By Steve Gaskin, Lifetime Overseas SEACS Member

I’ve been studying Chinese art for about 45 years now, focusing first on painting and calligraphy, which led to a real dilemma: how could I afford anything I actually wanted to collect? This problem was solved for me by selecting a category that interests practically no one else in America: Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain shards.

Even though I am a latecomer to the field, over the last sixteen years I have managed to collect 900 mostly Yuan blue and white shards, and donate them to the Palace Museum in Beijing in 2020. My collecting continues to this day. This story is about how it all happened.

Since many collectors place a great deal of importance on condition, to them the very notion of collecting shards is anathema. However, in certain categories where complete pieces are very rare, such as ancient Greek and Roman statuary, or old oriental rugs, collecting damaged pieces, or even fragments is quite common and well accepted.

Since there are only a few hundred complete pieces of Yuan blue and white porcelain extant, and some complete pieces have sold for up to US$27 million, I maintain that Yuan blue and white qualifies.

I had been reading books on Yuan blue and white from the Topkapi Palace and Ardebil Shrine collections, and viewing hundreds of fakes on eBay, so I had a pretty good idea of what was real and what was not. One great thing about Yuan blue and white is that a lot can be learned from the painting on it, which means it can be judged pretty well remotely, from a digital image.

In 2006, I was browsing Asian art on eBay, and found some blue and white shards for sale, one of which is shown to the right. This one looked real. Its starting price was about US$60. I thought, “Hey, why not?” and bid for it. Alas, I was outbid by a Korean bidder who offered around US$375 for it. But I soon found others for sale on eBay, all, interestingly, from Southeast Asia, and soon I had my own collection going. Forty-one shards in my first year!

When I bought my first shard, I immediately wrote the National Museum of Indonesia telling them about it. I told them I am not in favor of looting, and if they would like me to give any shards I collected as a gift, I would be glad to do so. They never responded, though, so I decided to keep on collecting.

The shard that got away.

Where are these shards from? Largely from Trowulan, in East Java, the old capital of the Majapahit Empire, a pelagic Hindu/Buddhist empire that controlled the spice trade in the 14th century. They consequently had a lot of money. Shards, including restorable pieces, have been found there for many decades. The veteran collectors I came to know told me that the market was not nearly as good as it once had been, and now restorable pieces are few and far between. The shards are found in the fields around Trowulan, buried in the ground or on the surface, or in the river that connects the city to the sea, many miles away. Brickmakers are permitted to dig up the clay soil to make bricks, and in the process, they strain out foreign objects, such as porcelain shards. These are bought by local dealers, who contact me via Facebook Messenger.

Some possible reasons for why the porcelains are all broken is that a) Muslim invaders in the 15th century destroyed them, thinking they had Hindu imagery; or b) a large reservoir was opened up during a war, which wrecked everything in its path.

What does this tell me? If a nobody like me can amass a large collection of Yuan blue and white shards, there must have been vast quantities of them deposited on the grounds of the old capital. And while most people will tell you that the main market for Yuan blue and white was the Middle East, and only minor jarlets and cups went to Southeast Asia, the large number of shards from vases, jars, and bowls of the highest quality tells me that Trowulan, not the Middle East, was the chief destination for Yuan blue and white. But that’s another story.

My wife said there was no way I could display a bunch of pieces of broken pottery in our house, so I displayed them on my circular conference table at work. Here is how it looked in 2015. Soon after I began using the conference table, my boss (who was not a big art enthusiast), came in and said, “You know, this table was not meant for this use.” I said, “You’re right – I need a bigger table!”

But back in 2006, I called up Hao Sheng, the Curator of Chinese Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and asked if anyone there was interested in seeing my shards. “I would,” he said, so I went in. He especially liked four out of the ten or so I showed him, and I donated them to the museum.

Half a dozen years later, they showed up in one of the articles from the symposium on Yuan blue and white at the Shanghai Museum, in some very distinguished company! See the shards at the top right and bottom in the photograph below on the right.

In 2015 or so, I was in China on an extended business trip. I went to many cities, including Zhuzhou, where I asked the hotel concierge what interesting sights there were in the city. He consulted with his coworkers, and then told me, “I’m sorry, sir, there is nothing of interest in this city.”

When a weekend came along, I thought Jingdezhen would be of more interest than Guangzhou, so I contacted May and Qinghua Huang, with the help of Dr. Peter Y. K. Lam in Hong Kong. May Huang kindly showed me around Jingdezhen, and in the evening, we went to a party at a local dealer’s house. In the middle of the room was a long table, with a glass-covered channel in it filled with shards. Guests were supposed to pick out shards and talk about them with their friends. I told the host, “You know, we really never do this where I come from.” “Oh Steve,” he replied, “you must be very lonely in America.”

Earlier on the same trip, I visited the Palace Museum in Beijing. I went to see a small exhibition on Jun ware. While I was going through it, I noticed an unmarked stairway in one of the halls. It wasn’t blocked, so I decided to see what was on the upper floor. Imagine my surprise when I came upon rooms full of shards! There were thousands of them. “Oh boy,” I thought, now I’ll really see some great Yuan blue and white shards!” But out of the thousands of shards on display, only four (4) were Yuan blue and white, and not very good ones at that (see photo below left)!

 

The four Yuan blue and white shards in the Palace Museum Beijing.

I figured that they could really use my help. But it also begged the question, how could I have so many and they have so few? I hadn’t seen many in Jingdezhen either.

No Yuan blue and white was collected by the Emperors of China as part of the Palace Museum collection. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has none.

A shard from Steve Gaskin's collection

John Miksic, Kay Ueda, and Steve Gaskin at Boston University in 2016.

In 2016, the Society for East Asian Archaeology had a meeting at Boston University, and John Miksic was there. He and his colleague Kay Ueda visited my office to look at my collection. They were very kind and supportive. At one point I asked John, “Is this the largest collection in America?” He said yes. I then asked, “Is this the ONLY collection in America? He said yes. I’ve maintained contact with John and Michael Flecker, the marine archaeologist who is so much in the news these days, ever since. That is how I came to give a talk to SEACS in 2020.

In 2019, one of the members of the Asian Art Society of New England, of which I am President, asked me if I would consider donating my shards collection to the Palace Museum in Beijing. I replied that it would be an honor. He and his mother worked with the Palace Museum, and eventually I became the first American to donate works of art to the Museum. (Robert Ellsworth, the famous dealer, had sold them some artworks at a reduced price, but I was the first to make an outright donation). They had conditions. First, I had to make a list of each shard and its provenance. I sent them my Excel spreadsheet, giving this for each shard. Next, they could not believe how an American could tell authentic shards from fakes, so they asked for high resolution photos. I sent them; they were all ruled to be real. Finally, I had to pack them all up and ship them to the Forbidden City – and with 900 shards, the amount of labor involved should not be underestimated. But eventually, after many delays and tribulations, they made it.

The Palace Museum has been very kind, and every month I get a copy of their Bulletin, which is a nice reminder of the collection I gave away.

But has the collecting stopped? Oh, no. The dealers keep offering, and I keep buying, at least the more interesting ones. I plan to donate those to the Palace Museum as well, if they will have them.