Chapter 1: “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” — Confucius
For over twenty years I have searched the world for lost, undiscovered and looted Chinese works of art to repatriate back to China.
The story of V.I.P Jiu 8 begins on my birthday, the 2nd of July 2014. It is a tale that begins with a wrongly attributed, chipped and cracked wine cup that hid an astonishing secret dating back to imperial China, a secret connected to its longest-reigning emperor, Kangxi, who ruled China from 1662 until 1722.
The Kangxi Emperor is credited for completing the conquest of China, stabilizing the Qing dynasty and ushering in a long period of great prosperity and peace. He was the single most powerful person on earth at the time, ruling over a vast empire and over 100 million subjects.
The journey of V.I.P Jiu 8 starts in Northern England and unfolds across multiple continents, with amazing highs and life-threatening lows. It involves a series of events that have led to the re-birth of a 300-year-old imperial Chinese liquor that hails from within the walls of the Forbidden City.
On the morning of July 2nd, 2014, my birthday, I turned on my computer and prepared to bid for certain Chinese antiques I had viewed a few days earlier at an auction in Southern England. Lot 128 (take note of the number 8) had me excited as I was sure it was wrongly attributed in the auction catalogue. Despite being labelled as a tea bowl, I knew that it was a wine cup. I was prepared to bid up to several thousand pounds to win it, even though the auction estimate was only £200-£300. I had total faith in my intuition, which had rarely let me down in the past. Lot 128 was damaged, which made me slightly nervous, as I was not sure how much that would affect the appeal of the piece to collectors.
As you can see below, the original auction description of lot 128 described the piece as either 19th or 20th century, and also wrongly catalogued as a tea bowl. I was positive it was a wine cup from the Kangxi period. (The Kangxi Emperor reigned China from 1662 until 1722):
Original Auction Description: A CHINESE 19TH/20TH CENTURY BLUE & WHITE PORCELAIN TEABOWL, the sides finely painted with a Mandarin and boy attendants, the base with a six-character Kangxi mark, the teabowl contained in a fitted wood box with a sliding cover, the teabowl 2.7in diameter, the hardwood box 5.5in x 4.1in x 4in high.
Soon, I was staring at lot 128 on my computer screen. The bidding started at £200, but I waited patiently until it slowed. I actually suspected that there were no real bidders, and that the auctioneer was taking the cup up to its reserve price. The bidding stopped at £280, and just as the auctioneer was about to drop the hammer, I snuck in a bid of £300. Going, going, gone! Lot 128 was mine!
I could hardly believe I had acquired the piece for such a low price. Doubts immediately crept into my mind, and I began to wonder if I was wrong in my assumptions. After all, some of the biggest Chinese antique dealers in the world had viewed the very same lot. Maybe they knew something I did not. Was lot 128 a modern copy deliberately damaged to give a look of age, as so often happens with high-end fakes?
Worries aside, I owned lot 128 now, whether it was genuine or not.
Chapter 2: “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” — Confucius
A few days after the auction, lot 128 was paid for, collected and in my hands. The underside cup was painted in underglaze blue, with an imperial Kangxi six-character reign mark within double circles. There was one big question I needed answered: was the cup from the Kangxi period, as the mark suggested, or was it a later copy or modern fake?
Antique Chinese porcelain often bears marks from previous periods as a sign of respect to past emperors. They are not intended to deceive, but can make it difficult to date and attribute pieces correctly, especially to collectors just starting out. On top of this, the marketplace is flooded with modern high-end fakes which are so good that many auctioneers, collectors and dealers have been fooled by them.
With lot 128 in my possession, I could study it up close, and scrutinize its characteristics. After several months of intermittent research, I managed to find two very similar cups in the well-documented collections of T. Bushell and T.Y. Chao. I was also able to compare lot 128 with other genuine Kangxi period cups in old auction archives.
My research showed the cup would have originally been from a set of 8 (another number 8 to note). The figures depicted on these eight cups are eminent men of letters from the eighth-century High Tang period (another number 8 to note) who shared a love for wine. They were even celebrated in a poem by Du Fu (712–770), “Song for the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup,” (another number 8).
