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More Collectors' Tales

The collections formed in Indonesia in the 1960s were largely purchased from itinerant hawkers, U.S. Ambassador Ed Masters reports. They went door to door in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia carrying their wares tied up in batik cloth. Most traveled by foot. The affluent ones had bicycles. None had cars. Masters found his magnificent Chinese Ming brown jar, which was too large for the back of a bicycle, in an antique shop in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The brilliant Malay wedding sarong was picked up in a musty Malaysian antique book store in Kuching, Sarawak. It is a tangible example of the continuing trade in Indian handloom textiles that started over a thousand years ago at the very beginning of maritime trade between Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Some pieces come from old collections accumulated in Southeast Asia that were subsequently auctioned in the U.S. or in Europe. That's how the owners of the wonderful brown storage jar from north-central Thailand, and the rare large Japanese celadon serving dish acquired their "recycled" pieces.

John D. Forbes co-founded the Washington Oriental Ceramic Group in 1985. He lives in Manila with his Chinese-Filipino wife, who tolerates his collecting so long as she doesn't have to dust anything. John acquired his first Thai pot in 1971. Collecting then was a delightful and inexpensive hobby, he reports. Excavated Thai wares were among the Chinese and Southeast Asian trade ceramics "walking" peddlers brought to one's home in Manila, while better pieces were available in a handful of shops. There were no fakes, but an eye for detecting repairs was important. A few books on Southeast Asian ceramics with limited illustrations were in print; there was no internet for quick research.

More than three decades later Forbes has a collection of almost 400 pieces of Southeast Asian ceramics, the most are Thai, but many Vietnamese and a few Khmer pots are included. Most pieces were acquired in the Philippines, largely excavated from Philippine gravesites. Some were imported recently by enterprising Filipino Muslim traders from Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Others are from shipwrecks or were bought outside the Philippines. A few large jars are heirloom pieces preserved by Philippine tribal groups.

Forbes still acquires a few Thai pots at reasonable prices, mostly from old collections. There are few new excavations, but shipwrecks are an increasing source of supply. Because fakes are now more plentiful than genuine pots, the caveat emptor factor has multiplied. Forbes says his pots may not have been as great an investment as stocks or Washington area real estate, but they provided collecting adventures, an education into the artistic traditions and trade history of Southeast Asia and many interesting friends.

Heirloom pieces are represented in the exhibition. Large storage jars so valued by the tribal peoples of Vietnam, Borneo and the southern Philippines were used in on a daily basis then handed down to the next generation. Helen Ling, one of the great Singapore dealer-collectors in the 1950s-1970s, bequeathed a number of the pieces in the show to Ann Ling, her Potomac, Maryland, daughter-in-law,

Helen Ling became interested in Southeast Asian and export Chinese wares in the 1950s while working in Singapore, as mainland Chinese sources of fine ceramics dried up after the victory by the communists. "With the growing scarcity of good pieces and the rising prices of porcelains, some of the (Singaporean) collectors were turning their attention to …the more plentiful Chinese export wares… In the 1950s, it was easy for an avid collector to acquire substantial pieces of export (Chinese and Southeast Asian) wares in Singapore for very little expense…. Singapore's market became a mecca for many pottery dealers, 'their wicker baskets filled to bursting with the ceramic yield of hundreds of more or less clandestine extractions of graves scattered all over the Indonesian Archipelago'…. There were essentially no controls on the exodus of antiquities from Southeast Asia" (Kuo, pp. 10).

Since the 1970s the transformation in the science of shipwreck archaeology has resulted in the vast expansion of undersea ceramic recoveries. The key to finding these ancient cargo ships is sophisticated sonar equipment. The first ship excavation in the Gulf of Siam took place in 1975. Since then many more have been salvaged.

