Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Japan emerged from behind a "bamboo curtain" from the middle of the sixteenth century until the early seventeenth; then she retreated again because of the active rivalry between two missionary groups. Only the Dutch and English were allowed to continue their trade with Japan, and very shortly the English dropped out. The Dutch East India Company was permitted to maintain a trading post on the artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor, and it had the privilege of sending one vessel a year to that port. The Dutch were prisoners on the island, unable to leave it without permission, but the profits were large enough to assuage their feelings.

This odd trade continued without interruption until the French conquered Holland in the wars following the French Revolution and forced her to join with them in the general European war. Then British men-of-war began to capture the ships of the Dutch East India Company, and the Dutch, fearing that the non-arrival of the annual ship at Nagasaki would terminate the agreement, decided to charter neutral vessels for the trade. The Perkins' ship ‘Franklin’ of Boston - Captain James Devereux of Salem, master - was the second American ship chartered to make the voyage. In 1797 and 1798 the ‘Eliza’ of New York, commanded by Captain William Robert Stewart, had gone to Nagasaki for the Dutch, but Captain Stewart was a footloose adventurer who never returned to this country and very little is known of his voyages. In 1799 Captain Devereux took with him, in addition to the Dutch East India Company's cargo of ivory, sugar, tin, cloves, pepper, and cotton, a supply of silver watches, theriac (treacle), lanthorns, blue glass, and other such material to trade on his own. The ‘Franklin’ sailed from Batavia on June 17, 1799, and arrived at Nagasaki on July 19, flying the Dutch flag and firing salutes to the Japanese guards in the bay. If the Japanese were aware that the vessel was an American one they did not reveal it. They eventually learned its nationality, but this may have been after the Dutch had given up chartering neutral ships. In order to insure a minimum of contact between the Japanese and the "outlanders" an elaborate series of regulations had been set up, including sending all firearms ashore, impounding all money in the hands of tile crew and even scaling all books in a cask to be sent ashore until the vessel was ready to leave. But the crew was allowed to go ashore in guided parties during its four months' stay.

Captain Devereux's private venture brought a good return, according to his personal account books now in the Peabody Museum of Salem. S. E. Morison's ‘Maritime History of Massachusetts’, in its account of the Franklins voyage, mentions "cabinets, tea-trays, and carved screens which are still treasured in Salem homes." The Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts, has four of the objects listed in Devereux's accounts: a tilt-top table, a card table, a knife box, and a server. The Essex Institute (also of Salem) has one of the tilt-top tables lacquered in bronze. All of these have been received from descendants of Captain Devereux.

I suspect that the oval server was a stock item supplied by the cabinetmaker; it has the appearance of a non-European piece, and the hand holes in the rim are too small for normal European hands. The other objects were obviously copied from European models - perhaps from furnishings carried on the vessel, since it was not unusual to have compact and often fine pieces of furniture to add to the comfort of the cabin. This seems the more likely since I have found no mention of furniture being brought back by the Dutch from Japan before 1799, and I have been unable to track down similar pieces in any of the Dutch museums. The furniture listed may seem a large order to be completed in four months, but we have all heard stories illustrating the speed and skill of Japanese craftsmen. I myself had a friend staying at Osaka in the 1920's who sent a suit out to a local tailor to be copied. Two reproductions of that suit were in his hands in forty-eight hours, complete to the darn in the left elbow of each jacket and the dangling thread of a missing button on each jacket sleeve. With this in mind, I feel the Japanese would not have been stumped by Captain Devereux's order.

The appearance of the tilt-top table does indicate that the articles to be copied were not sent ashore but were seen briefly, and possibly sketched, by the cabinetmakers either on board the ‘Franklin’ or else at the Dutch trading post on Deshima. The legs are not very graceful compared with many contemporary tables, and the claw-and-ball feet are definitely crude. It is possible that Captain Devereux had a poorly designed table aboard, but it seems more reasonable to suppose the Japanese maker did not have time to observe the original thoroughly. Since there is no record of sales in Captain Devereux's papers it has been impossible to trace any of the pieces except those that belonged to his descendants. It is quite possible that other of these early Japanese reproductions still exist and the owners have no idea of their history.