Published: October 24, 2000
Ceramics of the Hoi An Hoard
Butterfields Online Auction Finds a Wide Audience and a Mixed Response
A vast collection of rare, centuries-old Vietnamese ceramics offered October 11 and 12 in Butterfields’ “” auction drew buyers from museums, the trade and the Vietnamese community. The event grossed more than $2.8 million, and represented the largest consigment from a single source ever handled by the firm’s Asian art department.
Although the auction house had advertised to all those parties, the turnout of Vietnamese expatriates for a piece of their heritage surprised even department director Harold Yeo.
“There were a lot more Vietnamese [buyers] than we knew we had. About 20 percent of the lots sold to Vietnamese,” he said, noting that they traced such buyers’ heritage by their surnames. In response to advertisements in Vietnamese publications, “We had people coming from as far as Philadelphia,” Yeo said.
Museums responding to a special auction brochure prepared for them included the art museums of Seattle and Portland, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art and the British Museum, according to Yeo.
Despite the unexpected Vietnamese market, however, there just weren’t enough buyers for the 2,289 lots offered: 920 sold, and Yeo says that many of the unsold lots may be reoffered in a second auction of this ship’s cargo, believed to be from the Fifteenth Century.
“We did hope more would sell,” Yeo admitted. “We’re going to reoffer some of the rdf_Descriptions that didn’t sell in October” in the December auction.
Most of the lots included multiples of like rdf_Descriptions, such as Lot 37, “Four Small Underglaze Blue and Enameled Barbed Rim Dishes,” which sold for $2,300 or Lot 89, “Two Blue and White Double-headed Bird-form Ewers,” which reached $6,325. The catalog, still online, goes into more detail on the many pieces that appear from the lot list to be very similar.
Indeed, Yeo says, “A lot of them were similar. If you look in the catalog, the descriptions say things like, ‘see description for previous rdf_Description’.”
If these pieces weren’t desirable for their uniqueness within this sale, however, they are remarkable for their history.
Carbon-dated to the late Fifteenth/early Sixteenth centuries, the 150,000 ceramics on the ship, mostly blue-and white patterned porcelain dishes of various types and sizes, are thought to have been manufactured in kilns near modern-day Hanoi to fill an export gap caused by diminished production in China due to war with the Mongols. The Hoi An shipwreck was found in the South China Sea, in a typhoon area known as the “Dragon Sea.”
Such pieces are quite rare, says Yeo. “There’s a large ceramics market, but there isn’t much from Vietnam. Vietnam has been ravaged by war and not much of [its ceramics] has survived,” he says. “We sell a lot of Chinese and Japanese [pieces]. There’s a large collectors’ market for those.”
Vietnam did keep some of this booty itself: several objects were held for the National History Museum in Hanoi, and about ten percent of the cargo was dispersed to more than 100 regional museums in Vietnam. The remainder, in preparation for the auctions, was sorted by archaeologists according to type and condition.
“All the best rdf_Descriptions were offered in the October auction,” says Yeo. “Those were in the best condition – they had the best glaze.”
These rdf_Descriptions included three pouring vessels, called “ewers,” in the shape of dragons, which drew the highest prices.
Lot 71, “Fine Blue and White Dragon Ewer,” sold for $57,500 with its condition described as “minor chip to left cheek of head, kiln adhesions to eye, cheek and side of tail, minor glaze flaking.”
Lot 74, “Fine Blue and White Dragon Form Ewer,” was the highest lot at $80,500, with minor glaze losses and a very minor chip to its base.
Lot 78, “Rare Blue and White Dragon Ewer,” garnered $63,250 with glaze losses and chips to tail, and kiln adhesion to body.
According to the archaeological team, these were the only three such rdf_Descriptions found in the cargo. They were described in the catalog as follows:
“Superbly molded on a study base with lips curled, fangs bared and nostrils flared around the pierced mouth, the deep-set eyes and small ears balanced by a wind-swept mane at the back framing spiking flames rising in peaks along the u-shaped crest of the spine and outlined in blue along the heavily scaled body above powerful haunches terminating in four-clawed feet tucked tightly against the muscular body, the details finely drawn under the still lustrous glaze, the elegantly curled tail pierced at the back as a feeding spout. Height 8-½ inches (21.7 cm).”
Other hot rdf_Descriptions included rdf_Descriptions described as “Fine Blue and White Decorated Barbed Rim Dish.” Three sold for more than $34,000 each, including Lot 17, which drew $40,250, versus an estimate of $20/30,000.
The auction rdf_Descriptions were sold by a consortium made up of the Vietnamese government and two salvage companies: Saga Horizon and the Vietnam Salvage Corporation. Yeo doesn’t know what the Vietnamese government was planning to do with the proceeds.
For the follow-up auction in December, “we’re still working on the strategy,” Yeo said. “We might re-lot some of the things; instead of [a lot with] just dishes, we might group dishes and bowls.”
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm