Posts Tagged ‘smuggling’

The Illustrious Client

June 10, 2018

Meditations on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Sherlock Holmes spars with a nasty cad who is trying to cajole a lovely young heiress into marriage in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” One of the plot vehicles in this case is the fact that Baron Adelbert Gruner, the nasty cad, is also a famous collector of antique Chinese porcelain. He had even published an influential monograph on the topic.

To successfully execute the case, Dr. Watson has to overnight assume the role of a porcelain connoisseur in order to, well, you’ll have to read the story. Suffice it to say that the hapless Watson is found out in short order. Hi-jinx ensue.

Of course, such a fate would befall anyone given the task of becoming a porcelain “expert” in one night – even with the help of Wikipedia and Siri. The rarified environment of the high end antiques market is replete with extremely knowledgeable people for whom not just the history, but the provenance, market value, and current availability of highly desirable objects is of utmost concern. Without these collectors’ efforts there would be precious few museum collections for today’s poor struggling potters to visit in their own endless search for inspiration and edification.

But let’s return to Baron Gruner. “A complex mind, all great criminals have that. Cool as ice, silky voiced, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him – a real aristocrat of crime, with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it.” The wise old adage that ‘one should always except the present company’ is as relevant here as it is anywhere. And checks and balances have evolved over the years to keep transactions as clean as possible. Yet this spectacularly evocative description confronts us with a glimpse into a compromised and complicated issue.

Regardless of today’s honest brokers and good intentions, the trade in expensive and rare antiques from exotic places ever evokes an ignoble, shadowy tinge of past grave digging, historical site despoiling, smuggling, and outright pillaging. But don’t take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s word for this. Just ask any of your archeology friends.

Readings:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Garden City Books/New York. 1930.

The Plundered Past. Karl Ernest Meyer. MacMillan Publishing Company/New York. 1977.

All The Best Rubbish. Ivor Noel Hume. Harper/New York. 1974.

River Gods

November 16, 2014

A discussion about collecting delftware in 18th century Deerfield, MA titled “River Gods” might seem flirty given that religion and politics are ‘safe’ conversation topics only while lolling about on a sunny beach with close friends.  But who wants to talk religion and politics on a sunny beach?

“River Gods” (the Deerfield River being a major artery of travel and commerce) along with “Mansion People” was a nick-name for Deerfield’s most powerful citizens.  The upper crust.  The one percent. Knowing if these appellations were their idea or everybody else’s might offer telling insight into the personalities of this small group.

The River Gods certainly acted the part of virtual deities.  They rose to prominence during the French And Indian War when necessities of military patronage resulted in consolidated economic clout.  The River Gods came to project an aura of civic righteousness.

Except when it came to delftware.  Delftware was a major status symbol in New England from the beginning of the French And Indian War until the Revolutionary War – precisely when the River Gods held sway.  Delft chargers were popular, but delft punch bowls ruled.  No 18th century social gathering, regardless of social rank, was complete without a round or two of punch, egg pop, sullibub, or other such alcoholic concoction.

The River Gods favored Dutch delftware over English delftware.  Maybe this was because Dutch delftware painting, being directly inspired by Italian faience, was more refined.  Or maybe the Dutch allure stemmed from its unique method of dusting additional layers of glaze over the painted pots, giving an extra glossy veneer.  English delftware by comparison was quirky, less refined, more playful.  This was ironic because the English delftware industry was largely begun by immigrant Dutch potters.

Various parliamentary Navigation Acts dictated that transactions between England’s colonies and the outside world be done via the East India Company.  This assured that non-English goods (Dutch delftware) were either impossible or prohibitively expensive to acquire.  But the River Gods used their own ships for business transactions in the Caribbean.  They simply bypassed the East India Company and purchased Dutch pottery directly in the West Indies.  In legal terms this is called customs fraud, ie: smuggling.

To be a River God was to be the law.  But the adage that nobody is perfect must be applied universally.  Even, or perhaps especially, to River Gods.

Readings:

Delftware at Historic Deerfield 1600 – 1800.  Amanda Lange.  Historic Deerfield/Deerfield MA.  2001.