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 del'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 del'Arte reached a peak of popularity" at the spectacular wedding entertainments of the Archduchess Maria Josepha and Frederick Augustus in Dresden. An influential satirical work published in Amsterdam in 1720 was titled This great Theatre of Folly, representing the origin, progress and downfall of the South Sea Bubble in France, England and Holland. The broad and coarse comedy of the Commedia theatre and its buffoon-like characters provided ready tools for satirists' pens.
The best-known series of export "Bubble" plates show Commedia figures in doucai enamels alongside Dutch inscriptions lampooning the foolish and greedy investors. A second series, in a palette similar to the present lot, is without inscriptions, shows few details to the interior and displays a simpler border. A set of this type in the Dreesman collection sold Christie's, Amsterdam, 16 April 2002, lot 1309. This third series appears to have come up at public sale only once before, at Christie's, London, 11 May 2004, lot 26. Both that set and the present set repeat one (different) plate. The London set had been formed from plates found in the Hervouët collection sale (Sotheby's, London, 3 November 1987, lot 849), the French trade and an anonymous sale (Sotheby's, Amsterdam, 1 November 1979, lot 785.) The present set (save the repeat plate, which likely replaced a broken original) seems to have been together, perhaps since its arrival in Holland in the 18th century.