This pattern is the rarest of three known Chinese export porcelain series satirizing the 1720 financial speculation disaster known as "The South Sea Bubble." Closely following and related to John Law's "Mississippi Bubble" that speculated in Louisiana property, the South Sea Company's bubble rose in a year of frenzied investment speculation. Company stock traded at 128 pounds in January 1720 before reaching 550 pounds in May and peaking at 1050 pounds in late June, when the sell-off began. By August individuals and institutions alike had been destroyed. Though an English company, the Dutch were heavily involved. The following year an investigation proved extensive corruption, bribery and deceit, resulting in the prosecution of both Company and government officials.
Even before its final bursting the "South Sea Bubble" inspired an outpouring of satirical cartoons and engravings, most using the then very fashionable Commedia dell'Arte as a barbed weapon. C. Le Corbeiller writes that "...the Bubble (was) satirized in books, prints, playing cards and ceramics" (op. cit., p. 42) and Howard & Ayers report (op. cit., p. 234) that "in 1719 the Commedia dell'Arte reached a peak of popularity" at the spectacular wedding entertainments of the Archduchess Maria Josepha and Frederick Augustus in Dresden. The broad and coarse comedy of the Commedia theatre and its buffoon-like characters provided ready tools for satirists' pens, as they did for modelers at Meissen and porcelain painters in China.
The best-known series of "Bubble" plates is decorated in doucai enamels; other sets were made in verte enamels, like the present lot, but with less background detail and simpler border (see lot 19). This third, rarest, series appears to have come up at public sale only twice before. Sets of six were sold at Christie's, London, 11 May 2004, lot 26, and Christie's, New York, 21 January 2009. Both sets repeated one (different) plate, and there are small variations in costume (etcetera) among all these examples.