Selection of blue and white "triple-arch" oval chestnut baskets and stands, circa 1816. Photo courtesy of Christie's Amsterdam
Inspired by the possibility of uncovering the mother lode, deep-sea divers continue to pursue the ghosts of Spanish galleons and merchant ships around the world.
They hunt for the graves of these phantom vessels with the help of state-of-the-art technology, sonar, old maps and faded documents from musty archive shelves. The grace of coral reefs and the opalescent patina of rare shells and underwater wildlife color their world.
There are two camps of underwater divers: those looking for historical treasures and those seeking fortune. Today’s divers are more conscious of a wreck’s archeological importance.
Pioneers who started in the business as gold seekers are shifting to marine archeology. Divers ripping apart wrecks and destroying irreplaceable artifacts are becoming a thing of the past.
Not long ago, the sunken cargo of the merchant ship Diana was found, after nearly two centuries on the seabed. The Diana sank mysteriously and without a trace on a clear night in the Straits of Malacca on March 5, 1817.
The cargo was sold on behalf of the government of Malaysia at Christie’s Amsterdam on March 6 and 7, 1995. Found in the sunken grave were 24,000 pieces of early-19th century Chinese export porcelain.
“This project was the culmination of a diver’s dream for me,” said Dorian Ball, managing director of Malaysian Historical Salvors. “From nothing, and with nothing more than a dream to drive us, my wife and I spent 10-years searching for Diana. We finally found her, and by so doing we recovered from complete obscurity, the splendid cargo that is now being offered for sale, 178 years later to the day that Diana sank beneath the waters of the Straits of Malacca.”
Buried more than 100 feet under the sea along with 11 tons of porcelain in a tightly packed hold, were glass beads, green tea, rhubarb, ginseng, camphor, cassia, star anise, dried fish, and animal bones. The ginger had been packed inside “ginger jars,” still strapped and sealed as they had been in Canton in 1816.
“For me, there were two great high-points in the salvage,” said Ball. “One was finding the ship’s bell. Nothing is so evocative of life on board ship, for a mariner, or a ship’s historian, as the bell which regulated all the daily routine…Recovering the porcelain gave us just as much pleasure.”
After 10-years of research, divers searched 28 square miles of seabed over a 2 1/2 years period before pinpointing the Diana. For collectors interested in 19th century Chinese porcelain from the great “Age of Sail,” this was the sale to attend.
Exceeding all presale expectations the cargo from the Diana realized $3.6 million. Highest prices in the sale were achieved for pairs of blue and white patterned fruit baskets, a pair of which was bought by a private Malaysian collector for $13,692.
A pair of chestnut baskets and stands sold for $12,256 and a set of four blue and white graduated oval dishes were bought by the National Museums of Malaysia for $11,536.
Q. I am a regular reader of your column and have never noticed any articles on “Cigar Bands.” I have a small collection. Please talk about this and mention any organizations relating to it. Paul Staudenmaier, Pittsburgh.
A. I’ve talked about lots of different subjects over the years but never cigar bands. Crushed into ashtrays, so many of these early beauties went up in smoke.
Collecting cigar bands and labels started around the middle of the 19th century. That’s when decorated cigar boxes and fancy labels came on the market. Why bands were actually put on cigars is somewhat of a mystery.
Cuban ladies smoked cigars long before it was fashionable in other countries. One theory holds that these ladies picked up their cigars with strips of paper so they wouldn’t stain their fingers.
Another theory holds that English ladies began the practice to keep from staining their white gloves. In 1854, cigar maker Gustave Bock claimed he invented cigar bands to stop inferior cigars from being sold as his own.
In any case, sometime between 1850 and 1860 cigar makers realized that fancy boxes and bands helped sell cigars. Artists were commissioned to come up with eye-catching designs.
As many as 22 colors would appear on a single band. Each color required a different press run. They were great advertising kitsch. In 1888 the New York Sun remarked that “the label is often better than the cigar.”
Ernest Hemmingway and George Bernard Shaw were a few of the famous collectors. Bands from around 1870 to 1930 are the choicest. The older the better rule applies. For more information contact: Seal, Label & Cigar Band Society, 8915 E. Bellevue St., Tucson, Ariz. 85715.
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