How much would you pay for a stolen kettle?
Looted Chinese treasure sells for $580,000
A rare bronze vessel believed to have been pillaged from a Chinese imperial palace in 1860 sold at auction for $580,000 on Wednesday – and not everyone’s happy about it.
Dubbed the “Tiger Ying” because of the feline decorations the cover and spout of this ying vessel, the relic dates back to the Western Zhou dynasty (1027-771BC). Only seven yings are known to exist, with five in the hands of museums.
The ancient vessel was sold to a telephone buyer during an auction hosted by Canterbury Auction Galleries in the UK. The buyer’s identity remains unknown.
“We cannot underestimate the wealth and sophistication of the late Zhou culture that created such an outstanding bronze vessel. Only men of high status, such as a king, his nobles and officials were able to obtain them," Hajni Elias, a Chinese art historian who helped research the history of the artifact, told reporters.
Spoils of war
The ancient vessel was sold by a descendant of Royal Marine Captain Harry Lewis Evans, who fought in the Second Opium War (1856-1860).
In a letter to his mother, Evans gave a vivid account of how British and French troops plundered the Summer Palace of the Qing emperors in the final year of the war, ultimately burning it to the ground.
“The French got lots of valuable loot in the way of watches, clocks, fur coats, silks etc.,” wrote Evans. “I succeeded in getting several bronzes and enamel vases as well as some very fine porcelain cups and saucers of the Emperor’s imperial pattern but they are so dreadfully brittle that I quite despair ever being able to get them home in their present condition.”
Many Chinese believe that the two Opium Wars marked the beginning of the “century of humiliation” during which the Chinese empire was subject to invasion by foreign powers.
Anger and protest
The auction has stoked anger in China. In a statement, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage “strongly opposed and condemned” the auction house for ignoring its protests and carrying out “commercial exploitations” using looted relics.
Some riled-up Chinese internet users accused the auction house of glorifying looting.
“It was obviously robbery! How many Chinese relics were lost overseas? Many Chinese people have to spend an astronomical amount of money to buy artifacts which originally belonged to China! Shameless!" a user wrote on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
But some online were less outraged.
“I want to know if there were more relics lost overseas, or destroyed and burned by ourselves decades ago?” One Weibo user asked, referring to the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 during which countless historic buildings and artifacts were destroyed by the paramilitary Communist “red guards.”
Previous auctions selling looted relics have provoked anger in China.
In 2009, Christie's auctioned off two of 12 sculpted bronze animal heads which adorned a fountain at the Summer Palace. The animal heads belonged to the collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.
Chinese collector Cai Mingchao made the successful bid for the two heads but later refused to pay the $40 million he had bid, saying that he had sabotaged the auction out of patriotism.
Public anger finally calmed down after the French Pinault family, which also owns Christie’s, bought the two heads from Bergé for an undisclosed amount and gifted them to China.
Seven of the 12 bronzes have been retrieved by China, but five are still nowhere to be found.
China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage said it would “continue to take all necessary measures to retrieve cultural relics illegally obtained from China.”
You know what they say – buyer beware.