D.K. sends me a pair of teacups and saucers that belonged, he supposes, to either his world-traveling grandparents, or his dad. They are delicate Chinese porcelain. Which story "fits" the history of the teacups, he asks — and he gives me a few lines of family history. Are the cups a trinket or are they something of value? he asks.
I opt for ownership by D.K.'s dad, as D.K. writes that his dad was stationed in Shanghai after the Japanese surrender in WWII. Serving as an American in China, D.K.'s dad helped the British internees who had been Japanese prisoners of war, having been held, miserably, in a massive camp at Shanghai.
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and declaration of war had led to British civilians being captured and interned. When Singapore fell, British evacuees were seized: almost 21,000 British citizens were held at many camps in Japanese occupied territories, such as the notorious camp in Shanghai, where 7,000 Britons were interned. The death rate at such camps was one in 20. Women, children, and men were all held. They suffered dire conditions.
The history of the Chinese porcelain teacups and saucers are intricately woven around D.K.'s dad's soldier's story, I believe; I only have a few lines of D.K.'s dad's history, regarding the liberation of the Shanghai internment camp, but the cups and saucers speak to me. Thus, D.K., I might be wrong about the connections and parallels I am drawing, but it has been my experience that the objects that exist to tell their story usually have stayed around for a good reason!
The civilians interned in Shanghai mainly came from the industrious and well-off professional class of British expats who had made their fortunes in the East. The fall from luxury with servants, to scrounging for food, their children learning the alphabet in the dirt, shocked them. Some Britons endured three years of internment under the watchful eyes of the Japanese guards, only liberated in 1945 when American aircraft dramatized the moment by dropping loads of chocolate, spam and cigarettes from the skies overhead.
D.K.'s dad's crucial role might have begun right at this moment, and for his help, he may have been gifted the teacups and saucers. After the release of the British internees, American soldiers like D.K.'s dad helped Britons to adapt to their new liberty in China; they struggled with the adjustment, however, and three quarters of men aged 40-50 died within 10 years.
Internees may have returned to numerous old Chinese connections: many internees had been importers and exporters. The rarity, delicacy, and history of the teacups might explain why I draw the connection between D.K.'s dad's soldier's story and the cups themselves: perhaps they were a gift to his dad for his service to a British family who had been in the China trade. Whoever gave these cups to D.K.'s dad knew what he was gifting.
The pair is valuable and old; furthermore, to find a matched pair in wartime perhaps may be thought of as nearly impossible. The saucers bear the Qing Dynasty Kangxi (19661-1722) mark of four-squared character to the bottom. The saucer is gently lobed, matched by the cup which is paneled and lobed with a diagonal wave relief, echoed by the lattice/foliated painting in blue on white porcelain.
The key to age is not just in the markings but also in D.K.'s email: "The cups and saucers are very delicate and you can see light through them." Fineness is a mark of importance. Imagine! Someone had to protect and perhaps treasure such a pair— through such a war— in such a place!
It is as if beautiful, delicate antiquities are watched over by guardian spirits in cases like these.
D.K. will be interested to know that the cups are in the Kangxi style, which developed during the reign of perhaps the most revered of all female Chinese leaders, the Empress Xiao Zhuang, consort to the Kangxi Emperor Hong Taiji. "Dowager" means that "Bumbutai" (her name) ruled with her son and grandson until both became of kingly age. As his concubine, Bumbutai had born the Emperor a son; canny lady, because when the Emperor died, all Chinese rulers in her bloodline bore her own Mongolian blood. Just as D.K.s dad's porcelain found a will and a way to survive, so did the "patroness" of the style of D.K.'s cups and saucers.
There's a few understandable rim chips, but the value of the set is $1,500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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