The Chinese Statue by Jeffry Archer
About the author … Jeffrey Howard Archer (born 15 April 1940) is a colourful personality who has hugged the British political and literary scene for decades. During his life, he has followed him from one scandal to another, but his fan following has grown with time. He was a Member of Parliament, then got caught up in a financial scandal, went to jail, jumped parole and again was thrown behind bars. But, strangely, non of these setbacks robbed him of his penchant for writing. He has written novels, and short stories with outstanding literary brilliance. Countless readers adore his work, and easily ignore the flip side of his life. Among his most popular works are Not a Penny more, Not a Penny Less, Kane and Abel, The Prodigal Daughter, Amatter of Honur, and many more.
The Chinese Statue grips the readers’ attention by its accurate depiction of Chinese art of deception, and the British love for the exotic Orient.
The story …
The scene is set at Sotheby’s, an auction house of considerable repute. Here, an antique Chinese porcelain statuette had gone under the hammer in the presence of a motley crowd of some serious and not-so-serious bidders. The item carried the number ‘Lot 103’. To apprise the bidders about the nature and source of the porcelain piece, the auctioneers had made available a fact-sheet about the item to the bidders. The brochure said that the statue had been purchased in China from a place called Ha Li Chuan in the year 1871. The owner, who sold off this precious item, was described as a ‘gentleman’, apparaently to hide the name of the aristocrat owner who had, perhaps, fallen in bad times. The ‘gentleman’ had likely been compelled to sell this family heritage item to get some money for his dire needs.
The author, seated amidst the bidders, was intrigued by this item’s lineage and decided to delve into its past to get a clearer picture of its origin and ownership.
Long time back, the antique statuette had been originally bought by Sir Alexander Heathcote, a diplomat-gentleman of great acclaim. He was a very fastidious person whose daily routine was set to the accuracy of a minute. His breakfast, taken exactly at the same time in the morning, had the same ingredients in the same quantity. He reached his desk at the Foreign Office sharp at 8.59am, and left for home when the clock stroke six in the evening.
Second page .. Sir Alexander Heathcote had perhaps imbibed his penchant for punctuality from his father who was a General. The young Alexander joined the diplomatic corpse, and rose steadily from a clerk’s level through various ranks to represent Her Highness in Peking (now Beijing). For his kind of job, his punctual habits suited well. He had been an avid follower of Chinese art scene during the Ming dynasty. Perhps, this interest in China’s artisan history made Mr. Gladstone to offer him the top diplomat’s job in Peking. Sir Alexander was overly delighted.
After a two-month sea voyage, Sir Alexander arrived in Peking and handed over his credentials to Empress Tzu-Hsi in a traditional ceremony. The ceremony took place in the Imperial Palace where the Empress, standing in her white royal robe with gold embellishments, received the Ambassodor of Queen Victoria. Sir Alexander went through the ceremony with great finesse and aplomb.
When he was being escorted back by a Mandarin, his eyes fell on a disorderly kept collction of statues in the palce compound. Each of these pieces appeaed to be of beguiling beauty. Sir Alexander was clearly excited to notice these. The ivory and jade statues aroused his intense curiousity. It left his imagination awhirling.
Third page … Sir Alexander’s tenure in China was to end in three years. So, he lost no time on leaves. Instead, he went on a spree to explore the outlining countryside around Peking. Accompanied by a mandarin, he went on a horse back understanding the culture and life in China. The mandarin helped him to overcome the language barrier, and also to interpret the complex socio-economic landscape in his host country.
On once such outings, he ran into a craftsman’s workshop in a sparsely populated village named Ha Li Chuan, about 50 miles away from Peking. With curiosity gripping his mind, he disembarked from the horse and ventured into the workshop that looked so primitive and pedestrian. There were ivory and jade pieces strewn all over. Notwithstanding the chaotic environment of the work place, the small artefacts looked mindblowingly exquisite. His mind yearned to acquire a souvenir as a memento. He was a tall man, and found it difficult to squeeze in his big frame into the inner portion of the workshop.
