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East India auctions and the Swedish sales catalogues

Goods from Asia imported by the European East India companies were generally sold at auctions. A return expedition from Europe to Canton and back took on average 18 months to complete. A large company, like the English East India Company, stored the goods it brought back in its huge London warehouses, selling it off at intervals throughout the year. The Swedish Company in contrast did not have any large warehouses of its own until the 1750s, instead it put up the bulk of what was imported for sale on its return. The large ships, the Chinamen, normally arrived back to Europe in July or August, in Sweden the sales usually began in September and October. Handbills and sales catalogues were printed and distributed within weeks of the arrival of the ship listing the contents of the cargo. News of arriving ships, and later the prices of their cargo, were circulated between merchants trading East India goods. Since most of the market for tea was found outside Sweden this was important information to wholesalers operating in places connected to the clandestine tea trade, such as Rotterdam. Wholesalers here typically traded with tea imported by all the continental East India companies. The fact that some of the first catalogues listing Swedish imported Asian goods are printed in German reflects on the transnational market for the goods imported by the SEIC.[i]

All in all 21 digital volumes of Swedish Sales catalogues, originating from the holdings of the National Board of Trade (Kommerskollegium) and held at the Swedish National Archive, are made accessible here ( Although the series of catalogues surviving the Swedish Company is not complete it is unique both in the period it spans and the information it provides. Very few sales catalogues listing goods put up for sale by the East India companies have survived. The British Library in London, which houses some of the archives of the English East India Company (EIC), holds a few catalogues from the early eighteenth century.[ii] Some earlier and later examples from the same company can also be found in the James Ford Bell Library in Minneapolis.[iii] The Danish archives possess some catalogues, the earliest examples are from 1753 to 1757, and also some from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.[iv] Scattered examples of catalogues from the French company exist in different archives, including the James Ford Bell Library in Minneapolis.[v] There is also a copy of a catalogue from the Ostend Company in the Provincial Archive (Landsarkivet) of Gothenburg.[vi]

The catalogues held in the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet) and made available here are not the only Swedish ones to survive. Three catalogues listing the cargo of the Prins Carl (1752) and Götha Leyon (1752, and undated) can be found in the Stockholm City Archive (Stockholm stadsarkiv).[vii] Individual catalogues can also be found in the Provincial Archive (Landsarkivet) of Gothenburg, in papers originating from Christian Tham, a supercargo employed by the Swedish Company. This collection contains one catalogue listing the goods of the ship Stockholm’s Slott which sailed between 1759 to 1761, for which there is no copy in the Swedish National Archive.[viii] A very rare sales catalogue originating from the Swedish sale of Indian material, brought to Gothenburg by the ship Ulrica Elenora in 1735, can also be found in Copenhagen, in the holdings of the Danish West Indian Company.[ix] What makes this example particularly interesting is that it contains samples of some of the textiles listed in the catalogue. Images from this catalogue have been used in the Textile Database created by the project.

The description of the goods listed in the Swedish and also in many of the other catalogues listed above gives us not only a good idea of how the different qualities of Asian goods were perceived in Europe, but also how they were standardised. Tea of different qualities and types, largely drawing on Chinese divisions of black and green tea into different subcategories, are listed separately under headings such as Bohea, Congo, etc. Porcelain is described with references to type of vessels, decoration, whether it was blue and white, brown, enamelled etc.[x] Sometimes there are references to pattern numbers which probably refer to numbered examples of porcelain objects, decorated with one of the many different patterns available to the European supercargoes contracting for porcelain in Canton. These numbered porcelain objects were packed in separate chests. We can assume they were displayed before the sale in Gothenburg, guiding purchasers of porcelain when they made bids for lots containing often several hundred pieces of porcelain. The lists of textiles for sale, particularly those imported in large quantities, carefully records the colour schemes of the compilation of pieces sold in each lot (see more on this in the section on silk textiles), its dimensions and sometimes with added information on weight.

The organisations of the catalogues and the description of the goods for sale are one of the reasons why the catalogues of the Swedish East India Company are of interest to anyone working on East India trade, including the consumption and retail of East India goods in Europe. A further reason for why there should be a more general interests in the catalogues are that they, in addition to the printed text, also contain numerous annotations on who bought the goods and what they paid for them.

