August 04, 2010
Hoi An Hoard -- an amazing tale of a buck well spent
So I went to the 1-Dollar Store a few weeks ago to get a couple of things. When I am there, I always see what books they have. Sometimes there are real finds from mainstream authors, stuff that still costs a bundle on Amazon.
Not that much this time, but there's a book called "Dragon Sea" and it has a scuba diver on it. It looks like adventure fiction and so I buy it for a buck.
I start reading and it's really much better than expected. It's actually about underwater archeology and written by a man by the name of Frank Pope who assisted one of the world's foremost underwater archeologists, Mensun Bound, with marine excavations. So this is real.
The book deals with the clash between treasure hunters who plunder, and marine archeologists who seek to record and preserve. The story is of an effort to form an alliance between a treasure hunter who needs the legitimacy of an archeological team to get permissions and such, and the archeologists who need the funding the treasure hunters can provide. It turns out to be an uneasy partnership, with each side distrustful of the other's motives and intentions.
The subject is a sunken 15th century junk that apparently carried a massive amount of early Vietnamese ceramics, over a quarter of a million pieces. The 1998/99 recovery is hellacious with long 12-hour shifts in deep water (220 feet), requiring saturation diving and a good deal of innovation, and the artifacts become known as the Hoi An Hoard. It is historically very relevant as records of Vietnamese culture are all but non-existent due to centuries of occupation and influence by China and other colonial forces, and no one knew that Vietnam actually had its own fleeting period of glory where they almost rivaled the Chinese in ceramics.
So all this is real. The moneymen have their treasure, and the archeologists tons of material to catalog and publish. In 2000, the investors did an auction in San Francisco, and used a relatively small auction house, Butterfields, owned by then just emerging eBay. The auction is not a big success as there's just too much stuff and not enough demand for a virtually unknown category of collectibles, and a lot is just mundane pottery that had been at the bottom of the ocean for almost 600 years. Supposedly, the initial auction brought in only about three million dollars, versus 14 million spent, though that latter number is up for discussion.
Now get this: it's still on eBay. I put in a bid, and for US$88 I won the auction for a large painted dinner bowl, properly registered and recorded in the Hoi An Hoard inventory. It's beautiful and its history given me bit of the shivers. I put it on display in my house, next to Frank Pope's book that I picked up for a buck at the 1-Dollar store.
But the story doesn't end there. In "Dragon Sea," the author makes reference to a book that fueled his goal on pursuing a career in marine archeology, "Archeology Under Water" by George Bass. The book is long out of print, but I found a used one that was as good as new on Amazon. Turns out that book came from another diving legend, Jennifer Carter, who is a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame. Carter was the first woman to dive the Titanic in a submersible, authored a book on it (Titanic Adventure), was a National Geographic producer and has her own experience in hard hat saturation diving and diving the world over. The book was accompanied by a kind note, and Mrs. Carter, who seems a delightful person, helpfully guided me to some other rare books on diving history.
Amazing story, and the best dollar I ever spent.