Kraak from the Wanli Shipwreck

Kraak from the Wanli Shipwreck

Contributed by Mathew Welch

A type VIII kraak saucer, dated to c. 1625 from the Wanli shipwreck.

The reverse, with the typical kraak impurities and grit adhering to the foot.

While a student of Chinese at Oxford University in the early 1980s, I had the privilege of taking a course on Chinese ceramics with Mary Tregear, the noted curator of the University’s Ashmolean Museum and author of the definitive work on Song ceramics. This wonderful opportunity, where we roamed around the storage areas of the museum handling all manner of amazing historical pieces, started my life-long interest in Asian ceramics.

Later, while living and working in Hong Kong, I acquired a few pieces of Chinese ceramics here and there—some tenmoku (its delicate hare’s fur pattern had always caught my eye), then a small selection of Ming blue & white miniatures of the type sent by the shipload to Europe to fill those little niches above Dutch fireplaces, some Yingqing bowls from a Macao dealer eager to sell his stock and emigrate to Canada, and a few ‘better’ pieces from Sotheby’s.

So it wasn’t until my wife and I relocated to Singapore in 1995 and we joined the city-state’s only ceramic society (SEACS) that I began to really look at Southeast Asian ceramics. It wasn’t a ‘love at first sight’ conversion of interest; Chinese porcelain and Southeast Asian stoneware are definitely ‘birds of a different feather’. But I have since come to appreciate them, and have slowly over the years, added a few pieces to my small collection.

This little collection has grown over the years aided by frequent travels to Manila, Jakarta, Bali and Bangkok, where dealers are always happy to hear my words, ”Do you have any antique ceramics?” Without a lifetime of study, however, and despite how many reference volumes one has and how many talks one has attended, there always remains that little smidgeon of doubt whether one has been offered a genuine article or not. Which is why, in July of 2018, we decided to take up the kind invitation of marine archaeologist Sten Sjøstrand to visit him and see some of his collection. Sten was a wonderful Swede, one of the pioneers of Southeast Asian marine archaeology and at that point was happily retired in a ceramics-filled condo in Kuala Lumpur.

The result of that visit was a fascinating afternoon of stories and remembrances (amongst which Roxanna Brown figured strongly), and the addition of several ceramics I know without a doubt are authentic, having been salvaged by Sten himself. All his pieces were meticulously annotated with the wreck he had found them in and the date. Sten tells us that about 150 Portuguese ships were lost between 1600 and 1640. The Portuguese used small fast ships to try to outrun the Dutch, who at that time were excluded from trade in China.

Mathew Welch (left) with Sten Sjøstrand (seated) with shipwreck wares (including my saucer) in Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

My kraak saucer is from a Portuguese trading vessel found off the east coast of Malaysia, one of ten wrecks found by Sten. The ship apparently exploded and sank in 1625, hence Sten named the shipwreck the Wanli, after the emperor who reigned (1573-1619) when most of the ceramics onboard were made. My piece was lucky to have survived intact. According to Sten, 95% of the ceramics didn’t. 

The saucer is neither fine nor coarse porcelain, but somewhere in between with the usual small impurities typical of kraak. It measures 14.7 cm in diameter and is 2.8 cm high. The centre motif is a single bird, standing on a rock, with a variety of vegetation including a sunflower, with the sun shining above. The border, which covers both cavetto and rim, is classified as Type VIII (c.1595-1645), with only a slightly flared rim,  featuring eight small circles, containing auspicious symbols including the usual peach sprays, and in this case, a fan, scrolls, artemisia leaf and an unidentifiable object (perhaps a hulu gourd?). The base is glazed with particles of grit still adhering to the foot as kraak porcelains were typically fired on a bed of sand. The underside walls are divided into four segments by thin lines framing groups of pearls and dots. 

There is no reign mark, but on its base for all to see are Sten’s small stickers reading ‘Nanhai Marine Archaeology’, ‘Wanli’ and its item number (694), itemized on his register as ‘kraak dish’. So unlike most of the pieces one collects, I have a very high degree of confidence in the dating of this one as I bought it from the man who salvaged it from the wreck.

A sad postscript: Sten passed away in early 2020.

 Read our memorial to Sten here: