An­cient art re­turn­ing home

Bronze wine ves­sel a suc­cess story; other trea­sures defy loot­ing def­i­ni­tion

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - By LIN QI linqi@chi­

When a 3,000-year-old bronze wine ves­sel was shown at an ex­hi­bi­tion in Shang­hai last year, it drew a large num­ber of view­ers.

A year be­fore that, the cer­e­mo­nial ves­sel, known as the Min Fan­glei, re­turned to its birth­place in Cen­tral China’s Hu­nan prov­ince to re­unite with its lid after be­ing sep­a­rated for about 90 years.

Un­earthed around 1922 by a vil­lager, the ves­sel was the sub­ject of sev­eral trans­ac­tions. It was traded abroad and changed hands among deal­ers and pri­vate col­lec­tors.

The lid has been at Hu­nan Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum in Chang­sha since the 1950s.

The ves­sel was sched­uled for a Christie’s auc­tion in New York in April 2014. A group of Chi­nese buy­ers from Hu­nan ac­quired the bronze in a closed-door deal with its Euro­pean owner on the con­di­tion that it would be do­nated to the mu­seum. The price was re­port­edly in the mil­lions of US dol­lars, but the ex­act fig­ure was not re­vealed.

Tan Guobin, one of the Chi­nese buy­ers, told China Daily after the deal that the trans­ac­tion price was thought to be lower than bids would have been if the auc­tion had pro­ceeded.

The re­turn of the bronze is an ex­am­ple of public in­sti­tu­tions and pri­vate col­lec­tors work­ing to­gether to bring Chi­nese cul­tural relics back home.

The past five years have seen an in­crease in the num­ber of Chi­nese buy­ers bidding forChi­nese an­tiques at­ma­jo­rauc­tions in­NewYork, London, Paris and else­where. Their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the global art mar­ket has not only pushed up the prices of Chi­nese art, but has also drawn gov­ern­ment and public at­ten­tion to lost trea­sures.

A ban by the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Relics on the auc­tion of stolen, smug­gled or looted cul­tural relics un­der­scores the of­fi­cial stance deny­ing the le­git­i­macy of such com­mer­cial trans­ac­tions. One re­sult is that Chi­nese buy­ers may be­come more cau­tious when mak­ing bids over­seas.

Ji Tao, an art mar­ket re­searcher at Cen­tral Univer­sity of Fi­nance and Eco­nom­ics in Bei­jing, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to fur­ther clar­ify what “looted” ar­ti­facts are.

Some ob­jects re­main with the off­spring of those who took them, while oth­ers have been traded nu­mer­ous times and have been ac­quired by their cur­rent own­ers through law­ful deals, he said.

He added that looted ob­jects, such as those robbed from Bei­jing’s Old Sum­mer Palace by Bri­tish and French forces dur­ing the Sec­ond Opium War, ac­count for a small part of the Chi­nese an­tiques avail­able on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. The bulk were ex­ported through le­git­i­mate trans­ac­tions.

Many Chi­nese ar­ti­facts that were stolen are part of mu­se­ums and gal­leries world­wide. Un­less they are of­fered at auc­tion, their re­turn home is highly un­likely, Ji said.


Work­ers in­spect the MinFan­glei, a 3,000-year-old bronze wine ves­sel, in 2014. The ves­sel was to be re­united with its lid after be­ing sep­a­rated for about 90 years. It was un­earthed in the Hu­nan prov­ince in the 1920s and was traded abroad.

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