Tek Sing Treasure

Interest in shipwrecks and their salvaged hoards is intensifying with a number of sales taking place soon. The Tek Sing cargo which comes from the Tek Sing (meaning True Star) wreck which sank in 1822 in the South China Seas and was re-discovered by Mike Hatcher in May last year, goes up for sale at Nagel Auctions on November 17-25 in conjunction with icollector.com. This is the largest cargo of Chinese porcelain ever recovered. Meanwhile, another hoard is being sold at www.hoianhoard.com. This array of 150,000 lots comes from a 90-foot junk which sank in the South China Sea in 1500. Just last month, Christie’s in London achieved £1,155 for a bottle of champagne found on a schooner which was sunk by a U-boat in 1916. However, this pales when compared to the 1992 Christie’s sale of the Vung Tau Cargo which raised £4.12m – with 10% of the lots going to Harrods – then in May 1986 the Nanking Cargo realised £10.1m

Porcelain of the Tek Sing

The Tek Sing cargo is remarkable for a number of reasons. With some 350,000 pieces it is by far the largest cargo of Chinese porcelain yet recovered from the sea. It affords us a unique window onto the make-up of what may reasonably be assumed to be a largely typical, if unusually extensive, shipment destined for the East Indies in the first few decades of the nineteenth century.

It is the variety of types, many hitherto unknown or little known to western scholars or collections, which give the cargo its exciting flavor. Almost all the pieces come from the South, mostly from the neighborhood of Dehua in Fujian province, Yixing in Jiangsu province and Swatow in Guandong province. As might be expected from a utilitarian cargo, bowls and dishes predominate, but there are also large quantities of pouring vessels as well as a small number of decorative objects.

One of the great revelations is the unexpected, high standard of painting on blue and white wares, mostly dishes, boxes, and bowls, and a small but remarkable collection of urinals. The designs are varied and charming, and are of a quality not usually associated with provincial wares destined for the East Indies. The rarity of some dishes and bowls derives partly from a decorative technique, where a variety of motifs were applied not with the brush but with the block-print technique.

Amongst the monochrome wares there is a fine selection of Yixing red-bodied teapots, mostly with fine, incised calligraphy. Then there are significant numbers of white and crackled-celadon bowls and dishes with simple, elegant forms as well as groups of unusual olive-glazed carafes and covered bowls. Large storage jars in a variety of shapes, some glazed or incised, others not, abound while there are also a handful of remarkable large kettles of similar robustness. Other more unusual types include some pottery stoves and small globular opium containers with engraved designs.

The decorative items comprise of limited quantities of figurines: bird, bo y on water buffalo, cockerel and seated, semi-clad boy. The seated boys were made at Jingdezhen, the main center of ceramic production, in about 1740, and their presence in the cargo requires explanation. While a few items date well before the bulk of the cargo – such as some Ming celadon incense-burners from the fifteenth century (which must have been personal possessions of the passengers), the seated boys were present in such numbers that they were probably being transported as ‘antiques’ for sale.

Finally, there are wonderful ‘sculptures’ fashioned in a chance manner by the marine environment: porcelains adhering to each other in almost unreal poses, some with large coral accretions, offering the true romance of the cargo’s story.


As far as dating the objects on board is concerned, very little is known about the age of Fujian and other South Chinese wares. It does, however, seem reasonable to assume that those pieces present, in very large numbers, were new at the time of shipment. This is not a cast-iron fact, as will be shown below, but it is unlikely that the hundreds or even thousands of similar items uncovered, would have been stored for some decades or longer and then suddenly come to light.

If we begin by examining the white circular boxes, it has to be conceded that the larger ones hardly differ, if at all, from those found in the Vung Tao cargo, salvaged some years ago and dating from the 1690s. It would be unrealistic to think of the present examples as surfacing after 130 years, and one should conclude that a conservative community of potters continued a successful line with no reason to abandon it. Indeed, boxes not too dissimilar are known from two or three centuries earlier than the Vung Tao examples. The delightful, molded flowering peony on the cover is a typical motif, rather more common than the leaf on the smaller, similar type boxes.

