24,000-piece crockery set from under the sea ART MARKET

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The proceeds of the 19th-century opium trade are on offer next week, when porcelain from the British ship

Diana - wrecked in1817 and salvaged last year - is auctioned in Amsterdam. Geraldine Norman reports

CHINESE porcelain made around 1816 is to be offered for sale by Christie's in Amsterdam tomorrow and Tuesday, at the sort of prices you'd expect to pay for smart modern dinner services from Worcester, Derby or Wedgwood. At first glance they seem like the kind of thing the upper crust puts on its wedding lists at Harrods, Thomas Goode's or the General Trading Company.

With modern porcelain, of course, you can usually replace the dinner plate or tureen that you've smashed, because the factory carries on making the same design. In Christie's case it won't be quite so easy; they have for sale 24,000 pieces of pottery and porcelain recovered from a ship wrecked in the Malacca Straits on 4 March 1817. The wreck was located in December 1993 and its cargo was recovered from the sea bed last year.

In many cases they have hundreds of examples of the same type of bowl, saucer or tureen, but once the sale is over these will be dispersed around the world and a little hard to find when you need a replacement.

A set of 10 blue-and-white coffee cups and saucers decorated with a pattern of diving birds is estimated to fetch £500-£1,000; there are oodles of them available. Matching sets of six dessert plates are in the £300-£600 range, but the wreck was not strong on plates. Pairs of blue-and-white dishes decorated with something very close to Willow Pattern - there's a bridge, a willow tree, a pagoda and a sailing boat - come in at £1,000- £2,000; fruit baskets with delicately pierced sides and matching stands are also estimated at £1,000-£2,000, while big tureens have been lotted together in pairs, complete with covers and matching stands, at £2,000- £3,500.

If you like to eat Oriental style, a table setting of 24 blue-and-white dragon bowls is estimated at only £250-£350. There are an awful lot of these available, and the Western market is not expected to be so keen on them. A set of 32 blue-and-white graduated bowls and matching dishes decorated with a starburst pattern, 64 pieces in all, is estimated at £1,000-£2,000, or a set of 12 (24 pieces) at £500-£1,000.

It is the fourth time that Christie's has put the contents of a shipwrecked China trading vessel up for auction. First came the contents of a Chinese junk that sank in the 1640s with some 25,000 pieces of Ming and transitional porcelain on board - they were recovered by an ex-Barnado boy who had emigrated to Australia, Captain Michael Hatcher. Christie's was afraid of flooding the market and fed the pieces into four sales over a period of two years, between 1983 and 1985. Only towards the end did they realise that the underwater story had a romance in itself and collectors would pay over the odds.

The following year Hatcher came up with the contents of a Dutch East Indiaman, the Geldermalsen, which sank in 1751 with 150,000 items of porcelain and 126 gold ingots on board. By the 1750s the Chinese were making dinner services specifically for the European market and that's what the Geldermalsen had on board. The idea of buying 18th-century porcelain to eat off caught the public imagination; after a massive televison and press campaign, the porcelain which had been estimated to fetch £1m realised £10m.

In 1992 the Vietnamese government commissioned Christie's to sell the 28,000 pieces of porcelain they had recovered from an Asian trading junk that sank around 1690 off the coast of Vung Tau province. Since Christie's was selling on behalf of Vietnam, the US trade embargo meant, in theory, that no Americans could buy - but plenty of them did, mainly through dealers. Christie's was again hoping to raise around £1m and got £4.5m.

This time the cargo comes from the Diana, a British ship that plied between India and China. It was found in the territorial waters of Malaysia and the porcelain has been sent for sale by the Malaysian government. The Diana belonged to a Calcutta trading house called Palmer & Co.

In 1817 the British economy was still reeling from two decades of war with France, and British merchants in the East had plunged into a new, illicit trade. For most of the 18th century British traders had paid for Chinese porcelain with silver; during the war silver was not available and they discovered that if they shipped opium (illegally) from India to China they could buy all the porcelain they wanted. That's what the Diana was doing.

She had unloaded her illicit cargo in Canton and started the voyage back to India - she was bound for Madras - when she put in to Malacca to pick up firewood and stores on 4 March 1817. We even know from contemporary records that the captain, Alexander Lyell, was suffering from dysentery and visited a surgeon, who could do nothing for him. He died that night when the ship ran on the rocks.

Locating the wreck of the Diana was an adventure in itself which crowned 10 years' determined work by a South African amateur diver called Dorian Ball. He had first arrived in Singapore in 1979 as a computer analyst, married the local advertising director of Readers' Digest, and then got himself a job diving with Michael Hatcher.

An important part of the salvage game, as it is played today, is researching historic shipping records and Ball was working in the India Office Library in London back in 1983 when he first came across a reference to the Diana. It was only one of 2,000 shipwrecks he listed on his database, but when he and his wife decided to try a salvage project of their own, they settled on the Diana for legal reasons. There have been some fierce disputes about the ownership of salvaged cargoes in recent times, and Diana had the great advantage of lying in clearly defined territorial waters - the cargo belonged to Malaysia.

It took Ball a couple of years to obtain a license from the Malaysian government to search for the wreck. Then began a soul-destroying search. The Balls raised money from investors and put a good deal of their own towards the hi-tech survey costs; it repeatedly looked as if they would run out of money before the wreck was found. Diana had gone down in deep, muddy water. There was not even a foot's visibility when Dorian Ball finally bumped into a pile of plates as he dived over an anomalous magnetic blip on the survey graph.

In the following months the salvage was undertaken with the strictest attention to the interests of marine archaeology. The divers had TV cameras as well as lights attached to their helmets; the location of every find was meticulously recorded; staff were seconded from the Malaysian museums service to monitor the project. The recovery has been documented by a video and a book, written by Ball himself.

The cargo falls broadly into three categories: there is European-style porcelain intended for the table; bowls and saucer dishes intended for the South-East Asian market; and pottery toys modelled as animals and birds, presumably aimed at British children in India. The European-style porcelain is not of particularly high quality; it was clearly intended for use in India itself. The exception is the large group of dishes enamelled with the arms of the Honourable East India Company, which would be very grand if the sea had not eroded the enamel decoration.

Christie's are hoping for strong bidding from America. By the beginning of the 19th century European demand for Chinese porcelain was dropping away after a century of popularity, losing ground to cheap Staffordshire wares. However, demand was soaring in the United States, which had only begun to import porcelain direct from China after gaining independence from Britain in 1783. The kind of porcelain included in this cargo is just like the early American imports, which are now avidly collected as "Americana".

In terms of their sheer bulk, the bowls and saucer dishes intended for South-East Asia dominate the sale. It is a type of porcelain rarely seen in the West, but it will be seen a lot more in future. The pottery toys are even rarer. Such roughly modelled and glazed cockerels, ducks, parrots and puppies have not been seen before - though grander porcelain versions are well known. If there ever was a regular trade in such toys between China and India, all the others must have been smashed. !

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