Porcelain from the Ming Dynasty – prized for its craftsmanship – was sublime in its beauty, particularly the blue-and-white wares that represented state-of-the-art ceramics.
By the 14th century, the Chinese were mass producing fine, translucent, blue and white porcelain, a development made possible by the combination of Chinese techniques and Islamic trade, according to Robert Finlay in his 2010 work, The Pilgrim Art. Cultures of Porcelain in World History.
The latter was crucial because it brought with it cobalt from Persia.
To get an idea of the rarity of cobalt blue, its value was about twice that of gold. This so-called “Islamic Blue,” when combined with the translucent white quality of Chinese porcelain, produced a highly prized product, Finlay added.
And if the head of a Portugal-based marine-archaeology company has his way, the world will be seeing a great deal of original Ming Dynasty-era porcelain in the coming years.
That’s because Nikolaus Graf Sandizell, chief executive of Arqueonautas Worldwide SA, plans to retrieve some 700,000 pieces of fine bowls, dishes and cups that have sat on the bottom of the ocean for the past 400 years.
The cargo of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, located off the coast of Indonesia, is valued at $43 million, according to Bloomberg.
The ceramics were made during the reign of the Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli and were on a gigantic wooden junk that sank, possibly while en route for what is now Jakarta, according to the wire service.
Stacked 30 feet high in places, they are strewn over an area the size of a hockey rink, more than 200 feet below the surface and 1oo miles from the coast.
Sandizell still must get approval from the Indonesian government, but he wants to move before the porcelain treasures are plundered or damaged by such threats as dragnet fishing, offshore oil exploration, and pipeline and cable installation.
Sandizell estimates will cost more than $6 million to finance the salvage effort.
He estimates about a third of the underwater pieces are intact. Only gold and porcelain can survive centuries in salt water unscathed, he said. The wreck was discovered in 2008, and 38,000 pieces of porcelain were recovered during an initial operation in 2010, according to Bloomberg.
The nine-masted junk that carried the cargo was several times bigger than European ships of the same era, and remain the largest wooden ships ever built.
“Crews comprised interpreters, astronomers, astrologists and doctors,” according to the wire service. “The ships sailed home laden with spices, ivory, jewels and rare wood. Even giraffes made the voyage from Africa to the Chinese imperial court.”