There are relatively few white wares in the cargo, perhaps surprisingly when one considers that it is for its earlier white wares that Dehua is famous today. Indeed, one of the great enigmas has been the sudden and apparent near-disappearance of blanc de Chine after about 1730, until its re-emergence in much more recent times. There are three types of wine cup, one shallow with an elegant flared side – so delicate that one is tempted to question whether it is germane to its more sturdy Dehua counterparts. Of these one is deeper and narrower, the other is shallow but with a rounded side. There is also a large number of rice-bowls with elegant flared sides. Finally, one should note the white spoons, again similar to, but slightly less ornate than, those in the Vung Tao cargo. Some blue-and-white ones partner them with floral designs and there is also a very interesting group of brown-glazed spoons. Brown-glazed Dehua wares were certainly made at the end of the seventeenth century but they were very rare. The present ones seem to be a re-invention or continuation of the type.

Very similar in form, glaze and body, to the white boxes are the ones with covers decorated in underglaze-blue. These also come in two sizes. The larger ones have very artistic free designs s howing many subjects including carp, shrimp, aster, chrysanthemum, and peony flower heads and even love poems. The smaller boxes have simpler but equally attractive and free-flowing designs. A much smaller group of boxes with straight instead of rounded sides are painted with either landscapes or floral motifs. Their particular charm is that the smaller box fits snugly into the larger box. They were put one inside the other not just to save room while in transit, but also because they were designed so they could be marketed as a set. Another type, hexagonal with a linear floral motif and the only angular piece in the cargo, makes up the complement of boxes.

Apart from the white wine cups, several other varieties are evident in numbers in the cargo. Probably most numerous are conical forms with fungus and peach motif (discussed below), this type has been found on various Fujian kiln-sites. The conical forms are a pleasing shape and the motifs, though sketchy, are by a trained hand. Similar forms are those decorated with two bands of vertical linear patterns, and are of special interest because it is almost certain that this motif was applied not with the brush but by block-printing. Careful observation suggests that each individual unit of design is an exact replica, bar the inevitable unevenness of the color application of its neighbor. As far as I am aware, this technique was never employed at Jingdezhen. Among the remaining types is an unusual blue-and-white wine cup of slightly more elegant form with the side more rounded towards the base, and a design of white dots and dashes showing through a wide blue band. This so-called reverse technique requires much skill. A charming feature is its disproportionately wide unglazed footrim, reminiscent of those on Jingdezhen pieces of the early Kangxi (1662-1722) and Yongzheng (1723-35) periods.

Finally, mention should be made of a group of pale crackled celadon wine cups of shallow, rounded form, which with their delicate footrim and wall of tapering thickness towards the rim of the cup have a refinement that may suggest a different place of origin. Other similarly crackled celadon pieces in the cargo, however, appear to have southern origins.

It is of course unsurprising that this cargo should be largely utilitarian in content, thus comprising of a preponderance of bowls and dishes. Among the most noteworthy are the bowls and dishes of various dimensions with the design of fungus and peach (sometimes a flower head), similar to but more elaborate than the wine cups already mentioned. It is more than likely that this design has its origins in Jingdezhen, which had produced designs in the previous centuries of bowls, dishes and even boxes whose motifs were, as with these, placed within petal-shaped panels, which in their totality form a flower head. Many pieces have an added attraction of a beautifully applied spiral center.

width=200> Probably the majority of Chinese motifs, be they plant, animal or figural, have auspicious meanings. Whether the Fujian potters had these in mind when they planned their next production is not known, but it is plausible that subjects with particular auspicious significance might help sales to a generally superstitious public. Certainly the high-quality wares made in Jingdezhen for the Emperor often had all the motifs on a piece symbolizing one or possibly more themes, be they long life, many descendants, happiness or wealth etc. In the case of the fungus and peach motif, longevity is the theme, so that these bowls and dishes have gained the epithet ‘birthday.’ The flower head itself, though unidentifiable, is probably the lotus, and this also symbolizes long life, thus keeping the unity of the theme.

A large number of dishes and a lesser quantity of bowls have the very traditional motif of flowering plants issuing from or beside rocks. The substantial hoard on board suggests that this was popular with customers and although the quality of much of it has a certain eccentric naiveté, it is this that gives the pieces their charm. Most of the dishes have peony (wealth, rank) and magnolia (purity) each side of a central rock, however a small number have just prunus (perseverance, purity) and yet others have bamboo (humility and fidelity), peony and reeds issuing from rocks. A small number have magnolia and peony but no rocks.