Sir Alexander could smell the aroma of Jasmine oil that wafted through the air. He was spellbound to see such a collection of precious art pieces. An old Chinese man, looking very ordinary in his very ordinary robes, stepped out to meet the distinguished visitor in a deferential manner. The Mandarin began to convey to the old artisan the fact that his boss wanted to look into the collection of the artefacts in the shop. The old man was more than polite in giving his eager assent. Sir Alexander feasted his eyes with the magnificent art pieces, and returned to the old man to say how pleased and taken aback he had been to see his work. The old man reciprocated the visitor’s appreciation with subdued glee and gratitude. He then ushered the visitor duo to an inner chamber which appeared so intriguing with its collection of miniature statues of emperors and classical figures. Sir Alexander was blown off his feet to see the marvellous pieces of rare beauty and perfection. A conversation ensued between the visitor and the master artisan, with the mandarin acting as the channel. The conversation had a generous component of Ming Dynasty’s rule in China. Sir Alexander was in his own turf.
Fourth page .. The old artisan proffered to show a statue belonging to the Ming dynasty that he said had been with his family for generations. Sir Alexander was only too pleased to hear this. Leaving the two men behind, the little old artisan ran to his tiny house nearby to fetch the statue. After a while, he returned holding the ‘Ming dynasty’ artefact close to his chest. His body language showed that he was in fact holding somethng very precious.
With gaping eyes, Sir Alexander looked intently at the six inch tall statuette. It was that of the Emeror Kung. Sir Alexander was thunderstruck. He cocluded that the piece belonged to the fifteenth century and the artisan who crafted it was Pen Q, who was patronized by the Emperor. Sir Alexander was flummoxed and nonplussed. The ivory base was missing, but Sir Alexander ascribed it to its antique past. Surprise, excitement and pleasure were writ large in his face. Standing at a distance, the old artisan saw his guest’s wonder, and was both happy and content.
Fifth page … Sir Alexander made no attempt to conceal his excitement. The little old man marked all this with subdued elation. While handing back the statutte to the artisan, Sir Alexander inadvertently blurted out, “How much I wish the piece was mine.” As a career diplomat, he must not have been so indiscreet to utter these words. In the next moment, he realized he had thrown all caution to the air and said this. But, by then, the Mandarin had translated the distinguished visitor’s wish to the old man. It was too late.
The old artisan looked pale as he handed over the statuette to his visitor. No amount of protestation by the diplomat could reverse the course of action. The old man beseeched his honoured guest to accept the item. Sir Alexander, befuddled momentarily, stood there unable to decide how to respond to the situation. He was both confused and perplexed at the turn of events. ‘Seeking a gift is a very un-diplomatic act,’ he thought.
Sixth page … The supplicant artisan proposed to fix a base to the artefact so that his guest could display it properly. From inside a chest full of bases, the old man selected a befitting one for the gift he was going to part with. Quite apologetically, he expressed his ignorance about the year of making of the base, but he assured Sir Alexander that it would be a good fit for the tiny statue of Emperor Kung. The British diplomat was overwhelmed with a sense of embarrassment and guilt. He struggled to find words to thank the humble artisan.
As they headed back home, the diplomat was lost in thoughts. The Mandarin knew his boss’s predicament, and the feeling of impropriety that had overtaken him. To assuage his boss’s troubled mind, he told him about a Chinese tradition that made it imperative for the recipient of a gift to pay the cost of the item to the giver within a year of getting it. So, the dilomat had one full year to pay the cost of the rare artefact to the humble old man. By doing this, he could absolve himself of the moral turpitude that was haunting him for accepting the item from the stranger.
The Mandarin’s words brought instant relief to his master’s mind. As soon as Sir Alexander reached his office, he went straight to the well-stocked library to find some clue about the possible cost of the materpiece he had just come to posses. He did find a sketch of a similar statue, and its possible cost. But, the cost was almost astronomical. The amount equalled his three years’ salary! He went into a huddle with his wife to decide what to do next. The duo agreed that the amount had to be found and paid to the artisan. It meant that a large part of his savings would go to pay for the six-inch statuette of Emperor Hun.
Sir Alexander lost no time in asking his banker in Lndon to withdraw the required amount from his account and send it to Peking with the maximum haste possible. It took nearly nine weeks for the amount to reach Peking. Sir Alexander made inquiries from the Mandarin about the next course of action. The latter took a week’s time to furnish the answers.
