- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

In one of the most dramatic shipwrecks of the 15th century, a boat filled with 250,000 blue-and-white Vietnamese ceramics — now known as the Hoi An Hoard — sank in the South China Sea near Vietnam.

Its wares sparked widespread interest in these ceramics, especially when the boat was excavated from 1997 through 1999. Interest increased when large numbers of the ceramics were sold last fall by San Francisco’s Bonhams & Butterfields auctioneers.

Although tragic for the original owners, the wreck brought world attention to this unique, high-quality ware. The Freer Gallery of Art later joined admirers, and the gallery’s current “Vietnamese Ceramics From the Red River Delta” came to be.

The 22-object exhibit is the first display of the Freer’s Vietnamese ceramics collection, since Vietnam and the United States mended their diplomatic relationship.

One ceramic especially, a blue-and-white jar with designs of peonies and mythical animals (15th century) is similar to those from the hoard. Lionlike creatures prance around the shoulder, and a delicate peony decorates the “belly” of the jar. Its cobalt is rich.

Although closely following Chinese models from the 13th through 16th centuries, the more robust and informal Vietnamese ware has a special charm.

Consider the earlier wide-mouthed jar with inlaid decoration (13th to 14th century) in the first case on the left. It looks squashed, with an accentuated mouth, two vertical lines and four incisions that look like petals. Despite its unusual form, its shape, glazes and decorations attract.

The potter first smeared it with a gray-green covering, scraped decorated areas into it and painted the areas with brown. It’s typical for the period, and many more were made, says Louise Cort, exhibit curator and Vietnamese ceramics expert.

Only recently, with native research, has the true character of the northern Vietnamese ware been identified. Kilns centered around Hanoi, in the delta’s rich clay, date to 1010. There, archaeologists excavated layers of successive capital cities. Moreover, the delta’s river network efficiently provided ceramics-making towns with raw materials. A fine-grained, pale-gray stoneware clay was one.

One of the most beautiful exhibit pieces resembles ceramics from the Ba Dinh citadel site. A diminutive, l5th-century, mold-impressed, phoenix-and-clouds-decorated translucent white bowl, it’s definitely the “best in show.”

Another charming piece is the somewhat later dish with a design of a floral spray, auspicious clouds and flaming jewel (14th century). It’s one of the livelier wares in the show; its patterned elements jump around the round, shallow bowl. Its elegance and ivory glaze reveal the Chinese inspiration.

The delta’s river network carried many of the exhibit’s wares far afield. For example, the humorous “pillow in the form of a tortoise (late 13th to 14th century) was found at an abandoned Buddhist monastery in Bangkok. Many blue-and-white jars and dishes were found in Indonesia.

Miss Cort arranged wares resembling those from the shipwreck in the last case. One 15th-century cobalt dish sports two fish — possibly Chinese inspired, but also showing Vietnam’s love of fish.

In the wall text, the curator describes how much work is being done and what remains for the future. It’s an exciting field that will be illustrated further with the April 1 opening of the Freer’s much larger “Taking Shape: Ceramics in Southeast Asia.”

WHAT: “Vietnamese Ceramics From the Red River Delta”

WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, continuing indefinitely.

TICKETS Free

PHONE: 202/633-4880

ONLINE: www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/VietnameseCeramics.htm

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