The central figure depicted on my cup was Li Shizhi, the Duke of Qinghe. He served as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who was born on the 8 September 685 AD (two more number 8’s). Li Shizhi particularly enjoyed entertaining guests, and could supposedly drink two litres of wine and remain sober.
I had the text on the reverse of the cup translated, and it turned out to be a poem dedicated to Li Shizhi by the acclaimed Tang poet Du Fu:
“The Premier [Li Shi-zhi] spends ten thousand cash each day [on drink]; his imbibing matches the great whale’s gulping down of the hundred streams; holding the wine cup, joyous sage, he calls himself ‘avoider of the worthy’”.
I was now absolutely convinced that lot 128 was of the Kangxi period. I had found very similar wine cups in good condition selling for upwards of £150,000, but my wine cup was damaged, which I knew would affect the value significantly.
Asia Week is held twice yearly in London, and is an event that attracts collectors and dealers of Chinese antiques from around the world to view, buy and network. All the major dealers in Asian art hold exhibitions displaying their best items for sale. The big London auction houses produce thick glossy auction catalogues filled with coloured photographs of amazing Chinese antiques and works of art to be auctioned during the event.
It is a great opportunity for anyone to place a piece they wish to sell in front of the world’s top buyers. Due to lot 128 being damaged, I really did not want to offer it to any of my regular customers, so I decided to put it up for auction during London’s Asia Week. I arranged for an Asian art specialist I’d known for a number of years to re-offer lot 128 for sale now that my research was complete.
When I originally bought lot 128 it was housed in its original Zitan wooden case with a fitted embroidered interior. (See pic)
(Zitan is a general term which includes numerous species of wood, however, it is commonly agreed that it belongs to the genus Pterocarpus. A purplish-black, fine-grained hardwood, zitan was considered the most prized hardwood by the Chinese. The wood’s scarcity was compounded by the fact that the trees themselves are slow-growing and require centuries to fully mature into usable material. Although local sources of zitan exist in the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi, much of the material was imported from Southeast Asia. As an imported commodity, its use was scrupulously monitored and carefully restricted at the Imperial workshops.)
Unfortunately, the back of the case was damaged, but thankfully, easily repairable. Before offering the cup up for auction I decided I would attempt to fix the case.
Chapter 3: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” ― Chuang Tzu
Carefully removing the cup from its embroidered stand within the case, I slid the stand forward and wiggled it free, leaving an orange velvet section perfectly formed as the shape of the now-removed cup and stand. I then removed the orange velvet section; all that was left of the interior was the plinth, which was decorated with a multi-coloured, embroidered panel.
My intention was to get my hand into the back of the case, so I could apply pressure from the outside while pushing the newly glued joint back into its mortice without risking further damage to the case.
As I gently pried the plinth from the case, a piece of folded paper fell to the floor, so I stopped what I was doing and picked it up. I carefully unfolded it to be greeted by a very old looking hand-written note. I could not read the note but could decipher enough to determine it was definitely written in French. I studied it for a few minutes and even held it up to the light. At this point, it never occurred to me how historically important and far-reaching this note could possibly be; at the time I remember thinking it was probably a poem.
It was interesting enough that I decided to have the note translated sooner rather than later, but for now I had more important matters to attend too.
I put the note into a small re-sealable plastic bag and put it in my wallet.
Only in time would the significance, pedigree and connection be made, but that’s another chapter.
Chapter 4: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius
After showing lot 128 to the Asian art expert at Lyons and Turnbull’s auction house and supplying him with my research, it was agreed the small Kangxi wine cup would be offered for sale during their Asia week auction. Due to the crack and a chip on the cup, it was decided by myself and the auction house to keep the auction estimate as low as possible. Remember, cups like this that were in perfect condition had sold in the past for sums over £150,000. We agreed upon an estimate of £15,000 to £25,000. The auction was being held in London on the 2nd of December 2014, exactly six months from the day I purchased it.
Lyon & Turnbull had the wine cup photographed for the auction, and generated a detailed description. My cup was now lot number 323 (see image below). Just before the auction started, the auctioneer told me that there had been a lot of inquiries from potential buyers about lot 323 and he was confident the cup would sell over the estimated price, despite being damaged. Bidding soon got underway, with an opening bid of £15,000. The bid price climbed slowly to £18,000 then £22,000. Eventually, it passed its estimated price of £25,000 and the hammer finally came down at £28,000 (another number 8).
