January 14, 2011

Looted treasure from Beijing’s Summer Palace up for auction at Christies in Hong Kong

Posted at 2:03 pm in Similar cases

Both of the major auction houses dealing with fine art seem to be equally comfortable about selling looted & disputed artefacts. In many cases however, subsequent public outcry has led to postponement of the sale. In this case, Christies in Hong Kong is selling yet more artefacts that came from Beijing’s Summer Palace. This looting during the ransacking of the Summer Palace is particularly relevant of course, as it took place under the instruction of the Eighth Earl of Elgin – the son of Lord Elgin who removed the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens.


Looted Imperial Treasure Hits the Block at Christie’s Hong Kong

HONG KONG— There were just three lots in the sale of imperial treasures from the Fonthill Collection at Christie’s Hong Kong on December 1, but they attracted intense interest and raked in a total of HK$226.3 million ($29 million). The reason? Their links to one of the most infamous acts of foreign plunder inflicted on 19th-century imperial China.

The Fonthill Collection was the creation of a passionate collector by the name of Alfred Morrison (1821-1897). The Chinese works in the Christie’s sale came to him via one Lord Loch of Drylaw, who served as private secretary to Lord Elgin on the latter’s fateful mission to China at the end of the Second Opium War. Lord Loch acquired the plundered items after the 1860 destruction and looting by French and British troops of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

This complex of palaces, known to the Chinese as the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, was five times the size of the Forbidden City, and is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent of the lost treasures of the old world. Its destruction is still a source of deep resentment in China, and regaining its looted treasures is, these days, a patriotic cause célèbre among Chinese collectors. Such motives were certainly an important element in the extraordinary price paid last month for the record-breaking Qianlong vase at Bainbridge’s.

So expectations were high for the three imperial treasures that went on the block last week, and those expectations were met. Leading the group of objects was a beautiful yellow-ground famille rose vase from the Jiaqing period (1796-1820). Its high estimate was an impressive HK$25 million ($3.2 million), but it sold for almost four times that amount, bringing in HK$90.3 million ($11.6 million).

The vase was followed by a pair of 19th-century yellow-ground famille rose bowls. They had been tagged with a high estimate of HK$1.8 million ($200,000) but easily tripled that with a total price of HK$6.6 million ($850,000). Most impressive of all was the performance of a pair of cloisonné double crane censers. Cloisonné is not renowned for its power to entice at auction, but these cranes had a double appeal. Not only were they booty from the Old Summer Palace, but they conjured the famous name of the Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1736 to 1795.

Qianlong is regarded as the last great emperor of China, and it is believed that the cloisonné censers were a present from Qianlong when he was still a prince to his father the Yongzheng emperor. With this kind of magical provenance, it came as no surprise that the price for the items soared to HK$129.5 million ($16.7 million). This is approximately double the previous record for a work of art in cloisonné, which had stood at €6.5 million ($8.7 million) since 2007.

Hong Kong billionaire real estate developer Joseph Lau soon outed himself as the successful top bidder. It remains to be seen whether Lau will follow in the footsteps of an earlier Chinese businessman — Stanley Ho — who paid $8.9 million for a bronze fountainhead looted from the Old Summer Palace, only to donate it to the Chinese state.

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