The careful listing of the buyers and the prices can probably be explained by the fact that the catalogues belonged to the archive of the National Board of Trade (Kommerskollegium), the Swedish state body with the main responsibility for regulating trade. The catalogues helped them keep track of the trade and price developments. What they offer to historians is an opportunity to track the first link between the company trade and the wholesale trade in goods coming from Asia and arriving in Gothenburg. The transnational market for the Swedish imported goods make the catalogues particularly interesting for the study of the purchasers. Since 90% of the goods were regularly re-exported the names provide an insight into the merchant networks that engaged in the trade of Eurasian goods across Europe.[xi]

On the page The Swedish import of Chinese silk there is a link to an excel sheet which summarise the purchasers of Poesis Damask, a quality of silk textiles, between 1733 and 1761, and which uses the digitised sales catalogues (plus the catalogue with the goods of Stockholms Slott sailing between 1759 and 1761). It exemplifies how the material can be used to create statistical data over the trade. Many of the names listed in this set of data are familiar to historians working on the early modern Baltic trade, they belong to members of prominent merchant houses and families in Sweden, several of them had ongoing and long term relationships with the SEIC. In many cases a group of merchants pooled capital, investing in large sections of the Swedish imported cargo together. Such joint investments are not possible to detect in the annotation of the sales catalogues, which usually list only one name by each lot.

Only a further reading of surviving correspondence in private archives belonging to different merchants allows us to track this business further. In the Swedish case two such archives are particularly illuminating. One originating from trade conducted by Jean Abraham Grill (1736-1792). Members of his extensive family ran merchant houses across Europe. Grill’s archive, located at the Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet) is digitised and can be accessed on-line from The second archive belonged to the Scottish merchant Charles Irvine (1693-1771), one of the many Scottish nationals involved in the Scottish trade. The archive is at the John Ford Bell Library in Minneapolis but a detailed inventory of the archive can be downloaded here. “The Irvine Papers 1730-1754” discusses the developments of Charles Irvine’s trade contact drawing on the letters and other documents contained in the archive. There is also an inventory of the Irvine Archive separated into eight different pdf files (pdf 1, pdf 2, pdf 3 pdf 4, pdf 5, pdf 6, pdf 7, and pdf 8) which lists the content of each archive box.[xii] Both sets of documents originates from the James Ford Bell Library in Minneapolis.

Some notes on reading the catalogues
The lots in the catalogue are listed numerically; tea was almost always the first type of good to be put up for sale. Each lot of tea typically included several containers of tea. Bohea was the cheapest quality, a black tea which was bought on behalf of the continental and British mass market. It was typically sold in lots of four chests of the largest size. Based on information from the Danish East India Company records we can deduce that this type of chests was around 65 cm in height, 76 cm in width and 86 cm in length.[xiii] Other finer green tea types were sold in smaller containers. The price listed next to the lot is the price offered per Swedish pound or skålpund, the equivalent of c. 0,425 kg. The buyer would only know how much he would have to pay once the chests had been weighed and the standard chest weight, which was printed in the catalogue, was subtracted.[xiv] Silk was sold in lots of various sizes, of the common qualities such as Poesis Damask, each lot usually contained between 30 and 20 pieces. The sizes of the pieces are listed together with information about the colour assortments in each lot. As in the case of tea the annotated price is the price per piece.

The catalogues are all organized in a very similar way, the first pages gives an overview of the cargo and lists the regulations applicable to the trade. The first part of each catalogue usually lists the tea; with different qualities listed after one another. What follow are goods of which only smaller quantities were imported like, ginger, rhubarb, mother of pearl etc. The next long section contains porcelain, usually followed by silk pieces and other textiles. The end section of the catalogues typically list a more eclectic selection of e.g. tea, textiles, porcelain but also lacquerware, furniture, fans, and wallpapers etc. This end section relates to private or privileged rather than company trade. Up until 1748, members of the crew were allotted a certain amount of cargo space (what was referred to as “fri förning”) on the ships for transport of private goods or pacotille. This space was available both for both the outward and the homeward journeys.

