It has been widely reported in the press that a group of private Chinese businessmen and collectors from Hunan Province, China, have collectively bought a Chinese wine vessel for US$ 20 million in a private auction at Christies in New York after a previously announced public auction had been cancelled.  The group intends to donate the vessel to the Hunan Provincial Museum which already has the lid of the ritual vessel. (1)


Christies issued a statement:

Christies is pleased to announce that a group of private collectors from Chinas Hunan province has offered to purchase the ‘Min’ Fanglei and donate this magnificent bronze to the Hunan Provincial Museum in China. After close consultation with the current owner over the last several days, Christies has facilitated a private sale, allowing the vessel to be united with the lid kept at Hunan Museum. We are pleased to have brought together our consignor and these collectors resulting in this excellent outcome that will allow the King of all Fangleis to go back to its place of origin in Hunan.



As always, it is our duty to be a responsible steward of the important cultural objects that are entrusted to our care.


said Steven P. Murphy, CEO Christies



Christie’s feels privileged to have acted as custodian of the Min Fanglei and to have facilitated its transfer. 



According to Christies  the bronze vessel has an impeccable provenance:


This bronze has been extensively published since as early as 1928, and has been handled by some of the most important dealers and collectors of the early 20th century, including A.W. Bahr, C.F. Yau and C.T. Loo. 


 Readers will no doubt recall that there have been reservations regarding the purchase of ones cultural artefacts from abroad that had been previously looted or acquired under dubious circumstances. (3) What we have not been informed, at least in the press reports on the Chinese purchase of the Min Fanglei, is how this magnificent  artefact, said to have been used as ritual wine vessel, came to the western world and the full circumstances of its acquisition. That the vessel has impeccable provenance, having been extensively published since 1928 and handled by some of the most important dealers and collectors of the early 20th century, does not indicate to us how it was initially acquired and brought to the West. At best, this statement must be considered as guaranteeing the authenticity of the artefact as original Chinese product. Readers will no doubt be aware that some important dealers and collectors have been involved in the purchase of artefacts that turned out later to have been acquired under dubious circumstances(4)


Punting aside for a while the question of how the wine vessel came to the Western world, one may legitimately ask whether spending astronomical sums on such cultural objects has any limits.  True that in the present case we have a very magnificent object but in most cases the price required  has no direct relation to the intrinsic quality of the object: it is the Western dominated art market that determines the price. This case demonstrates clearly the power of the market. This same vessel was sold in 2001 for US$ 9 million and now in 2014 fetches 20 millionsAre we condemned forever to be ruled by the forces of the Western-dominated art market? Must we Africans subject the return of our looted cultural artefacts to the mechanism of the Western art market?


It is interesting to note that the vessel will be donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum which already has the cover of the vessel. But there is no information about how the cover is in Hunan whilst the vessel itself was in the West. Was the vessel taken away after it had been discovered with its lid or were the two parts discovered independently? The South China Morning Post-CHINA                 states:

(5)  But there is no information on how this separation came about. Are the specialists not interested in telling us the history of this magnificent artefact which is said to have been published several times but in fact only reference to one book has been given by Christies? It reminds us of authors who tell us about the effect of the Benin Bronzes on European attitudes to African art but carefully omit to mention the 1897 invasion of Benin and the burning of Benin City by the invading British Army.


We looked at the book by George Souli de Morant, Histoire de lArt Chinois de lAntiquit jusquՈ nos jours (1928) as well as its English translation but did not find any explanation how the separation of the vessel and its cover came about(6) We will have to wait until the vessel is in the Hunan Provincial Museum which may tell the full history of the magnificent wine vessel.


Kwame Opoku, 6 April, 2014.



 Private buyers from Hunan recover ancient bronze vessel, the Min Fanglei

Published: Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:35am


Xu Donghuan


museums, collectors set for fierce bidding on iconic bronze…/chinese-museums-collectors-set-f.





3. K. Opoku

Chinese Purchase of Looted Chinese Artefacts: An Example for Other States?

4. The various returns of artefacts by US American imuseums and institutions to Italy as well as the trials of dealers and even a curator have shown that important dealers and collectors cannot always be trusted to do the right thing.


Websites such as 

Looting Matters. Chasing Aphrodite

 have details on recent cases putting in doubt the reliability of dealers.




6. Payot; A History of Chinese Art-From Ancient Times to the Present Day. 

translated by G.C.WheelerGeorge G.Harrap & Co, London, 1931










 Ritual Wine Vessel, China




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