Of the remaining blue-and-white flat wares, the small plates with a basket of unidentifiable flowers in the center have a design rooted in the Ming dynasty; early eighteenth-century Jingdezhen blue-and-white plates with this subject have the same unusual blue-wash border. Also echoing eighteenth-century Jingdezhen are the two flat wares with flower-head designs. Particularly attractive are the dishes with a chrysanthemum flower head (longevity) surrounded by sprays of finger-citron, pomegranate (fecundity) and peach. The plates have a peony flower head with foliage within two narrow formal bands. The simple small dishes with characters of flowers are particularly charming, due to the finesse of the design, and resemble in feeling and size the designs on the boxes.

Finally, there are the lovely dishes with reeds emerging from water in which flowering plants are growing. The best of the group are reminiscent, in the rendering of the grasses with free and elegant brushstrokes, of the wonderful Jingdezhen blue-and-white pieces with similar motifs from the 1690s. The poem speaks of a clear freshwater spring in the moonlight beneath the clouds.

The bowls offer an extensive array of subject and form. Certainly the most dramatic and probably most interesting bowls are the large ones with a design in two rows of alternating stylized shou (longevity) characters and a complex device, possibly floral. What is especially interesting is the use of block-printing, which is evident on smaller bowls with the same shou character. At least three other types of bowl use the same technique, one with chrysanthemum flower heads, one with a band of peony and magnolia, and the large shallow bowls with two geometric bands around the unglazed center. These sometimes have a stamped maker’s or owner’s mark or just one of commendation. It is indeed a feature of many Fujian pieces in this cargo that they are stamped in this way or marked calligraphically.

Other blue-and-white bowls in the cargo have various floral motifs – more or less similar to the dishes already mentioned. However one exception is a group of bowls with a circle and dot motif, whose simplicity lends them their charm. The final mention must go to the bowls depicting a figure standing by a fence, in addition to a group of dishes with a delightful scene of a man in a terraced garden. He is seated at a table with two incense burners on it (a scene typical of Jingdezhen porcelain in the second half of the seventeenth century), and another with a standing figure on a terrace, these represent almost the only figural scenes in the whole cargo. Judging by the illustration of sherds excavated at various Dehua sites, shown by Jianzhong Chen in Dehua Folk Blue and White Wares, this proportion may well mirror the general output. Perhaps worthy of a mention, as an appendage to the figural items, is a single dish with an insect in the center, certainly a charming and unusual subject.

Other blue-and-white articles of a utilitarian nature are the few urinals with floral and landscape decoration. Urinals of various forms are known from Jingdezhen from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and it is possible, but unlikely, that these were produced there rather than in Fujian. There was in the cargo a small quantity with red bodies, which may have come from the Yixing region in nearby Jiangsu province.

The small number of typically red-bodied items found on the ship come from Yixing and the surrounding area. As with the Dehua area, ceramic production goes back to the millennia. Sherds five thousand years old have been excavated. The area was similarly favored with good, relatively easily obtainable raw materials, and numerous waterways enabled efficient distribution. Much of the output was of less refined quality, made for local use or export to nearby lands. A small proportion of jars – ovoid, conical and of other forms – were salvaged, which differed in size from very large to tableware dimensions. These jars were accompanied by a few, very rare, small thickly potted stoves, some red-bodied.

It was during the relatively peaceful Ming times that this fertile area gave rise to a rich and cultured elite society, whose traditions included the taking of tea. These merchants, officials and scholars as well as aristocrats required the finest tea and by the sixteenth century there was a great appreciation of the red-bodied teapots produced at Yixing. It became a matter not only of pleasure but also of status to order – or indeed sometimes to help the potter to produce – the finest possible teapots. In Ming times and later, inscriptions were of great importance. They could be extracts from poems both old and modern, and in some cases the simple but elegant forms of the vessels were no more than vehicles for fine calligraphy. The tea-drinkers of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces eschewed what they deemed the more gaudy decorative products of Jingdezhen, and the gold and silver pots favored in some quarters. On the practical side, these unglazed pots kept the tea warm for longer, retained aroma better and were usually small enough to help avoid wasting an expensive commodity. The eighteenth century saw a decline in interest in tea and the quality of Yixing teapots, but there was a revival at the start of the nineteenth century, though earlier heights were never reached again.

