nets when they worked the waters surrounding Cu Lao Cham Island, 35 kilometres off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea. The fragments brought to shore fetched good prices from antique dealers in the nearby town of Hôi An, and several fishing teams also began harvesting the relics. Vietnam has strict laws controlling the export of artifacts, resulting in the ceramics being traded in a clandestine fashion. Black market examples made their way throughout Asia and into American and Europe without the government’s knowledge of the treasure trove lying off the coast of Cu Lao Cham.
After years of trawling, the abundance of free-floating ceramics began to wane. The wreck was located in a spot too deep for divers to access, which prompted treasure hunters to drag hooks and rakes along the sea floor in an attempt to dislodge more porcelain. This massively destructive plundering might have continued unabated were it not for the chance arrest of two Japanese art dealers. Stopped at Da Nang Airport due to their overstuffed suitcases full of contraband porcelain, the dealers were charged with smuggling illicit antiquities, and unwittingly led authorities straight to the town of Hôi An.
From the 15th to 19th century, Hôi An was a major trading port, placed as it was alongside one of the busiest shipping lands in the world. Asian and European shipwrecks are plentiful in the area, though many remain unexplored and unreclaimed due to the prohibitive cost of these undertakings. The Vietnamese government began exploring the Hôi An wreck, but were confounded by the depth of the site, situated 70 metres underwater. Lacking the funds or capabilities to complete the project, amultinational crew of over 160 divers, archaeologists and seamen was assembled. The expedition was led by Malaysian-Chinese businessman Ong Soo Hin, the owner of a Singapore-based salvage and excavation company, and marine archaeologist Mensun Bound, the director of Oxford University’s Maritime Archaeological Research and Excavation unit. Ong would finance the project in exchange for the right to personally sell a portion of the artifacts recovered.
Frank Pope, the expedition’s archaeological manager, describes these two main characters as “a corner-cutting financier with a smash-and-grab track record in marine salvage…[who] needed Bound’s credibility to cut international red tape.” Bound, conversely, needed Ong’s funding, as “wrecks were fast disappearing at the hands of dredgers and cable-layers as well as treasure-hunters, while archaeologists stood by helplessly, lacking the funds to work.”
The project began in 1997. After much searching, the site of the actual wreck was located. The crew braced themselves for the possibility that irreversible damage had been done to the site by the looters, who had already haphazardly harvested over 50,000 ceramic pieces. Careful probing revealed that the upper layers of the site contained only freshly broken pieces, but as the team dug deeper, cameras revealed rows and rows of intact porcelain. Bound explained that “the dishes and rice cups were stacked as if in a market.”
The crew was now faced with a new challenge: how to extract this many ceramics from a site that deep? Treasure found at these and greater depths had been successfully salvaged using cherry pickers, but the quantity of ceramics at the Hôi An site was colossal—some 250,000 pieces. Routine diving procedures require divers to ascend from great depths very slowly so as to avoid a rapid decrease in pressure. When diving, extra oxygen and nitrogen is taken in by the body, with the nitrogen absorbed into the bloodstream and tissues. If a diver surfaces too fast, the nitrogen will form hazardous bubbles inside the body, provoking a potentially fatal process known as decompression sickness or, more colloquially, the bends. The site of the Hôi An wreck was notorious for its rough conditions, poor visibility, strong currents and sudden typhoons—as well as pirates!—prompting the recovery expedition to employ a method known as saturation diving.
Saturation diving was invented to eliminate the wasted time and resources required to repressurize. When not submerged, divers are kept in an artificial environment that remains at the same pressure as underwater conditions. As such, their bodies remain saturated with nitrogen, allowing then to work for long periods underwater, needing only to decompress once at the end of their time on the expedition rather than daily. They eat and sleep in specially fitted pressurized chambers similar to those of a spaceship, exiting only via diving bell to descend for their 12-hour shift on the ocean floor.
Porcelain was hauled up from the deep using a massive crane before being cleaned and placed in a desalinization tank, a necessary safeguard to prevent cracking once exposed to oxygen. Documentation and further cleaning followed, all undertaken from the deck of barges and ships floating on an unpredictable sea.
Experts were able to trace the porcelain’s origins to the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam, specifically the kilns at Chu Dau, a town famous for the quality of its ceramics. The majority of the pieces recovered are blue-and-white wares. Experts posit that the Hôi An ship was in fact a Thai trading vessel, with Bound noting that “the range was really quite amazing on this ship… you could see the mind of the merchant.”
Dated to the 15thcentury, the relics from the Hôi An shipwreck represent a fleeting moment in Vietnam’s history when the nation was self-ruled. The period of the Lê Dynasty is seen as a brief renaissance of artistic and political liberation, with the ceramics pulled from the Hôi An wreck having changed the way experts think about art and commerce from that period. While many of the designs borrow from Chinese prototypes, others are uniquely Vietnamese.
The most precious ceramics recovered were kept by the Vietnamese government to be displayed at the Natural History Museum in Hanoi and other museums throughout the country. The rest of the Hôi An Hoard, as the collection was titled, was sold in October 2000 at the San Francisco auction house Butterfield’s.
We are delighted to offer five lots of ceramics, lots 146-150, from the Hôi An Hoard in our March Asian Art auction.
We invite you to browse the full catalogue for this auction as well, which includes a beautiful Longquan celadon bowl of the Southern Song style and a selection of Chinese jade carvings. In addition to Chinese antiques, look for a large quantity of Japanese ceramics, metal wares, netsuke, and other collectibles. Also included is the final instalment of snuff bottles from the Estate of Lois Orkin, Toronto, alongside offerings from Korea to Southeast Asia, all the way to Tibet and the Middle East.
Curious about ceramics lost at sea? Read out blog about the Geldermalsen and the Nanking Cargo.
The March Asian Art auction will be offered online from February 27-March 4, 2021.
Please note that all transactions are in Canadian Dollars (CAD) and all times posted are ET.
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