Ancient looted Chinese bronze sells for double expected price at British auction house

Rare 3,000-year-old artefact lifted from Summer Palaces fetches more than US$580,000 in sale condemned by Chinese authorities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 1:58pm

A rare 3,000-year-old bronze vessel looted by a British soldier from an imperial palace in Beijing has fetched £410,000 (US$581,600), more than double the estimated value at auction.

The vessel, referred to as a Tiger Ying because of its tiger decorations, was auctioned as planned at Canterbury Auction Galleries in the southeast of England on Wednesday despite calls from the Chinese government to halt the sale.

The water vessel, which dates back to the Western Zhou dynasty (1047-772BC), is believed to be one of only seven similar archaic vessels to exist, five of which are held in museums.

The identity of the buyer has remained unknown.

The Chinese government had denounced the sale and called for a boycott, but the local news portal KentOnline reported that it had sparked keen bidding especially from Chinese buyers.

The vessel was looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing by Harry Lewis Evans, a Royal Marines captain who fought in the Second Opium War (1856-60), according to documents found by the auction house.

The item was initially valued at £120,000 to £200,000 and the sale attracted international attention when it was announced last month.

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On Tuesday China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage denounced the auction, saying it “strongly opposes and condemns Canterbury Auction Galleries’ insistence on auctioning the suspected illegally discharged cultural artefact despite solemn protests from China” and accused the house of “conducting commercial hype” around looted cultural relics.

The vessel was discovered recently by the salesroom’s Chinese art specialist Alastair Gibson in an unnamed seaside town.

Gibson told Chinese news site thecover.cn that the owner sold an enamel incense burner discovered together with the vessel in December at £37,000.

The Summer Palace was sacked by British and French forces towards the end of the war in 1860 as a symbolic act of revenge against the imperial Chinese authorities for breaking agreements – an event that still stirs nationalist anger today.

Evans described the event 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,” Evans wrote.

“I went out on Thursday with a party to burn down the Summer Palace.

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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.

His letter continued: “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.”