Treasures Looted From China's Forbidden City Set Multimillion-Dollar Records in France

Treasures Looted From China's Forbidden City Set Multimillion-Dollar Records in France

A Hong Kong collector set a new record for white jade at auction with a bid of €12.4 million ($17.4 million) for an imperial seal that once belonged to the Emperor Qianlong on Saturday. The seven-way bidding tussle between Chinese buyers at the Chassaing-Marambat auction house in Toulouse showed once again the pulling power of Qianlong (1736-1795) and the patriotic interest of Chinese collectors in items looted by foreign troops during the imperial era. The seal is thought to have been taken from the Forbidden City in 1900 when soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) pillaged Beijing in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising. The previous record for white jade was also set by a Qianlong seal, which sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong last October for HK$ 121.6 million ($16 million).

The four-inch wide seal, which features intertwined dragons, was secured by a Hong Kong collector, Zhao Xin, who has made his fortune in coal mining and other energy projects in China according to Hong Kong's The Standard newspaper. His winning bid pushed the price to eight times its pre-sale estimate of €1.5 million.

It was a good day for Chinese antiquities at auction. Across town at another Toulouse auction house, Labarbe, a Qianlong-era scroll sold for €22.1 million ($31 million) against a high estimate of €15 million. This was a record for a Chinese work of art at auction in France, but was still some way shy of the top price for a Chinese scroll, which was set last June at Poly Auctions in Beijing when a masterpiece by Song Dynasty calligrapher Huang Tingjian went for RMB 436.8 million ($64 million). The Labarbe scroll had a similar provenance to the Chassaing-Marambat seal, having been stolen by French troops plundering the Forbidden City in 1900. It was one of an original series of four scrolls showing the Emperor reviewing his troops. Another in the series sold for HK$ 67.9 million ($8.7 million) at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2008.

Both Toulouse auction houses placed unusual sale conditions on the items — no doubt a reaction to recent reports that Bainbridges auction house has yet to be paid for the Qianlong-era vase they sold to a Chinese bidder for $85.9 million last November. The French auction houses announced that successful bidders would be required to pay one third of the price within one week and the balance within three months. Labarbe also required all bidders to pay a refundable pre-sale deposit of €200,000.


Meanwhile, Chinese auction watchers are abuzz with the news of the sale of a misattributed Qing dynasty vase at auction in New York last week. The vase was originally dated to the Republican Era (1911-1949), but bidders drove the price of the vase to $18 million in the belief that it instead hailed from the era of Qianlong. As 2011 marks 100 years since the revolution that ushered in China's Republican Era, China's major auction houses have all chosen to focus on works from that period in their upcoming sales. Now speculation abounds about whether any more Imperial treasures will be discovered in the Republican hoard coming to market.