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October 23, 2009

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Export porcelain comes home

MORE than 300 years ago, vast quantities of export-only porcelain from Jingdezhen, China's capital of chinaware, were shipped to Europe and coveted by collectors, though they did not suit Chinese tastes.

Today, 97 pieces of fine export porcelain made expressly for Europeans have returned to China through the generosity of Dutch collector Henk B. Nieuwenhuys.

An exhibition of 93 pieces is underway at the Shanghai Museum as its permanent collection. The exhibition runs through December 20. The exhibition is titled "Traces of the Trade, Chinese Export Porcelain Donated by Henk B. Nieuwenhuys."

Early in the 16th century, Chinese porcelain - some from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province - began to reach the Netherlands in large quantities. The wares are now known as kraak porcelain (after Portuguese vessels known as carracks) and sometimes Wanli porcelain (after Emperor Wanli, reigning from 1572 to 1620).

The porcelain was made specifically for the overseas market and much was of a very high quality. Motifs and styles appealed to Western tastes. Export ware does not often make its way back to the Chinese domestic market.

Nieuwenhuys grew up in a family that collected Chinese export porcelain. His grandfather, Ben van Hees, began collecting in the late 1920s.

"At that time, the knowledge of Chinese porcelain was rare. People like my grandfather bought porcelain because they liked it, not for financial reasons," says 58-year-old Nieuwenhuys who attended the opening of the exhibit in Shanghai last week.

The pieces on display include highly decorated dishes, bowls, vases, beakers, jars, teapots, incense burners, even a cruet set that were made in Jingdezhen during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The designs include ladies, narrative scenes, birds and flowers and sailing vessels in blue-and-white porcelain, and pieces in famille verte (green) and famille rose (red).

As a small boy, Nieuwenhuys was intrigued by the designs and wondered why they showed men wearing dresses and long hair in ponytails.

Eventually he could not resist the attraction of Chinese porcelain and expanded the family's collection.

"I acquired a house that was built in 1885 and had lofty 4-meter-high ceilings, perfect to accommodate a traditional French-style walnut cabinet filled with Chinese blue-and-white export porcelain," he says. "Sometimes on weekends or evenings, I could sit in front of the cabinet for hours, relaxing and appreciating the beauty of the porcelain."

However, some years ago, Nieuwenhuys sold his house.

"I had to think what to do with the porcelain," he says. "Selling is always an option, but that goes against the grain of any collector.

"Like my father and grandfather, I could have passed on the porcelain to my children, but modern houses are smaller and there isn't always room for such a large cabinet. I felt strongly that the result of three generations of collecting should remain in one place."

He decided that donating to a Chinese museum would be more beneficial to the public.

His first choice was Shanghai Museum that has one of the largest porcelain collections in China.

A highlight of the exhibit is a double-spouted cruet for oil and vinegar, consisting of two distinct, conjoined vessels, each with its own spout.

The exhibit includes some traditional gourd-shaped vases, known as hu lu, which sounds similar to fu lu (happiness and fortune). Its shape resembles the Chinese character ji (luck) and these were often called "lucky vases."

"For many years, the study of Chinese export porcelain has witnessed few fruits and a slow progress, due to the lack of relevant materials," says Chen Xiejun, director of Shanghai Museum. "With the continuous discoveries of ancient Chinese export porcelain from shipwrecks along trade routes over recent decades, the study has been furthered greatly."

Date: through December 20, 9am-5pm

Address: 201 People's Ave

Tel: 6372-3500


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