“Curiouser and Curiouser”

DoucaiA couple of nights ago I sat in the dark way, way after midnight, staring at the laptop screen as dollar numbers clicked over on an item being auctioned in Belgium. It was in Bruges, to be precise, the city of that wonderful film starring Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell, a far more successful outing for the latter than in the recent disaster that was True Detective.

The internet has spawned many things, not least a highly globalised online antique trade that was impossible just a few years ago. Way back in the last millennium during my first visit to London, I haunted the auction rooms looking for first editions in the Winnie the Pooh series. Whenever the books came up I never had enough money to buy them, even though that was almost the only opportunity to do so. They might have been on sale somewhere else in the world but it was impossible to find out. Over the past few years, however, I have compiled a set thanks to the web, through online auctions rather than something like ABE books which is in itself a web consequence. Sites like Invaluable, The-Saleroom, LiveAuctioneers and all the rest provide a truly global marketplace. http://www.invaluable.com/

This fascination with Bruges focused on a doucai plate. The term doucai refers essentially to a process of porcelain making. A blue and white pattern is underglazed on an object, then overglazed with other colours to complete the pattern. Some people, then, translate the term as to “compete with colour”. The practice began in fifteenth century China during the Chenghua period of the Ming dynasty. Chenghua pieces are the most prized, naturally enough. In 2014, Sotheby’s sold a piece at auction for $US 36 million. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2014/meiyintang-chicken-cup-hk0545.html

The Bruges piece, described as “exceptional”, was in excellent condition and carried a series of Buddhist sacred symbols coloured into the blue and white background. The catalogue carried an estimated price of between €1,000 and €1,500. That was wiped out in seconds as a ferocious battle for possession broke out. With an odd lull here and there as the combatants regained their composure, the clicking numbers reached €5,000, then 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and kept going. Then came the magic €100,000. Things slowed a little as people reassessed their wallets. One bidder was left standing at €122,000 or $US 135,000. It was far beyond €1,500 and a lot of money for a plate, even if it was a Ming.

What does this have to do with writers and writing? Curiosity, mainly. What drives someone to pay that amount of money for a plate? The buyer of the $US 36 million piece provides a clue. When he bought the “Chicken Cup”, Liu Yiqian was said to be worth almost $US 2 billion and the 220th richest person in China. He and his wife built that fortune in chemicals, pharmaceuticals and financial investment. They are also among the leading Chinese art buyers who have stormed the world’s auction rooms to “take back” Chinese treasures that have travelled around the world over the past few hundred years.

The highlight of that reclamation campaign came in London during 2011. Six bidders in a small auction house and three more on phones took a Qianlong moon vase to £53 million, a hammer price of £43 million with commission and tax of a further £10 million. The Chinese buyer then baulked at the commission fee, a lengthy row ensued, with settlement reached finally along with a new rule for many auction houses: financial guarantees had to be assured in advance, especially for expensive Chinese pieces.

Fiction and non-fiction writers are always asking who, why, where, when and how? Stories like these porcelain sales, then, provide all of that, along with something else, passion and curiosity. These pieces tell a story both about themselves and their owners, as demonstrated nicely by Edmund de Waal. His The Hare With Amber Eyes tells the story of a netsuke collection begun by his forebears in the nineteenth century and inherited by him via a relative who lived most of his life in Japan and took the collection back home, as it were. The story, then, is of how objects take on a life and a meaning. His recent follow up, The White Road, investigates the passion and obsession that drive porcelain collectors.


These curious links inspire writers all the time. While researching nationalist politics in south India in the 1920s and 1930s I came across the name of a “British” member of the Indian Civil Service: Arthur Mario Agricola Collier Galletti di Cadhilhac. I had to follow that curiosity into several years of research around the world before I could write his life story. http://www.amazon.com/Peoples-Collector-British-Raj-Galletti-ebook/dp/B006N8LDZO Now I am writing a “true crime” book based on a story from New Zealand’s nineteenth century that I stumbled on and just had to follow through the archives.

Obsession, curiosity and expression often go together. The third Superintendent Le Fanu crime novel is now with the publisher en route to joining its predecessors. http://www.amazon.com/The-Pallampur-Predicament-Superintendent-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00PZ5JUHO/ref=pd_sim_351_1?ie=UTF8&dpID=61dbisdFBKL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR100%2C160_&refRID=0JP3KA3H6JJHD984JZ10

The new one references some other porcelain, the Straits Chinese variety that I happen to collect. That obsession began while living in Penang because the pieces carried a lot of the story about how a new community came into being. http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=657012494959276;res=IELHSS Some among those pieces have marvellous provenance from Penang’s leading trade and commerce families. They have resonance far beyond being mere plates or bowls or vases, and are a great inspiration to learn more and write more.

Now, I wonder if a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might make me even more “curiouser and curiouser”? http://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/bloomsbury-auctions/catalogue-id-blooms10070/lot-d1ad8296-4a3b-49d2-bb34-a5370126c4f4

One can always dream.

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