Valuable Ming pieces recovered from bottom of South China Sea

Blue and white Ming porcelain, which had lain in the depths of the South China Sea for some 340 years, made a big splash at June's International Ceramics Fair in London.

The adventure tale behind these long-lost wares enthralled show visitors, attracted collectors, and gave their discoverer and recoverer, Capt. Michael Hatcher, a moment of glory as he recounted his exploits in getting the porcelain out of the deep and onto the antique market.

Captain Hatcher, who operates a salvage business out of Singapore, first noted the mound on the floor of the South China Sea in 1979 but did not investigate it to discover the shipwreck it covered until 1983.

His crew of divers brought up its first pieces of porcelain in June of 1983. After that, he said in London, nine divers worked seven days a week for five months, digging the pieces out of the mud, one piece at a time. They brought them to the surface in plastic garbage cans while another crew washed them on the deck of the salvage ship and put them in steel cages lined with plastic foam. Remarkably few pieces were lost in the recovery process of thousands.

''We brought up 2,000 pieces on our best day,'' Captain Hatcher recalled. ''My divers and I are not treasure hunters, so this haul was a surprise to us. Since our business normally involves routine salvage operations of all kinds, we didn't know exactly what we had, nor did we guess its value.''

He arranged for auction of the material with Christie's auction gallery in Amsterdam, and two sales in March and June totaled more than $2 million. The ''Hatcher Cargo,'' as it has become known, was aboard a vessel that was probably a Chinese junk trading under license with the Dutch East India Company. Experts have now identified a range of the cargo's important late Ming and Transitional porcelain pieces, which were apparently new when placed on the ship. The ship sailed from China (bound probably for Jakarta), they suggest, around 1648. Said dealer Axel Vervoordt from Antwerp, Belgium, who attended the Amsterdam auctions , ''The discovery of such an amount of trade porcelain must be regarded as an extremely rare event of great historical value. ... Due to their preservation of about 350 years on the bottom of the sea, the wares have acquired a most unique and beautiful wear of the glaze and a softened blue color. This provides them with a peculiar marine patination and makes them all easily recognizable.''

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