The lucrative practice of selling Chinese cultural relics on the international market has culminated in the $22 million (150 million yuan) sale of an 18th-century Imperial seal last Wednesday.
The Drouot auction house in Paris said that the seal sold at over 20 times its asking price, making it the most expensive seal ever sold. It’s not clear who the deep-pocketed buyer was.
The palm-sized seal is made of red and white steatite, and is decorated with nine dragons to symbolize masculinity and imperial authority. The seal had once belonged to one of China’s longest serving emperors, Qianlong (1735-1796) of the Qing dynasty, who owned 1,800 of them. It seems that after his death the Qianlong Emperor had trouble holding on to his worldly possessions. Last month, his own musket was purchased at a Sotheby’s London auction for a mere $2.5 million.
According to the auction house, the seal was acquired by a French naval doctor during a trip to China in the 19th century, after which it remained in his family.
Even though sales of Chinese cultural relics have been common in international auction houses, China still does not take kindly to its national treasures being sold abroad.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage was created in 2010 with the purpose of retrieving stolen and illegally exported cultural relics “by any means necessary in accordance with international practices and the country’s laws.”
Sometimes their efforts have paid off. A successful deal with the Christie’s auction house in New York resulted in the return of an ancient bronze ware from the Shang Dynasty in 2014. After spending a century abroad, the over 3,000-year-old vase is now exhibited in a Hunan museum.
But when diplomatic means don’t work, some Chinese collectors have gone out of their way to retrieve the relics themselves.
In 2009, art collector Cai Mingchao boasted that it was “patriotism” that made him bid 15 million euro for a lost cultural relic from the destroyed Old Summer Palace which he had no intention of ever actually paying.
Even though they are the objects of such high esteem, Chinese historical and cultural relics usually have very shady origins. According to one analyst, 90% of antiques in the Chinese market are either fakes or state-level relics stolen by tomb raiders.
By Charles Liu
[Images via Pierre Bergé & Associés]
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