Historians as Detectives

Chinese export porcelain, 1920-38. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1966.663; 1966.674; 1966.636; 1966.683.1; 1966.648a,b; 1966.645.1; 1966.638; 1966.639

One of the best examples of the difficulty involved in dating and verifying a genuine antique is represented by the Chinese export porcelain in the Intent section of the Treasures on Trial exhibition. These objects were not sold in a deceitful or malicious way. They were not sold with an exorbitant price tag to intentionally deceive gullible buyers and swindle them, but bought in good faith by H. F. du Pont in 1948 as an expansive set of 63 objects for $7,000. They were, however, incorrectly identified as dating from the late 1700s to the late 1890s by their first collectors, curators, and conservators. They successfully masqueraded under this identity until more extensive historical and scientific research was undertaken in the late 2000s that pinpointed their origins to the 1920s and ’30s.¹

The majority of scholars, however, had dated the porcelain to 1876, and the reason is simple: this fabulous collection of goods—a table screen, flower container, plate, tea canister, platter, punch bowl, jug, and sugar bowl from the exhibition as well as others on display in the main house—include artistic representations of John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence painting, dated 1786–1818.

This set of objects is an opportunity to consider how historians and curators use objects as clues to determine when and where they were made. As the subtitle of the exhibition, The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes, indicates, historians and curators are not only involved in interpretation but often need to act as detectives and piece together a story from clues and fragments. In many cases, these clues are the objects themselves. As historian Edward Muir pointed out, historians “share an assumption with detectives […] that the clues found in documents, at murder scenes, and in informants’ oral accounts point to something other than themselves.”²
For a wide range of historians, ceramics such as bowls, teacups, saucers, and teapots have long been a very important part of 18th-century practices of tea drinking, sociability, and new forms of behavior. This story has been pieced together by drawing on a range of sources, including contemporary images and drawings, conduct manuals, and personal journals. However, perhaps the most important source to understanding why these objects were particularly relevant to the 18th and 19th centuries is the common sense understanding of what the objects’ physical qualities would have enabled: the pouring, serving, and drinking of hot drinks. More recently, this has been expanded to include cold and alcoholic drinks and their associated objects in history such as punch bowls and tankards, which are part of this set.

Not on display in Treasures on Trial, but in Winterthur’s China Shop, is a covered soup tureen that forms part of the same set du Pont purchased in 1948. The object, which is slightly over eleven inches in length and eight inches in width and height, is exemplary of the set in demonstrating the full range of decorative features it uses en masse: overglaze enamel decoration, an American eagle holding a banner, Trumbull’s image, the use of bright colors, a floral border, and a prominently displayed “1776” at the base of the tureen. Research into the chemical composition of these goods ultimately dated them in the 20th century, but the scientific data was only one source of information in this case.³

Soup tureen, Jingdezhen, China, 1920-47. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1966.0669 A, B


The wrongly identified dates of manufacture of these objects has been a significant part of how they have been understood since. When the objects were first catalogued, the collection entry cards listed 1825–50. It was checked and validated in 1989, and a further museum report in March 1994 corroborated this date based on the form and design of the porcelain. A Los Angeles Times newspaper clipping in the object record of the tea canister cited the date as 1800–20. Most recently, a 2007 flyer for the Philadelphia Antiques Show listed circa 1870 as the date of manufacture.4

Similarly, while James Henry is frequently cited as the seller, H. F. du Pont’s personal correspondence and bills show that Henry was using paper with the letterhead of Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Although James Henry is now understood to be the seller, on face value it is not clear whether he was conducting a personal transaction on business papers or acting on the university’s behalf.

These porcelains serve to demonstrate how working with an incomplete record can create long-lasting misunderstandings and how historians and curators are often detectives when working with these objects. Nevertheless, by tracing clues and fragments, their work can reveal overlapping histories of objects both at their point of origin, through their collection, and—for these goods— their eventual museum home.

Post by Tom Rusbridge, a second-year Ph.D. student from the University of Sheffield and visiting scholar at Winterthur until the end of April (funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities). Twitter: @tom_rusbridge

¹R. Fuchs and J. Mass, ”Deciphering The Declaration of Independence on Chinese Export Porcelain” in American Ceramic Circle Journal 15 (2009), p. 169

²E. Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles” in E. Muir and G. Ruggiero, Microhistory and the Lost People of Europe (1991) p. xiv

³Fuchs and Mass, pp. 177–180

4 Registrars object folders, Winterthur Museum

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