Thursday, November 21, 2002

Alan M. Jacob shows blue-and-white porcelain recovered from the Tek Sing, a Chinese junk that sank while headed to market in Indonesia in 1822. At its center is a chunk of the coral reef which grew around the artifacts, creating a permanent "sculpture." The red coral took more than a century to grow. The pieces are on view at Neiman Marcus.

Own a piece of China

Porcelain recovered from a junk
that sunk is imbued with an
adventure-filled tale reflecting
19th century Chinese politics

By Nadine Kam

There's something about auctions that causes temporary insanity. Caught up in the heat of the moment, it's easy to go overboard.

Alan M. Jacob's moment of insanity came in two years ago on an October day that started like any other, with him watching the morning news. While waiting for the weather segment at home in Germany, he learned there was to be a nine-day auction in Stuttgart of porcelain recovered from the Tek Sing, a Chinese junk recovered from the bottom of the ocean near Gaspar Island in Indonesia.

He was going to be in Stuttgart to visit a couple of veterinarians in conjunction with his horse-breeding business, and what was to be a brief curiosity stop turned into a marathon, weeklong shopping spree.

"It was like magic to my eyes, and every piece was different," he said. "Even if they were from the same set, they didn't match because they were all handmade and hand-painted.

"I saw pieces that made my heart beat. I didn't buy just to buy; I bought because I fell in love, and people do stupid things when they fall in love. I knew I was getting beyond the point where I'm buying for my house."

Blue-and-white porcelain packed into the hold of the 19th century Chinese junk Tek Sing concreted together after the vessel sank in 1822. The resulting "sculpture" of red and white coral and marine life fossils is being sold for $6,000 at Neiman Marcus. Note the miniature white dog figures at its center. Also found were figures of parrots, chickens and little boys riding water buffalo.

When the auction was over, he didn't know how he was going to pay for it all but quickly sold some stock (it worked out when his $73 shares became worth 11 cents three weeks later when the tech market crashed) and became the proud owner of about 5,000 pieces of porcelain. And only then, fingering and examining the pieces one by one, breaking a few in the process, did he realize that he probably had too many.

Now it's your turn to go crazy. He's brought his treasures to Neiman Marcus for a show and sale that runs through Dec. 10, with pieces ranging from about $35 to $6,000.

Even now, Jacob speaks in awed and reverential tones as he shows a piece of coral and marine fossil-coated porcelain. The specimens that had contact with the corrosive sea became breeding grounds for marine life, while the pieces buried deep beneath the sand remained pristine. Looking at them on glass shelves, it's hard to imagine a history far from any domestic scene, but Jacob rubs his thumb against the porcelain and releases the unmistakable scent of the ocean.


Treasures of the Tek Sing

Show and sale from the "Titanic of the East"

Where: Neiman Marcus Housewares Department, level three, Ala Moana Center
When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 10
Call: 948-7513

THE TEK SING ("true star") was one of the last grand Chinese junks. It set sail from Amoy (Hsiemen), China, in 1822, with 1,600 passengers, 200 crew and more than 350,000 pieces of porcelain from the late Ming (1368-1644) period through the 19th century.

The junk was making a trade visit to Batavia (Jakarta), Java, but never made it. The captain of the vessel had veered from normal course through the Banca Straits, taking a riskier, shorter path through the less-traveled Gaspar Strait (Selat Gelasa). Jacob speculates that the reason may have been the lack of potable water for so many passengers and that the captain may have tried to shave three to four days from the journey. Others speculate that the captain may have wanted to avoid pirates.

Unfortunately, the junk's keel hit reefs hidden about two yards below the water's surface, and the vessel quickly sank.

Only about 190 people were rescued, and the treasure -- including more than 350,000 pieces of porcelain -- lay undisturbed at the bottom of the sea until Australian deep-sea treasure diver Michael Hatcher found the wreckage in 1999. The site had been documented in the West since 1843, but recovery was possible only with modern technology.

The story of the Tek Sing, dubbed "The Titanic of the East," captured Jacob's imagination, more so than the story of the Titanic.

