No doubt the vessel comes from ancient China, but it did not go straight to a museum in modern China.
It was first discovered by tomb robbers in Shanxi Province in the early 20th century. Before long, it vanished. The piece did not resurface until in the 1990s, when it was put up for auction in Macao. Many foreign collectors were eager to bid on it. Experts from the Chinese mainland were also anxious, expecting a foreign collector to outbid everyone else.
Enter Sunny Yip. The founder of Hong Kong financial firm Sun Group paid 37.5 million yuan (US$5.6m) for the piece. Born in 1950, Yip has engaged in philanthropy focused on public welfare and education in his hometown of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, donating over 100 million yuan (US$15m).
After the purchase, Yip consulted with a number of bronze experts to determine its value. But many were unaware of the basin’s existence, and some dismissed it as a fake. Afraid that he might have made a bad decision, Yip was disheartened.
However, when Ma Chengyuan, former director of the Shanghai Museum, flew to Hong Kong and examined it in person, he was struck by the sight of it, calling it a one-of-its-kind, priceless national treasure.
Ma was so excited that night that he barely slept and wrote his now widely cited article “Postscript on Zi Zhong Jiang Pan,” in which he provides an extremely detailed description of the basin.
Yip later learned that the Chinese government had its eye on the piece. It was one of the two national treasures embassies and consulates had been tracking for nine years.
During a TV interview in 2002, Ma said that two years after first encountering the basin, he wrote to Yip, asking to borrow the treasure for a two-month exhibition in Shanghai as part of the events marking Hong Kong’s return to China. Yip offered to donate the piece to the Shanghai Museum.
The basin for Lady Jiang Zhong was originally paired with another vessel for pouring water, known as an yi. Regrettably, that yi is in the possession of a private collector in New York. Separated by thousands of kilometers, the two may remain so for the foreseeable future.
This is the case for many Chinese antiquities. According to data from UNESCO, over 1.64 million historical artifacts from China are in the possession of over 200 museums in 47 countries, not including private collections. The Chinese Cultural Relics Academy estimates nearly 10 million.
Since 2012, China has stepped up efforts to recover artifacts, including incentives to encourage private efforts. In the past 10 years, over 1,800 artifacts in private collections overseas have been returned to China. Perhaps someday, Lady Jiang Zhong’s handwash basin set will also be reunited.