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December 23, 2010

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Rare Qing Dynasty letters to be sold

RARE letters written by important late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) military figures and others will be auctioned next Wednesday at the Chongyuan Autumn Auction.

One expert calls the letters national treasures and intellectuals expressed hope the letters would be purchased by a Chinese collector, not a foreign buyer.

The articles include a cluster of letters written by Li Hongzhang(1823-1901), an important military and administrative official, and Zeng Guofan (1811-1872), an eminent military and Confucian scholar.

The letters shed first-person light on the thinking of intellectuals about the late Qing government and are a tiny part of a trove sold in 1907 to a Japanese businessman.

These letters remained in China.

The sensational foreign sale was considered a scandal and an outrage by Chinese intellectuals.

In all, 248 pages of personal letters or diaries from prominent figures of the late Qing Dynasty will be unveiled for the first time in public at next week's auction.

They were among the possessions of renowned collector Lu Xinyuan who, along with his family, accumulated ancient books and letters of political, military and other figures, as well as celebrities.

They were stored in Bi Song Lou, a private antiquities building of late Qing Dynasty in Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province that became famous for its wide collections of letters and books.

"But Lu's son was faced with major financial problems in business and decided to sell most of the collection to Japan," says Ji Chongjian, owner of the auction house.

When news of the sale to Japan spread, patriotic Chinese intellectuals called for donations from Chinese entrepreneurs to save Lu's business and halt the sale.

"Unfortunately, by the time the money was collected, almost 200,000 silver dollars, the deal had already been done," says Ji.

Today Lu's collection, known as Bi Song Lou, in Japan is termed a trove of "critical cultural relics."

According to Ji, the letters to be auctioned here were discovered by chance by a Chinese art lover who lived in the neighborhood near a book vender on the street.

He then established a friendship with the vendor and gradually began collecting from what had been the Bi Song Lou antiquities cache.

"The value of these letters lies not only in art, but also in the study of history and historic figures of that period," says Zheng Zhong, an expert on the collection of Bi Song Lou.

"These letters are like first-hand information, very rare and precious. For example, a letter written by Li Hongzhang to Zeng Guofan, reveals their real thoughts toward the late Qing government."

Whether these letters command astonishing prices - like the 308 million yuan (US$42.6 million) paid last month for a rare copy of Wang Zishi's (303-361) calligraphy - is uncertain.

What is certain is that collectors are determined that they will remain in China.

"Of course, these national treasures can't be bought by foreigners," says Zheng, "We really hope some Chinese entrepreneurs could help keep them in China."

In recent years, there has been a passion to buy back sold and looted Chinese artworks at auction.

In the past 13 months, at least 16 Chinese antiques have been sold for more than 100 million yuan at domestic and overseas auctions - almost four times the number between 2005 and 2009.

It is estimated that as many as 1.64 million looted Chinese relics are in the collections of 47 overseas museums, and another 16.4 million items are owned by individuals overseas, according to a Xinhua report in 2009 citing statistics from UNESCO.

When China's economy surged in the last decade, some wealthy and patriotic Chinese took part in buying-back efforts.

"I can understand their feelings," says a private collector who prefers to be identified as Zhou. "But because these buy-back efforts are known, the prices of some looted artworks are hyped and distorted, which represents a 'second looting' from the Chinese people." These auction prices also distort the market, he says.

For example, a porcelain vase within a vase made during the Qing Dynasty (Emperor Qianlong) sold this year for almost US$70 million to a Chinese bidder who telephoned the London auction house.

"I don't support such acts, and it is a little out of control," said Ji.

"If someone can pay an astronomical price outside China on a looted antique, why can't he, or she spend money for real things that are needed for people in China?

"Compared to the art market in the West, the market in China requires more collectors and support for healthy growth. That would be more meaningful than extravagant purchases outside China."


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