Christie’s ‘Min’ Fanglei Case: An Exemplary Solution to Deal with Controversy of Selling Artefacts

Recently, a rare Chinese bronze vessel, Tiger Ying, went up for auction in the UK despite protests from the Chinese government. The artefact is believed to be looted from Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) in Beijing in the 19th Century.  

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage had contacted the auction house “through various channels” and told them to respect national feelings of the Chinese people. But all these actions failed to stop the auction house from selling the cultural relic for £410,000. In fact, a similar case had happened when a ‘Min’ Fanglei was offered at Christie’s New York in 2014. The leading auction house had successfully worked out a solution that brought together the consignor and collectors, achieving a win-win situation.

The ‘Min’ Fanglei, King of all Fangleis

The bronze ritual wine vessel, ‘Min’ Fanglei, made in the Late Shang/Early Western Zhou dynasty, is a museum-quality Chinese art. Its massive size distinguishes this work as one of the foremost examples of its kind. The surface is intricately cast with stylized animals and mysterious monster masks that provide a fascinating insight into early Chinese culture and beliefs.

C.T. Loo, a legendary art dealer, once owned the 'Min' Fanglei

In March 2001, the ‘Min’ Fanglei appeared at Christie’s New York and immediately caused a sensation in the market. It attracted interest from private collectors, major museums, as well as auction houses, including Shanghai Museum and Poly Auction. It sold for US$9.246m to a French collector, setting the then world record for any Asian work of art.

Thirteen years later, when China gained greater leverage in both political and economic influence on the international stage, the ‘Min’ Fanglei re-emerged on the market again. The Chinese government was determined to bring the relic back to its home. The Hunan Provincial Museum in China first contacted Christie’s and arranged private Chinese buyers to collectively acquire the bronze through a private sale.

The ‘Min’ Fanglei is united with the lid kept at Hunan Museum

One day before the auction, Christie’s facilitated a private sale between the consignor and a group of private collectors from China’s Hunan province for an amount reported to be around US$20m, about the same as the pre-sale estimate. The 'Min' Fanglei was donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum, where the vessel was united with the lid kept at the museum.

Christie’s has been widely acclaimed for handling the controversial sale in a way that is mutually beneficial to both the consignor and the buyers, allowing the masterpiece to go back to its place of origin in Hunan.

The leading auction house has set a perfect example of how to deal with disputed sales. However, this time, the auction house selling the Tiger Ying took a completely different approach. It insisted on auctioning the suspected looted cultural artefact despite vehement condemnation from the Chinese government. Even though the auction house seems to have no intention of entering the Chinese market, it may face a boycott from Chinese bidders as urged by the government, resulting in political pressure to both the buyer and the seller in the transfer.