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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Canton shop producing Western furniture; circa 1820s, 11 inches by 14 inches; $64,400. Photo courtesy of Northeast Auctions
The Empress of China set sail from Manhattan headed for Canton on George Washington’s birthday in February of 1784. She would be the first American ship to trade with China.

Canton was the only city in China where foreigners were allowed to enter. As The Empress pulled into port, four-fifths of her cargo was made up of ginseng grown in the mountain regions from Quebec to Georgia and prized in China as an aphrodisiac and cure-all.

With only a glimpse of a few harbor streets in the Forbidden City, the Yankee ship restocked with China tea, silk and porcelains returned home by way of the Indian Ocean and arrived in New York in May of 1785.

For many of the crewmen who remained on the vessel in Canton overhauling the ship for a safe return home, Cantonese furniture, fabric and porcelain shops would remain a mystery.

Shipped to America in the holds of these early cargo ships were the popular Canton blue-and-white patterned dinner and tea sets, known as ballast ware. It was the same porcelain that filled the banquet tables at George Washington’s as well as Thomas Jefferson’s homes.

European and U.S. ship museums describing the early China trade exhibit shelf after shelf of the prized porcelain. Fifty piece tea sets sold in Canton for about $3. Dinnerware consisting of 170 pieces brought about $22.

Porcelain decorated with coats-of-arms made up many early china trade shipments. Nowadays, examples of what’s commonly called Chinese export porcelain is readily available, particularly on the East Coast. Specialty pieces displaying ship portraits and American eagles and flags are especially rare and desirable.

Given that thousands upon thousands of items have been imported from China and a steady market for silks, lacquerware, porcelain, silver, ivory carvings, and furniture has been in place since the 18th century, it seems unusual that illustrations of Chinese furniture and porcelain making remained scarce.

When a series of paintings showing 19th century interior scenes of Cantonese furniture-making and porcelain shops showed up at auction on Aug. 4, it was a rarity. Like time capsules, the paintings coaxed viewers into an underground world of Chinese craftsmanship and commerce. Shipmasters during the trade era were known to purchase paintings showing the foreign factories at Canton. But few survived.

The four works of art appeared at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H., from the collection of Cora and Benjamin Ginsburg. The first, an 1820s painting, pictured the only known illustration of a Canton shop producing Western-style furniture. In the grouping are four workmen amid Empire-style chairs, trunks, gate-leg-tables, and chest of drawers.

The second of the same era shows the interior of a bamboo furniture shop. The settees, stands, extension chairs and tables are readily identifiable and exist in collections today.

The third painting pictures a Cantonese shop making Chinese furniture for the West. The trunks and desks pictured were common export items. The fourth painting relates to porcelain making and pictures a store where shelves are bulging with porcelain.

The paintings are important because they are representative examples of the China trade in the 19th century that very few people were privy to.

Here are some current values.

China trade: Gouache on paper paintings

Interior of a bamboo furniture shop; circa 1820s; 11 inches by 14 inches; $19,550.

China trade view of the interior of a porcelain shop; circa 1820s; 11 inches by 14 inches; $20,700.

Canton shop making Chinese-style furniture for the West; circa 1820s; 11 inches by 14 inches; $24,150.

Canton shop producing Western furniture; circa 1820s, 11 inches by 14 inches; $64,400.

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