Dennis Harter worked in Hanoi, Vietnam in the late 1990s. He reports that in 1997 fishermen from the southern-most province of Vietnam discovered 18th century Chinese porcelains in their nets. For several weeks, before the finds were reported to or discovered by government officials, the fishermen removed these sunken treasures which gradually found their way into the hands of antique dealers in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) during the latter part of 1997 and early 1998. By the time Harter located the large blue and white porcelain dish in the summer of 1998, it was in a shop on Le Cong Kieu Street in Ho Chi Minh City along with thousands of cups, saucers, and other export wares likely destined originally for Southeast Asian and European markets. The ship's wares included mostly pieces from Jiangxi province in southeast China but also some earthenware from kilns in Guangdong province. The formal excavation results are catalogued in a book The Ca Mau shipwreck -1723-1735. The large dish on view in the exhibition is similar to the pieces described in that book.

During the latter part of the 1990s and into the early years of the new century, the Vietnamese antique market was slowly opening up to both foreign and domestic collectors. While there were many restrictions on collectors and prohibitions on export, these were not widely enforced. In the last few years, the Vietnamese government has recognized private collectors and allowed them to own and display their collections. Sales of land-excavated and shipwreck-recovered items have grown and the Vietnamese government has raised a lot of money from these sales. New provincial museums have been planned to exhibit the top pieces recovered from the recent archeological excavation work. Overseas collectors can now more readily purchase items from Vietnam and buy items in the overseas sales.

Harter's second piece in this exhibition is the large brown Thai storage jar. He acquired this jar at a U.S. auction house in 2005, but it was originally purchased by a U.S. foreign aid officer, John Allan Tabor, who worked in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Tabor found this jar at the weekend market in Bangkok in September 1967. He said it came from a family who claimed to have owned it for over 110 years. The jar is from north-central Thailand, fired in a Singburi Province kiln together with many other similar jars, as can be seen from the separation marks on the shoulder of the jar. It dates from the 14th to 15th century. This type of jar was widely used to transport liquids and perishables like smaller ceramics in the intra-Southeast Asian trade of the period. Similar examples have been found in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and in sunken ships.

Harter acquired his northern Vietnamese 15th century blue and white vase very soon after arriving in Hanoi in the summer of 1997. Dennis explains: I asked one of the Embassy wives who had already started to collect Vietnamese antiques to show me the various shops in Hanoi where one could buy local as well as Chinese antiques. She led me to more than a dozen different shops, some in the old quarter of town near the lake, and some further out. This particular shop was upstairs in a secondary market area on Kim Ma Street not far from the Nikko Hotel.

The proprietress had a family collection which had been the start of her shop. Thereafter, she had gone around to other friends to locate pieces to sell. Eventually she began to acquire things from farmers and fishermen who provided materials that had been buried or lost at sea. This particular vase, she asserted, came from a private family collection that had been handed down for many generations. (The absence of reddish laterite dirt stains confirms it probably had not been buried underground and the clear glaze suggests it had not been subject to a long stay in the ocean.) The design of the painting is reminiscent of Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) patterns from China, but the vase is unmistakably Vietnamese in its final version and was made in a northern kiln in the late 15th century during the Later Le dynasty (1427-1524).

Paul and Linda Makosky lived near Palembang, south Sumatra, at Sungei Gerong, Indonesia in the early 1960s when Paul worked for an oil company. He explains that much of their collection came from leisure time viewing and buying artifacts brought to their door by roving peddlers. These were men of the matriarchal Minangkabau society from the west coast of Sumatra island. Not willing to remain in the villages directed by their wives, they took to the roads to buy and sell artifacts. There was an active collecting group of expatriates in Sungei Gerong. Each home leave was routed through Amsterdam, Leiden (Holland), San Francisco, New York or Washington to view museum collections and acquire reference books. Knowledge was shared with equal fervor of identifying origins of pieces and whether or not it was authentic, "Ming betal, tuan" (real Ming dynasty, boss), as the peddler would say.

The goods the peddlers brought to collectors' doors in the 1960s came from households, village traders or obscure finds such as from the occasional sunken ship or a forgotten village. One such village, in central Sulawesi island, had a hoard of ceramics uncovered by a storm-filled stream in the early 1960s, according to Makosky. It yielded many bushel baskets of mud-crusted Chinese export porcelain which saturated the Jakarta antique markets for a year. Some trickled to south Sumatra. In Lampung district at the southern tip of Sumatra young women wove elaborately embroidered sarong (tapis) with gold thread for wear at ceremonial occasions.

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