Further Reading

  • Hodacs, Hanna & Leos Müller, ”Chests, Tubs, and Lots of Tea: The European Market for Chinese Tea and the Swedish East India Company, c. 1730-1760”, in Goods from the East: Trading Eurasia 1600-1800, ed. Maxine Berg et al. Palgrave, Forthcoming.
  • Hodacs, Hanna , Silk and Tea in the North – Scandinavian Trade and the Market for Asian Goods in Eighteenth Century Europe, Palgrave, Forthcoming.
  • Söderpalm, Kristina, ed. Ostindiska Compagniet: Affärer och föremål. 2d ed. Gothenburg, Sweden: Göteborgs Stadsmuseum, 2003.
  • Müller, Leos. “‘Merchants’ and ‘Gentlemen’ in Early-Modern Sweden: The World of Jean Abraham Grill, 1736–1792.” In The Self-Perception of Early Modern Capitalists. Edited by Margaret C. Jacob and Catherine Secretan, 126–146. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


[i] See sales catalogues vol. I, 1733, vol. II, 1736, vol. III-IV, both from 1742, vol. V-VI, both from 1743, and vol. VII, 1745, Enskilda arkiv inom Kommerskollegium, Ostindiska kompaniet, Kommerskollegiums arkiv, Riksarkivet, Stockholm, Sweden, as well as digital holdings held at the Warwick University Library and available to the general public:

[ii] See e.g. see sales catalogues from 1704 listing pepper and porcelain put up for sale. BL: OIOC: H/10ff.3v 1704, images available on and (accessed 17-11-2014)

[iii] For sale at the East-India House, 21 September 1675, London 1675, # 1675 fEa, (A leaflet listing the goods for sale from eighteen ships of the East India Company). John Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, US.

[iv] Geheimeråd A.G. Moltkes eksemplarer af auktionsprotokoller over bortsolgte ladninger fra Det Asiatiske Kompagnis skibe 1753 – 1757, Asiatisk Kompagni, and Auktionsregnskaber over indk. ostindiske og kinesiske varer 1786 – 1839, Asiatisk Kompagni, both in Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[v] Vente particuliere, 2 vols. Paris[?] 1772-1775[?],# 1774 fCo, (2 volumes of assorted cargo documents for the Compagnie des Indes). John Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, US.

[vi] Box 52, A 152, Sales Catalogue, Ostend Company, Östadsarkivet, Landsarkivet in Gothenburg, Sweden.

[vii] F25:11, Övriga ämnesordnade handlingar, Magistrat och rådhusrätten 1626-1849, Stockholms stadsarkiv, Sweden.

[viii] FIII:4 Sales Catalogue Stockholm Slott 1759-1761, Handlingar rörande Ostindiska kompaniet och Christian Tham, Öijareds säteri arkiv, Gothenburg Provincial archive, Gothenburg, Sweden.

[ix] Swedish East India Company Sales Catalogue (1735) Ulrica Elenora, in Charles Barringtons med Grevinden af Laurwigen hjemførte arkiv, 1725-1738, Volume 219, Vestindisk-Guineisk Kompagni, Danish National Archive (Rigsarkivet), Copenhagen, Denmark.

[x] On the abbreviations used in the Swedish catalogues for colours on porcelain see Kjellberg, Sven T. Svenska ostindiska compagnierna, 1731–1813: Kryddor, te, porslin, siden. 2d ed. Malmo, Sweden: Allhem, 1974. p. 230.

[xi] Leos Müller, “The Swedish East India Trade and International Markets: Re-exports of Teas, 1731–1813.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 51 (2003): p. 35.

[xii] Note that the document numbers are listed as follows: the year followed by a number that also might have a letter after it, e.g. see endnote 3 below, “1732 35a”. Note also that the box, folder and series numbers will be changing within the next couple of years as the collections of the library will be reprocessed

[xiii] Asiatisk Kompagni, Afdelingen i København, Negotieprotokoller for Kinafarere 1735-1833, Vol. 1119, p. 112, RA, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[xiv] For the procedure of weighing and payment see Söderpalm, ‘Auktionen på den första lasten’, in Söderpalm, Kristina, ed. Ostindiska Compagniet: Affärer och föremål. 2d ed. Gothenburg, Sweden: Göteborgs Stadsmuseum, 2003. p. 98.

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