Gabrielle Jaffe freelance journalist Beijing China

The Chinese vase auctioned for £53 million. Credit: Bainbridges/Reuters

It was like winning the national lottery: equally unexpected and with just as big a jackpot. Last November, a mother and son walked into a Ruislip auction house to see a vase her brother-in-law had kept on a bookcase and insured for a mere £800 sell for £53 million.

The huge sum paid for this Qianlong-era porcelain smashed previous world auction records for Chinese ceramics (£20 million) and Asian art (£40 million), shocking antique experts everywhere. “It didn’t relate to anything else,” says Daniel Eskenazi, company director of London-based Chinese art dealers Eskenazi Ltd. “That vase wasn’t worth double all previous works.”

But this treasure-in-the-attic fairytale may turn out to have a nasty end. Last week reports emerged that the sellers have not yet been paid. While the auction house, Bainbridge’s, refuses to comment on whether any money has changed hands, rumours are flying across the art world.

Some suspect that the buyer — who is believed to be a Beijing-based agent — may refuse payment in an act of cultural patriotism, following the example set at a 2009 auction at Christie’s Hong Kong. In February of that year, the auction house put under the hammer a bronze rat and a bronze rabbit head, which were once part of a set of 12 Chinese zodiac animals adorning a fountain in Beijing’s Old Summer Palace.

Designed by a Jesuit missionary, the heads’ status as important works of Chinese cultural heritage was questionable. But their symbolic significance was indisputable. The bronzes were looted during the palace’s destruction by British and French troops during the Second Opium War (1856-60) — an event remembered today in countless textbooks and TV programmes as China’s greatest national humiliation.

The sale of this war booty by a Frenchman (the heads belong to Yves Saint Laurent co-founder Pierre Bergé), who had promised the profits to the “Tibetan cause” no less, became a cause célèbre. The Chinese Government wrote to Christie’s asking it not to sell. A Chinese cultural defence group launched a legal challenge in a Paris court. When these attempts failed, a private buyer stepped in, bidding for the pieces, then refusing to pay as a matter of national honour. He became a hero, with the state media comparing him to a brave negotiator refusing to pay hostage-takers a ransom. The bronzes have since been returned to Pierre Bergé.

No one was more puzzled by events than Christie’s rivals, Sotheby’s. Two years earlier, its sale of a bronze horse head that was part of the same set had met with approval. The object was brokered privately by the Macau billionaire Stanley Ho, who donated it to China. This was a story of nationalism, beneficence, and Greater China’s unity (Macau had returned to Chinese sovereignty a decade earlier) to replace the narrative of evil foreigners selling their loot to the highest bidder. At the time, the Chinese Government praised Ho’s “patriotic act”, declaring: “We are glad to witness [this] home-coming.”

The tale could have turned out quite differently had Sotheby’s stuck to its original intention of auctioning the head. Reflecting on the sale today, Nicolas Chow, international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art at Sotheby’s, says: “I can’t say what we’d do if another object like that came our way, but we’d certainly sound out the Chinese Government’s views. When it comes to China’s pride, we have to be sensitive.”

Auctioneers such as Sotheby’s have to tread particularly carefully as China is now the main market for Chinese antiquities. In the mid-1990s, buyers from the Chinese mainland made up an almost negligible fraction of Chow’s clients. Most collectors were from Hong Kong, some were Taiwanese, American or European. Today, some 50 to 70 per cent of objects sold in his department are purchased by mainlanders.

The case of the Christie’s bronze heads aside, the dramatic entrance of these newly wealthy Chinese tycoons has largely suited the auction houses.

“They have an insatiable appetite. We’re seeing a totally dynamic market place,” says Chow, alluding to the huge price hikes and countless auction records that have been broken over the past five years. “They’re financially able to compete now,” he says, “but there’s also China’s peculiar history in the second half of the 20th century, which drives many to buy historical objects.”

Indeed, while the huge sums the Chinese are paying (or refusing to pay) grab all the headlines, what’s perhaps most striking is the bigger picture behind them: a nation that 45 years ago set about destroying all links to its past in the Cultural Revolution is now desperately trying to reclaim it.