As events played out, I didn’t notice how the number 8 seemed to be intentionally inserting itself into the story. That was something which would only become apparent much later.
(My father pointed out this to me: you can break down Lot 323 into the equation 3+2+3 = 8. I take that as another number 8 to note)
Chapter 5: “Study the past, if you would define the future.” — Confucius.
Several months later, I found myself on one of my regular road trips, this time in and around London searching for Chinese antiques. I came across a stall selling antique Chinese hardwood stands that are used to better display Chinese porcelains, jades, and the like. After striking up a conversation with the proprietor, George, I realized he was French. I managed to buy the stands from him at a fair price, and as we were talking, I remembered the French note I still had tucked away inside my wallet. On a whim, I asked the proprietor if he would take a look at it and possibly translate it for me.
George studied the note for a while and went on to tell me it seemed to be a recipe for some kind of tonic, and was addressed to someone named Jean DeFontaney. I was immediately intrigued by the name, and couldn’t help but wonder who this person was.
A few days later back at home, I did some research into Jean DeFontaney. As it turned out, he was a French Jesuit who was assigned by King Louis XIV to lead a mission to China in 1688. Although the purpose of the mission was to promote French interests and oppose the Portuguese, the group immediately made a good impression on the reigning Kangxi Emperor. Two of the four Jesuits were retained by him to serve in his court, although DeFontaney was not one of them. He remained in China as the leader of the French delegation for 14 years until 1702.
Of course, Kangxi is as important to the story as Jean DeFontaney. He was the second emperor of the Qing dynasty, credited with completing the conquest of China and presiding over one of China’s most glorious eras. He was the single most powerful person on earth at the time, ruling over a vast empire and over 100 million subjects.
He took the throne at age seven, on February 7, 1661, and unlike many previous emperors of China, was interested in both Chinese culture and Western thought. He could be considered one of the best-educated men of his time, and was also voraciously focused on bettering himself. Some accounts claim that he would vomit blood from exhaustion after intensive periods of study. As far as he was concerned, his main goal in life was to gain knowledge and wisdom that would help him lead his empire in peace and harmony.
Unfortunately, he suffered from health problems. The ill effects began as early as age 35, when his vision began to deteriorate. At around age 40, he contracted malaria, which led him to become very interested in medicine.
Unfortunately, traditional Chinese practices such as acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, and medicinal tonics had no effect. He reportedly disliked acupuncture, hated the smell of moxibustion formulas, thought medicinal massages were useless, and despised the tonics. He didn’t believe in Taoist longevity practices, and was skeptical of many other aspects of traditional medicine.
Considering all that, it is little surprise that he sought help from the Jesuits when it came to health matters. According to a later account, Jean DeFontaney cured Kangxi of a malignant fever in July 1693 by using quinquina, a quinine-based remedy that was a popular Jesuit treatment for malaria.
After that incident, Kangxi ordered the Jesuits to translate as many western medical texts into Manchu as possible, a fact mentioned in the reports of French Jesuit Joachim Bouvet.
For years, Kangxi would sing the praises of the Jesuits and their medical knowledge. In one notable account, he cited how they prescribed him brandy and cinnamon to stop his heart palpitations. Both alcohol and cinnamon are very common items in China, and are widely recognized as effective medicinal substances in certain conditions.
At this point I decided to have the note to Jean DeFontaney professionally translated. The results confirmed George’s earlier assumption that it was indeed a recipe, specifically, strict instructions for to Jean deFontaney to make a liquor-based tonic using only the 9 roots and herbs listed, with exact amounts as selected by the emperor Kangxi himself.
By all accounts, the recipe was intriguing. But at this stage of my journey, it had nothing more than academic and historical value. I still did not see the significance of it at all! I am a dealer in Chinese antiques, and am used to only seeing value in a beautiful piece of Chinese porcelain, jade or bronze.
It was only when I got to China that the baijiu lightning bolt would strike me.
Chapter 6 will be published Saturday the 21st of September.