IN 1986, Christie’s held a famous auction in Amsterdam of the “Nanking Cargo”. It was Chinese export porcelain that had been recovered by Captain Michael Hatcher from a ship wrecked in the South China Sea in 1752.

The huge cargo of mostly blue and white porcelain had been destined for European markets, but the ship struck a reef and sank.

Some 240 years later, the cargo was assembled in Amsterdam where it caught the attention of a friend who is a collector of Chinese porcelain. His enthusiasm was so infectious that we flew to Amsterdam armed with three old empty suitcases.

We arrived on the Sunday, so we could go to the view, and had a couple of nights’ accommodation so we could attend one or even two days of the four-day sale.

The view was like nothing I’d ever seen before. You associate the London auctioneers with smart showrooms and deep pile carpets but this was more shed like with sturdy shelves sagging under the weight of huge piles of blue and white plates, some of which were in lots of three, four and five dozen at a time.

There was so much to see in nearly 5,000 lots that you could hardly make sense of it. Did you look for imperfections? Did you consider buying one of the select individual lots? Would it be best to take pot luck with two dozen of the same thing?

I remember being overwhelmed and starting to be distracted by the idea of a glass of wine with a good evening meal.

Monday, April, 28, 1986, Hilton Hotel, Amsterdam. We were staying in the hotel in which the sale was to be held, so we had a very short walk from the breakfast room to the ballroom/saleroom and secured a couple of seats fairly near the front.

There was an air of excited anticipation and plenty of people-watching. There were bidders from every corner of the world, together with a bank of telephones and areas for, well I guess, VIPs, but there was no internet bidding in those days.

The first lot was a German stoneware jug encrusted with many years of sea life and probably a utilitarian item of the cargo. The estimate was 800-1,400 guilders (£200-£350) and the bidding was brisk until it was knocked down at 11,000 guilders (£3,000). The buyer was Captain Michael Hatcher himself.

As an auctioneer, the penny dropped with me fairly quickly. It was a skilful move, setting the bar with the first lot, and thereafter the auctioneer was faced with an avalanche of bidding.

We sat there stunned as everything was selling way over the estimates. The first of the blue and white lots was a pair of children’s chamber pots, known to some academics as vomit pots. They were estimated at 1,000-1,500 guilders (£250-£400) but went for 6,000 to 7,500 (£1,500-£2,000).

And so it went on. The prices never dropped so we sat on our hands and enjoyed the entertainment – you could feel the glee of the auctioneer who had bidders throwing money at him.

A little later, I became the owner of a little blue and white chamber pot shown which I bought after the sale from a dealer in Ireland who had been braver than us. Alas, I no longer have it as I passed it on to a blue and white collector.

My friend and I flew back to Teesside the day after the sale with only our overnight luggage. When we touched down, we looked at each other and asked the same question simultaneously: “What did you do with the three empty suitcases?”.

We’d left them in the hotel room, but we hadn’t really needed them in the first place.

Peter Robinson, Thomas Watson Auctioneers, Darlington