All the teapots from the cargo have the traditional elegant simplicity of these wares. Some of the shapes have the maker’s name and others have poetic inscriptions on their bases. While there is a long history of exporting Yixing teapots, it is perhaps surprising to find inscribed ones in the cargo. Presumably they were destined for some of the island’s emigrant Chinese communities, where such cultural objects would be appreciated among certain classes. It is interesting that one of the Yixing teapots recovered from the Nanking cargo, salvaged in 1985 and whose wares date from circa 1750, appears very similar to the bullet-shaped teapots in the present cargo. Given the sm all number, it is not impossible that the latter were ‘old stock’ recovered from some warehouse, but it is more likely that some of the older types continued to be made alongside newer, more refined versions that were part of the revival.

Another area of production represented is Swatow, in the southern province of Guandong. There are a number of large blue-glazed dishes and some colored bowls with matching under dishes. These are virtually the only pieces in the cargo painted with over-glaze colors, namely yellow, green and iron red. One type offers a charming rendering of a lotus bloom, petals on the exterior and the pod in the well of the interior. Another type displays a band of flowers alternating with trellis above lotus petals.

The origins of a certain pieces cannot be identified with certainty, although it is reasonable to assume that they are from the above-mentioned areas or nearby. The most striking pieces in the cargo were the kettles with relief dragon motifs. Then there are the light-bodied pouring vessels similar to others in the Diana cargo, and the various olive-glazed items – carafes and bowls and covers of various dimensions, the largest having an incised floral design, others with charming fish or Budai (god of happiness) knops. All are finely made and, following time-honored Chinese tradition, the glaze of many runs down unevenly, stopping short of the foot. Then there is a group of very rare near-spherical lightweight objects with slightly conical protrusions, which suggest stoppers. All are finely incised and appear once to have been thinly glazed. Also of note are a number of mostly gray-bodied large storage jars, some glazed or with incised decoration and others plain.

Finally, there are a percentage of items, which do not fit the overwhelmingly utilitarian nature of the cargo. Many of these items definitely date from earlier periods. Of particular significance is a group of seated boys of extremely high quality, poorer versions figured in the Nanking cargo. They undoubtedly come from Jingdezhen. What is somewhat baffling is that they date from about 1750; such quality in figure production is not found much later, so the figures cannot be a continued line. One may assume that given the numbers on board they were trading goods, and not simply the personal belongings of a passenger. They must have turned up in some hidden corner of a warehouse. In this case, they were never put in the cargo hold and were stored in jars. Clearly their owner held them in high esteem. Other figure models are the ducks and reclining dogs. The latter are so reminiscent of Jingdezhen models with coloured enamels of the 1820s and ‘30s that these may possibly hail from there. Other decorative objects are the brown-and-buff parrot-like models, whose origin is unclear. Given their delicacy, they may be from Yixing, whose tradition it was in later times to decorate some of the more elaborate teapots with applied ceramic objects copying nature, in hues from dark brown to white. Also of note are a number of glazed roosters, very similar to those on the Diana, a ship that went down in 1817.

A few objects are dated earlier than the bulk of the cargo. However the items found are so few in number that they may be deemed to be passenger’s personal belongings. There is an eighteenth-century flamb-vase from Jingdezhen, a few Ming tripod celadon censers from Zhejiang province and a Jingdezhen shallow blue -and-white censer on five bracket feet with lotus and chrysanthemum flower heads and scrolling foliage, dating to the end of the eighteenth century. Lastly, there is an intriguing white square vase, the only non-utilitarian white piece of cargo and by appearance a high-quality blanc de Chine, probably of earlier date, though owing to weathering it is hard to know. Obviously with these individual items, one cannot be sure whether there are others in sherds on the seabed.

In conclusion, this remarkable cargo breaks new ground in the history of salvage. Not only is it by far the largest to date, but also it contains a significant variety of southern Chinese wares not included in previous cargoes. With future research into its content, useful information may be obtained on trading patterns and ceramic types. From a collector’s point of view, there will never be a better opportunity to purchase these often, rare porcelains, unfamiliar to Western eyes and hands, which hold such great charm and so many eccentricities.