Thomas Cleij Thomas Cleij Sacha Ruland

A porcelain vase for a regiment

Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Thursday, 06 February 2014 10:47

During his PhD in chemistry in Utrecht, Thomas Cleij could only process his research data in the lab at night; by day, the equipment was being used. That meant killing time until the data had been processed. Out of boredom, he would surf the internet. In 1997 that was a lesser beast than it is today. Amazon and Ebay were still in their infancy – and for Cleij, that was no bad thing. He became one of the first sellers of antique Chinese and Japanese porcelain on the internet.

“I was in the lowest price range, between fifty and a thousand euros. My wife Jennifer and I would buy the porcelain at auctions in the Netherlands and send it all over the world. With this I was more than able to finance my PhD. We took photos of thousands of pieces of porcelain against the backdrop of a blue sheet in the small park next to our house in Utrecht. Digital photography hadn’t been invented yet, so it was quite time consuming. But because so many pieces passed through our hands, we learned a great deal.”

As dean of the Maastricht Science Programme, these days he has little time for the business. But if he sees something nice, he buys it for himself. Last week, at the Maastricht auction house Dickhaut, he snapped up a special Japanese plate for just €30. “It was on display as a 20th century Chinese plate. I let them know it was Japanese, from the 18th century. I often advise them in that way. Thirty euros is a good price.”

Dutch cultural heritage

In the Japanese and Chinese porcelain trade, swindling is rife. “I’d guess that 80% of the items sold online today are fakes, and that’s a conservative estimate. Many people can’t tell the difference, but I find it easy. That was also part of our success: we only sold the real thing. China only started making high-quality copies in the last 10 years; until then the fakes were really obvious.” Downstairs in the living room, the most beautiful pieces are on display in cabinets; upstairs are the pieces they have bought on sale over the years and will part with for a good price. Lovingly, he picks up a small plate with a finely painted scene and holds it up to the light. “Look how beautiful it is. It’s translucent, so thin – something like this can only be made in China.”

Cleij grew up around porcelain. His parents sold antiques as a hobby. Interested in porcelain and stoneware since childhood, as a teenager he found himself intrigued by archaeology. During excavations, he would be called in as a specialist to identify shards. Later, he opted to trade in 17th and 18th century Chinese and Japanese porcelain because it was lucrative. “Back then you could buy it cheaply in the Netherlands and there was an international market for it. It’s Dutch cultural heritage; we used to be the main trading partner of China and Japan. All that crockery was shipped here by the Dutch East India Company, which is why by far the most can be found in the Netherlands. Although there’s also some in England; the English also did a lot of sailing in the area.”


Cleij and his wife went to Japan on their honeymoon. Naturally, they headed for the region where porcelain used to be made; the city of Imari, for example, which still has a thriving porcelain industry. Only some contemporary Japanese porcelain came home with them. “Still, it’s quite an art to get 15 pieces of porcelain on a plane”, he laughs. China and Japan, as it turns out, are not the places to be for antique porcelain hunters. “The Dutch took everything away in the 17th and 18th centuries. In China, porcelain was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and the top officials; the working class had no claim to it. The rest was made to export, the main buyer being the Netherlands. So any ‘antique’ porcelain you’ll find in China today is fake, or at least is no older than the 19th century. The same goes for Japan; there, too, it was an export product used to bring foreign products into the country. But the Japanese began buying their porcelain back much earlier, peaking in the 1980s. So in Japan, you now have museums where you can see lovely antique porcelain. The Chinese were then still too poor; they’re just getting started now.”


Like most things, the porcelain trade is subject to fashions. When Cleij and his wife started out, buyers were mainly interested in Chinese, rather than Japanese, porcelain. “So our own collection started with leftover Japanese porcelain that we couldn’t shift.” These days he is less a seller than he is a collector and specialist in Chinese and Japanese porcelain. “I just think it’s beautifully made, and there are often great stories behind the pieces. For example, I have a plate from the collection of August the Strong, a prince from Dresden who was one of the earliest porcelain collectors. His pieces all have a particular mark on the bottom; that’s how you can recognise his collection. August would have traded part of his regiment for a couple of porcelain vases, so the story goes. His collection is now one of the most famous in the world, so it’s just fantastic to stumble across any of it.”


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