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April 11, 2012

Chinese Ceramics

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – “Yea, that’s nice,” I said to my wife while glancing at a piece of pottery. My mind always avoided anything Chinese because I didn’t understand, nor did I want to understand Chinese writing.


I felt the effort was just too much of an exertion. I was told that youngsters by the age of six had mastered over 200 characters and sometimes I couldn’t even remember my own name.


A friend of mine had brought us some porcelain to purchase and I always said no. I wasn’t interested in maniacal dragons with hideous smiles circling around a plate. Nor did I have any affection for two ducks where one seemed to be kissing the other. Then there were green plates with two fish, some brown ones and some hideous orange ones. My friend spoke only Indonesian and would throw out words like Ming and Quing. “I don’t care if they are” ring and ding and ling,” I said firmly. “I don’t want them!”


Unfortunately, my friend took this as a sign that the price was too high and he started lowering it as this was his perception of my negotiation strategy. I didn’t have a negotiation strategy. I simply didn’t want them. Then the price got to the point where my wife, who was doing the translating, said she wanted them. I can never turn down my beautiful bride for anything; so I said we will take them all. I figured we could use them at meal time.


Suriani took the pieces and put them away in a place where our meager valuables are kept. I had forgotten about them until a news report appeared in the local Borneo Post about how records were being broken for Chinese ceramics. Some of these pieces were worth a couple of million dollars.


I looked at the plate that had been hammered at such an exorbitant price and realized we had something like that. I then went to the closet and got one down for comparison. Hmmm, something about a mark the article said. I went to the web site and examined the picture and compared it to one I had.


I found the “mark,” which was a grouping of six Chinese characters lined up vertically in rows of two. I then looked at the little characters. Top left ,cross on top, top right, little man, middle left, tree, middle right, ladder and on down. These, of course, were not the translations but what the characters looked like to me. THEY MATCH!


“WE ARE RICH! WE ARE RICH!” That spaghetti bowl is worth millions,” I said dancing around the room. “But there are not exactly the same,” my wife said sympathetically. “Okay, maybe not a million, but I will take a half or a quarter,” I said enthusiastically.


I then jumped into my study of Chinese and learned about the dynasties, Song, Han, Ming and Quing and the various flavors under them. I then tried to translate out the meaning of the characters. How was I supposed to know there were old and new symbols?


After studying for a few days, I came to the realization that I don’t have a clue as to the value of my collection, and nobody else, including the “experts” do either. It could be worth a lot or suitable only for skeet shooting. But like all hobbies it is enjoyment and not the value. However, if I arrive at your door driving a Rolls Royce….


. . . . .life is good. . . . .


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