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THE NANKING CARGO. Fragile treasure from the depths of South China Sea. Some 100,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain, rare gold ingots surface after 235 years packed in tea

Mr. Christie respectfully begs leave to announce to persons of taste and discrimination the Auction of THE NANKING CARGO of Table Porcelains curiously wrought in China and lately brought to Amsterdam by Captain Michael Hatcher THIS would not be an uncommon type of announcement in the 18th Century when cargoes of Oriental porcelain were auctioned on the quayside on arrival from the East.

The Nanking Cargo, however, has been a long time coming. It left Canton in 1750 and arrived in Amsterdam in 1985.

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It spent the intervening 235 years at the bottom of the South China Sea from where it was recovered by British-born salvage expert, Michael Hatcher.

Over 100,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain have surfaced together with a group of 125 pure gold ingots of a type virtually unknown in the West, making this the greatest auction of its kind in Europe since the 18th century. Valued at 3 million

Christie's estimate the value of the cargo at about 3 million. The feeling of romance attached to sunken treasure may push it up further.

The buoyancy of the collector's market and the increased sophistication of means available to the salvage expert have made treasure hunting a profitable business, even though the risks and costs remain high.

This is the third ``wreck'' sale for Christie's Amsterdam in 6 years and the second for Captain Hatcher in 3 years. With 1.5 million already under his belt for the first wreck containing Chinese porcelain, this is becoming a lucrative sideline to his main business of salvaging modern cargoes of tin.

The precise identity of the ship carrying the Nanking Cargo has yet to be established. That it was a VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or United East India Company) ship has now been proved by the raising of the ship's bell which is inscribed ``Amsterdam 1747'' and two bronze cannon similarly marked. A Dutch ship

The most likely candidate is the ``Geldermalsen'' which was built in 1747 and was one of the most important of the company's ships to have gone down in that area. The trouble with this theory is that the ship's log, which survived, places the location of the wreck close to the Indonesian coast, whereas the Nanking Cargo was discovered well into international waters, a location confirmed by Dutch abd Indonesian officials.

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This is fortunate for Captain Hatcher as it avoids any claim of ownership by the Indonesian Government. The Dutch Government's claim to the ownership of a Dutch vessel is established and negotiations with Captain Hatcher are current, details of which have not been released but do not appear to be causing anyone much concern.

Mr. Christie's successors will not, of course, auction the 3,000 lots on the quayside, but in deference to changes in customs the sale will be held at the Hilton Hotel at the end of April.

The sale provides a fascinating insight into a trade which flourished until the end of the 18th century when European factories could at last meet the demands for high quality tablewares which the Chinese had been supplying for over a century. Tea and dinner wares

It is not, on the whole, a cargo of rarities. Most of the pieces were made specially for the export market and some of the shapes are of European origin which were not in use in China.

The bulk of the cargo is of tea and dinner wares, with over 50,000 tea bowls and saucers in unused mint condition. The many dinner services are of the European style with flat plates in various sizes with the exception of one set of saucer-shaped plates in the Chinese style, perhaps a special order for a Chinese family living in Holland.

The services are extensive in the variety of items and range from place settings for 18 to 144. To be sold as sets

The services are to be sold as sets and not divided to give buyers the opportunity to put them to the use for which they were intended. Also included are dozens of chamber pots both large and small, the latter being for children. These delightful little pieces had previously been considered rare, but the presence of so many in this consignment shows how popular they were and that few have survived due to the rigours of use.

There are spitoons in plenty both with and without the convenience of a handle, mugs in sizes from the dainty to the excessive, and a lipped bowl with handle of a type previously unknown. Packed in tea

The vast majority of the pieces in the cargo are in sparkling unused condition. They have avoided the damaging effects of sea and sand by having been packed in tea within the cases, thus providing a valuable second cargo which also had a ready market and was notoriously expensive. So much tea swilling around in the sea proved to be a major difficulty in finding and raising the porcelain and the gold. Fortunately most of the pieces are of the familliar ``blue and white'' type, the decoration being under the glaze and therefore unaffected by the sea.

The few coloured items have suffered deterioration of the pigment which, although unsightly, makes them instantly recognizable as having come from the bottom of the ocean.

In a collector's market which relies on rarity to a great extent for levels of value one might have expected that a shipment of fresh supplies of the genuine article would be greeted with dismay and that Captain Hatcher's popularity would plumet with each new discovery. This appears not to be the case. Hatcher's first cargo was earlier in date and of much greater importance artistically. Market takes it in stride

The market appeared to take the sudden arrival of so many new rarities in its stride. Prices then were high and have remained firm.

This much larger but less distinguished cargo is likely to be just as successful with buyers keen to acquire familliar patterns in unfamilliarly good condition.

The only casualties in the market are likely to be those more common pieces which arrived safely in the 18th century but which are now looking their age.

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