China probes if ancient bronze vessel to be auctioned in UK was looted

Documents found by auction house suggest Royal Marines captain may have taken it from Old Summer Palace in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2018, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 1:58pm

China’s government is investigating whether a 3,000-year-old bronze vessel to be auctioned in Britain next month was looted from an imperial palace in Beijing.

The rare water vessel dates back to the Western Zhou dynasty (1047BC-772BC) and is one of only seven similar vessels known to exist, auction house Canterbury Auction Galleries told the Antiques Trade Gazette in the UK earlier this month.

The auction house will sell it on April 11 in Kent, southern England at an estimated price of £120,000 (US$170,000) to £200,000.

Documents found by the auction house suggest Harry Lewis Evans, a Royal Marines captain who fought in the second opium war (1856-60), could have looted it from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was sacked by British and French forces in 1860.

Evans detailed the infamous looting of the palace in a letter to his mother dated October 17, 1860, which was found along with the vessel by the auction house.

“The war is now virtually at an end … Peking is now virtually ours … I went out on Thursday with a party to burn down the Summer Palace. It is about four miles from here, and a portion of it is beautifully situated on a spur of the hills which form a magnificent background; it is very different from all European notions of a palace, and consists of a range of buildings scattered over an immense extent of ground on the plain at the foot of the hills,” he wrote.

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“The temples were enriched with quantities of the most beautiful bronzes and enamels, but were too large and heavy to be moved conveniently ... 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 (yellow with green dragons) but they are so dreadfully brittle that I quite despair ever being able to get them home in their present condition.”

China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage said it was looking into the case.

“We hope the related institutions will abide by the spirit of international agreements, respect the feelings of the people in the country where the relic is originally from and do not trade looted relics,” the government agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

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The sacking of the Old Summer Palace still arouses anger and shame among the Chinese public after more than 150 years.

Chinese businessman Cai Mingchao made international headlines in 2009 after he refused to pay the 28 million (US$34.6 million) he bid for two bronze animal heads taken from the palace because they had been looted.

The Summer Palace’s former director, Chen Mingjie, said at the time 1.5 million antiquities had been looted in 1860, but there are disputes over exactly how many Chinese artefacts were stolen and smuggled overseas.