"The reason the Titanic was such a big story was because of the people who were on it," he said. "The Tek Sing represented one of the many tragedies China is so used to but that go unreported. There, the psychology of tragedies is that they are a part of life. You have to accept those and move on."

The Tek Sing's fate also reflected its time. For Jacob, each little tea bowl and dish told a story of politics, greed and corruption.

According to Hatcher's book, "The Legacy of the Tek Sing," written with Nigel Pickford, and an accompanying auction catalog ($60 and $50 respectively), the ship's human cargo indicated all was not well with the Chinese economy. Those on board were poor emigrants or coolies hoping to find work on Java's sugar plantations. They were allotted no more space than could fit their bedroll and would have brought their own food, burners and supplies to last the month's journey.

The economic crisis was partially a result of the trade imbalance caused by high levels of opium imported into the country, and, ironically, it was a British drug trader, Capt. James Pearl, who risked his ship's safety to rescue most of the survivors, to his detriment. The rescue called attention to his ship and its cargo, exposing him to extortionary opium import taxes in the Dutch territory, aimed toward ending trade by ships other than Dutch ones.

"As I picked up the pieces," Jacob said, "I was not picking up porcelain, but I was picking up a piece of history. It was an incredible tragedy. Greed was there, romance, action, a lot of human emotion."

JACOB, WHO had lived in Asia, was a collector of tansu chests but learned about porcelain while accompanying James Michener on his treasure hunts.

Jacob said he was drawn to the Tek Sing collection because it is rare to see porcelain of that era intended for the Chinese market. More often, it was created for wealthier Europeans. Rather than featuring "a little river with a little house with a little boy outside" typical of European export ware, he said, the Tek Sing porcelain, headed for wealthy Chinese in Java, featured symbols important to the Chinese.

"There were chrysanthemums, mushrooms, cherry trees, things that meant prosperity, good luck, long life, many boy children."

Of particular interest were boy fetishes, unpainted save for a spot of blue on their tummies, which women would hold in one palm, rubbing the blue dot with a thumb in hope of giving birth to a son.

The ship also carried fabric, rattan, teas, herbs and incense, but most of the salvageable pieces were of metal, stone and porcelain, including medicinal containers, cooking burners, candle holders and table ware.

"It would be a special occasion when they could eat out of those bowls," said Jacob, who pointed out the poetry inscribed on many a Yixing teapot, also found in the wreckage. He had them translated at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. One, meant for an imperial household, reads, "Only this one can offer to the five capitols."

Another says "Three persons drink under the clear moon." And one written by the poet Ming Chen in 1600 reads, "Seated on a rock I recite poems among singing pines."

These teapots are selling for about $1,600 to $1,800. Smaller pieces such as celadon-glazed bowls are $48. Blue-and-white porcelain teacups are about $80 to $90. Ceramic spoons are about $35 and include a feature that has disappeared from contemporary Chinese spoons -- a nub under the handle that prevents the spoon from slipping into one's soup.

Each piece comes with a certificate of authenticity, and because the items were cataloged by the Nagel Auction house, Jacob said, "There's no room for foolishness."

While the Asian Art Museum and others around the world have a few pieces, Jacob said they are not more widely collected by such institutions because the wares are of a commercial nature, rather than the work of more illustrious imperial potters.

As humble as the pieces may be, Jacob continues to be excited by them as he reaches out to touch them and show off their distinctive markings.

He's particularly found of pieces that have melded through coral and undersea growth. Parts of the collection have been put up for sale at Gump's in San Francisco and Stanley Korshak in Houston. In San Francisco, Jacob said he overheard one woman say to her husband of the coral, "Honey, how do I get the stuff off of this?"

To which Jacob said, with a laugh, "If you take that stuff off, I'll kill you."

"This has given me a whole new life. It's pumped a little blood into an old man (at 76), but I'm thrilled by the people I've met who I wouldn't have met through horses. It's a small community.

"I do hope people enjoy seeing these pieces of Chinese history."

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