This great movement, the Cultural Restoration, isn’t just taking place in the auction rooms. Museums in the West should be concerned too. Shortly after the Christie’s auction, a team of officials from the Old Summer Palace’s administrative office set off on a mission to the US. Camera crew in tow, they scoured documents and photographs in the Library of Congress for clues on the palace’s “lost treasures”. Next, they crowded into New York’s Met and other American art museums demanding proof of provenance for the Chinese objects on display.

This treasure hunt proved little more than a PR stunt aimed at audiences back home. The Chinese Government, however, takes the return of these items seriously. Officials periodically issue statements condemning museums and private collectors for acting against the spirit of United Nations conventions on the return of looted relics. But, sadly for Beijing, the 1995 Unidroit Convention limits claims on stolen cultural artefacts to within 50 years of their theft.

Finding UN conventions insufficient, China promulgated two Cultural Relic Laws in 2002 and 2007, banning the export from China of any object made before 1911. In one case, a Singapore businesswoman who brought antique Chinese furniture with her to Beijing found her property held at customs when she tried to return home to Singapore with it. “China doesn’t really recognise the principle of private property,” says Nancy Murphy, a Beijing-based art lawyer. “With the country’s growing wealth has come an increasing sense of entitlement.”

As well as strengthening its own laws, China has signed bilateral treaties such as the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the US, which prohibits the import of all Chinese artworks more than 250 years old into America. Murphy believes China is using such laws and treaties as a publicity tool. “By focusing on non-Chinese nations as the biggest potential threat to Chinese cultural heritage (when in fact, much of what is being looted from tombs today ends up in private Chinese hands), the Government is creating a very public distinction between itself and past regimes that were too weak or corrupt to stand up to Western bullies.”

Using art as a projection of political power is nothing new. Every incoming Chinese dynasty appropriated the artworks of past emperors to legitimise their authority, much in the way crown jewels were passed on in Europe. When Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, they brought the imperial collections with them to shore up their claim to be China’s legitimate rulers.

Today, much to Beijing’s chagrin, a quarter of the imperial collection is still housed in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. In a sign of China’s softening stance towards Taiwan, however, there has been increased co-operation between Taiwan’s National Palace Museum and Beijing’s Palace Museum in recent years.

China’s National Museum, which reopened last week after four years of reconstruction, is another prime example of the muddling of art with politics. Originally due to reopen in 2009 — just in time for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — the museum states on its website that its key aim is “to enhance Chinese cultural soft power”. The last exhibition held before it closed celebrated “National Treasures” returned from abroad such as the Zi Long Ding Shang dynasty bronze lost to Japan in the 1930s.

At present the only section open to the public is “Road to Revival”, which showcases the struggles of Chinese people from the First Opium War onwards, conveniently glossing over Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When the museum fully opens in April, including its “Ancient China” section, its collection will have increased by 50 per cent to include more than a million objects.

Officials at the museum are keeping tight-lipped about new items. But if the last big exhibition before it closed is anything to go by, we can expect overseas returnees to take centre stage. Last week a dealer, who does not want to be named, sold an important Zhou dynasty bronze to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. It sets aside £5 million annually for the recovery of relics from abroad.

With auction prices rocketing, however, museums will increasingly have to rely on donations from the likes of Stanley Ho. But not all Chinese buyers are so altruistic. For some, the purchases are an investment. For others, it’s a chance to show off. As Eskenazi says: “It’s like owning luxury labels. The Ming and Qing dynasties’ ceramics are perfect — you turn them upside down and the seal tells you to which emperor it belonged.”

As China adds more millionaires to its ranks, the desire for cultural restoration — whether the objects end up in government or private hands — doesn’t look likely to end any time soon. The £53 million vase is doubtless still with Bainbridge’s, in Ruislip.

After its sale, many took stock. “China is the next super power. Its success story is not just here for one or two years,” says Chow. “No one is in a rush to sell. They think if they hold on, who knows, in ten years’ time, this could be worth £150 million.”

But of course, that’s assuming the buyers actually pay up.

First appeared in The Times on March 15, 2011.