Sir Francis Drake & the Wanli Emperor

Recently I was asked to appraise a cylindrical cloisonne inlaid handle approximately 4.5 inches long. The owner found the piece near a site believed to the landing point in northern California where Sir Francis Drake landed for repairs to his ship the Golden Hind in 1579. I admit I was skeptical, but a competent appraiser never approaches an object with a preconceived opinion. The successful appraiser and dealer will always approach an object with an open mind and apply a methodology while examining the piece. I call this process “having a conversation with the work of art”.

The owner arrived at my office and handed me a plastic baggy which contained the object. As I took the piece out and placed on the examination pad I immediately observed a number of things which were obvious to the trained eye.

The piece was found entwined among the roots of a tree. The shaft of the handle of the calligraphy brush was somewhat crushed, revealing that the body was made from a rolled strip of metal with a seam. It was not cast from a solid piece of metal.

Second, the enamels inlaid were clay based, not glass based. The colors were of the Late Ming period palette of colors and most importantly, there were several colors contained in a single cell. This is a defining characteristic of Late Ming (1573-1620 Wanli Period cloisonne. The subject matter depicts a five clawed dragon chasing a flaming Pearl of Knowledge. This is one of the most popular subjects for ming period cloisonne. The condition of the piece is consistent with that of an object which has been exposed for a prolonged period of time to natural elements. There is no observed evidence of human manipulation of the condition of the handle.


I was pleased to tell the owner that for all of these reasons it was my opinion that the handle is Late Ming period transitional cloisonne consistent with a Wanli period date. The owner was very pleased to hear this since that dating falls within the range of Sir Francis Drake’s landing in Northern California. While I have no observable evidence of the Drake connection to this specific piece, there is no ambiguity in my opinion that the piece is of the period. It is intellectually pleasing to consider how a Late Ming Dynasty object might come into the possession of Sir Francis. One theory is that the object was taken as booty from one of the Spanish galleons plying the China trade which Sir Francis captured. The trade from Peru where Spain minted silver Pieces of Eight to be used as payment for Chinese trade goods was the Amazon Prime of the Sixteenth Century. Sir Francis was a privateer whose mission was to capture as much loot as possible for his Queen, himself and his crew. It was a grand time to be alive! If only this handsome brush handle could speak! What a story it might tell!

Providing appraisals to people and viewing interesting works of art is pleasant detective work which keeps me in the trade. If you have an interesting piece and seek expert opinion, feel free to contact me. My hourly rate for providing appraisal service is reasonable and I can provide non contact appraisals by emailing photos taken with a cell phone camera in most instances. I am available to travel to inspect works of art on site, if required.

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