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In about 1690, a Chinese trading junk sank off the southern coast of Vietnam, taking with it its voluminous cargo of valuable Ching dynasty porcelain. A large percentage of this same cargo - called the Vung Tau cargo after the Vietnamese province off which it was recovered - was to sell for approximately 7.3 million US dollars when it was auctioned by Christies in Amsterdam in April 1992.


Imported Chinese porcelain - fine quality, elegant, blue and white - is typical of that used in great houses in 17th Century Europe in the decades of what contemporary critics called "China mania". The 'Vung Tau' porcelain is of the early Ching (Quing) dynasty (1644 - 1912), around the time of the rule of Emperor KangXi (1662-1722), the third emperor of this dynasty, who ascended to the throne at the age of seven and ruled for sixty years.

The recovery of this cargo has provided scholars with unequalled insight into Chinese porcelain manufacture at a moment of transition in technology, shape and pattern. There are several unique features of the Vung Tau cargo suggesting that Chinese manufacturers of export porcelain were catering for the specific tastes and needs of the European market, a factor that has proved an exciting discovery for historians. Unlike the Chinese porcelain hitherto auctioned by Christies - mostly 'flat' wares for table use - this cargo comprised 'standing' vessels such as goblets, wine cups and vases. Such pieces had never before reached Europe from Asia in such quantity, and they aroused enormous interest in cosmopolitan capitals from Lisbon to Dresden.

For over 300 years, these precious pieces lay hidden from the eyes of the world. In the mid 1980s, a Vietnamese fisherman, trawling the sea-bed, hooked something altogether different from his usual red snapper: a concreted lump of iron containing several porcelain items. He was a few miles away from Con Dao Island (south east of Saigon), which had a long history as one of the last fresh-water refuelling stops for ships making the long journey from North Vietnam and the south-east Chinese coast, to the north-western islands of Indonesia. Few of the many ships that went down in this area - ravaged by monsoon or fire, or victim of piracy - have ever been discovered.

Click on the thumbnails
below to view larger
images of the precious 'Vung Tau' porcelain
found on the ocean
floor. These pieces reveal the effects of
the sea - over centuries
- on certain parts of the
cargo. Normally a gleaming blue and white,
here, clearly visible, are
traces of coral, small
shells and concreted
sand. Far from detracting
from the original
beauty of the pieces,
however, these effects
add a rare, quite special quality.

Research and Discovery

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In 1990, the Vietnamese government decided to raise this cargo as a commercial operation, calling on the Vietnam Salvage Corporation (VISAL) - a state-owned company of the Ministry of Transport and Communications with the monopoly on all salvage and sea bed investigations within the territorial waters of Vietnam - to commence with the recovery. Although the water depth was only 35 meters, the cargo was completely buried.

The wreck's timbers revealed that the vessel had been burned to the water-line. A part of the cargo had rolled off the damaged deck, and lay encrusted and broken around the irregular remains on the sea-bed. The internal contents of the ship were, fortunately, in a much better condition, though with inevitable wear and tear compounded by the effects of the salt water. There was little to date the wreck except for a few coins and a small rectangular Chinese ink stick, relief moulded with a cyclical date corresponding to AD 1690. Judging by the wreck's location, the ship was probably bound for Indonesia, its cargo intended for the major trading center of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java, which would then be bought by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and, in turn, transported to Europe.

Since the identity of the wreck was not known, there was little indication of the quantity of porcelain hidden under the sand. After several unsuccessful attempts, attributed to bad weather - and during which time approximately 1200 pieces were recovered - Sverker Hallstrom was contracted in 1990 to assist with the archaeological recovery of whatever porcelain and other artefacts remained on the wreck.

Hallstrom's longstanding involvement and good relationship with the Vietnamese had, a few months prior, seen an invitation extended to him to jointly harvest red coral from the seabed (over a hundred meters down) as well as to assist with shipwreck recovery in their waters. However, contractual delays with the red coral project had resulted in Hallstrom being put on stand-by, thus freeing him to excavate the Vung Tau cargo. He had already shipped his two submersibles - the LR2 and the Diver Lock-Out Perry 1202 from Scotland to Singapore. After the agreement with the Vietnamese to excavate the wreck, they were then shipped to Saigon along with other essential equipment.

The Vietnamese salvage vessel 'Dai Lanh' (formerly the Hallstrom-owned 'Singapore Salvor', which was later sold to VISAL) was hired in September 1990. Its crew of 46 comprised, among others, eight Vietnamese divers and divers from Britain and USA to man the submersibles. The survey phase entailed establishing the size and condition of the site (off the Con Dao islands), the depth at which the wreck was buried, and an indication of the quantity of porcelain on the wreck (to determine if the excavation would be economically viable). After a month and a half - during which they were faced with severe weather conditions - they had retrieved a few hundred pieces. Believing there to be a considerable treasure still buried, Hallstrom was not deterred; he had a better understanding of the wreck and the conditions of the area to help him formulate a proper excavation plan.

Click on the thumbnail
to view a larger image
of the probable route
and destination of the
'Vung Tau' Cargo.

(large image is 64K)

The Northeast monsoon had now started and the next available work window was the transit period from April to June 1991. Back in Singapore, Hallstrom started to prepare for the excavation phase, but failed to find a partner to share the financial risk. None of the divers from the previous effort were interested in returning, doubting the venture's viability. Hallstrom again hired the 'Dai Lanh', and set off with 20 Vietnamese and two Canadian divers, as well as the Australian diver Mike Flecker who was to be in charge of the archaeological part of the excavation.

Treasure Found!

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The mission proved ultimately to be a huge success. The excavation, which started on 17 April - with approximately 1364 bottom hours - ended on 2 July. In this time the team recovered more than 48 000 pieces of the precious Ching dynasty porcelain. Christies - whom Hallstrom had already contacted the previous September - selected 28 000 pieces for auction, while the Vietnamese authorities selected a few thousand for their museums.

Hallstrom Holdings has a selection of the pieces - some in excellent condition, others chipped or broken - which will shortly be available to purchase through the Shipwreck Explorer Web site. Keep your eye on our "Buy Online" page for more details!

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