By Freddie Oh, SEACS Member
‘Freddie’s Folly’ (Large 17C Vietnamese blue-white fish dish reproduction. Catfish swimming among water plants within narrow circular band of cloud motifs, Cavetto with flowers and leaf scrolls and mouth with cloud scrolls; exterior with cloud motifs; bluish tint glaze on blue underglazed decoration, buff biscuit.)
‘Freddie’s Folly’ (back, unglazed rim and footrest, recessed base with dark brown wash)
Cover of Dick Richards’ classic South-East Asian Ceramics: Thai, Vietnamese, and Khmer from the Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995 showing a genuine 17C Vietnamese blue-white fish dish.
My ceramic adventure began 35 years ago when I was posted to our embassy in Jakarta at the end of 1984. I was particularly happy with the posting because as a student of history and political science it afforded me an opportunity to visit many of the famous historical sites of the Indianised kingdoms of Srivijaya, Mataram and Majapahit. These were at Palembang in Sumatra and Prambanan and Borobudur in Central Java.
I was even more fortunate to serve under, as Ambassador, the late Joe Conceicao, who was very knowledgeable about Indonesian history and culture. He was also an avid antique collector who I subsequently found out was a member of SEACS. He was very kind to show me his collection and allowed me to accompany him on his weekend trips to antique shops in Jakarta. Sometimes dealers would visit him at his home or office and he would call me in.
So began my love for collecting and studying ceramics and I started acquiring some rather small modest pieces. These were in the main, Chinese export wares – Celadons and Blue-Whites of various shapes from Sung to Qing dynasties (11-17C); Thai (SiSatchanalai and Sukhothai 14-16C) covered boxes, plates and bottles; and Annamese (Vietnamese 14-16C) blue-white plates and bowls.
As my collection and collecting experience grew I started to go for the rarer and more expensive pieces. One weekend a dealer whom I had previously purchased some items from dropped by my home and said that he wanted to show me a large blue-white dish. It was, he claimed, a 16C Annamese “Fish” dish (See Fig 1). I recalled seeing photos of such large dishes in auction catalogues and ceramic books. Although what he asked for was the most I had ever paid for a single piece, it was still much cheaper than in the catalogue.
We agreed on a price provided it was genuine, but I told him that I didn’t have sufficient cash that weekend (merchants didn’t take cheques or credit cards at that time). He had to wait till Monday when offices opened. I tried to reach Ambassador Conceicao but he was out of town, as was a friend from the Jakarta Museum. The dealer said the owner of the piece was flying to Makassar that evening and could not wait. He suggested I deposit half the amount and the other half on Monday. I kept the piece and gave him the deposit.
Come Monday I brought the piece to the office to show Ambassador Conceicao. He didn’t say anything except for me to come over to his home for lunch with the piece. At his home, he took me upstairs and showed me three of his “Fish” dishes. As I compared my piece with his, it became evident mine was a fake – a reproduction. I observed:
- The blue underglaze was too intense (the genuine ones were softer and paler).
- The outlines of the fish were not smoothly drawn.
- The fishes in the centre medallion were either perch or carp; mine was a catfish.
- The brown wash on the exterior back of the plate was too dark.
Ambassador Conceicao opined that it was still a good reproduction, probably from Taiwan, and still worth a couple of hundred dollars. Naturally, the dealer did not dare to show himself to ask for the balance. In fact, he had disappeared.
It was my first and hopefully last bitter lesson not to buy anything if unsure of its authenticity no matter if it is a bargain. But to remind myself, I thought I’d coin a name for the piece: Freddie’s Folly.