Seventh page … The Mandarin delved into the ancestry of the artisan and dug up some interesting facts. The master craftsman’s name was Yung Lee, and he was the descendant of a long line of highly skilled craftsmen of Yung Shau fame, who all excelled in the art. It also emerged that the artisan Yung Lee’s ancesters had the privilege of having their creations exhibitted in the palaces of Manchu royals. Yung Lee, was planning to pass on the trade to his son, and retire to live in the hills in his dotage. That place had been the abode of his ancesters. With all these information, Sir Alexander felt reassured and happy. ‘The Mandarin had done a good job,’ he reasoned. He asked the Mandarin to go and seek an audience with the Empress on his behalf.
A few days later, the Empress’s permission was received.
Almost on the day of completion of the one-year period, the British diplomat, accompanied by the Mandarin reached the village, Ha Li Chuan, where the generous artisan lived. Sir Aexander quickly got down from his horse and went into the decrepit shed. He found the master craftsman seated on a bench and poring on his work. Initially, the artisan couldn’t recognize the visitor, until he got very close. As usual, he received his distinguished visitor with the utmost courtsey and humility.
Sir Alexander announced that he had come to redeem his committment to pay for the priceless artefact within the mandatory period of one year. The old artisan replied almost re verentially that he was indeed honoured to see his possesion exhibitted in the British embassy. Fumbling for words, Sir Alexander requested the old man to come with him for a short errand around the place.
Eighth page … Seated on donkey back, the three men headed towards the north. In about two hours, travelling along a narrow mud track, they reached the village Ma Tien where the craftsman’s workshop stood. There they met another Mandarin who very respectfully asked the trio to accompany him for a short walk. They reached a point atop the hill that gave a panaromic view of the vast plain below. In that small valley on the hill, they saw a beautifully crafted house. Two dogs made out of white marble guarded the house.
Till then, the escort who had brought the guests here didn’t know why they had come there. It was the turn of Sir Alexander to break the silence. Most humbly, he set out to offer the money he had brought towards the cost of the artefact he hdad received about a year ago.
At this, the craftsman, overcome with consternation, fell at Sir Alexander’s feet and begged him not to offer him anything at all, as it was against law to accept money from a foreigner for a piece of craft. The Mandarin intervened and helped the contrite old artisan to his feet. To remove misgivings from the old man’s mind, the Mandarin assured him that the Empress herself had approved the payment of the cost of his statuette to him by the British ambassodor. The oldman regained his composure. He appeared relaxed and somewhat happy. He paced towards the door of the house, and caressed the two marble dogs standing as sentries. The visitors spent about an hour inside the exquisite house before returning to Li Chuan, the village of the artisan.
Sir Alexander returned to his quarters, content and relaxed. He had paid for the gift in the true Chinese tradition, and, most importantly, had obtained his wife’s endorsement.
Sir Alexander’s term in Peking was drawing to an end. He had discharged his duty with great aplomb, that got him the award of ‘Silver Star of China’ from the Empress, and the honorific ‘KCVO’ from the British Queen. Back in London, Sir Alexander retired from service and settled in his country home in Yorkshire.
Ninth page …. Sir Alexander lived his twilight years in his ancestral home. Giving him company were his wife, and the Chinese Emperor, albiet reduced to a stature of just six inches, and frozen in marble. Visitors saw the statuette and admired it. Its present owner got a fair share of the adulation for his fine understanding of antique’s intrinsic worth.
In his meticulously drafted will, he made elaborate mention of the way the statuette would be passed on from one progeny to his successor. ‘Only the first son or the daughter woud won it,’ he willed. He forbade its sale, unless under very pressing financial difficulties. Sir Alexander Heathcote breathed his last at the age of 70.
The Ming Emperor’s custody passed on to Major James Heathcote, the first son. He had seen action in the Boer War fighting at Her Majesty’s service. Although not an antique enthusiast, Major James felt the Emperor deserved to be exhibitted in the Regment’s mess in Hallifax. When Major James became Colonel James, he kept the Emperor on his table where the many trophies he had won in battles were so proudly exhibitted. On retirement, Col. James returned to live in his ancestral home where the Emperor also stood majestically. Col. James remembered very well that the artefact has to go to the next in the lineage.
Tenth page…… Col. James died peacefully at his ancestral home in Yorkshire. The family baton passed on to Reverend Alexander Heathcote. The Ming Emperor found a new pedestal. The Reverend placed it on a mantle in his vicarage. Not many paid much heed to the Emperor from China. In due course, the Reverend became the Right Reverend, and he moved to the Bishop’s quarters. In this new abode, the Emperor got many visitors to adore him. The visitors heard about the origin of the statue, the high cost the Bishop’s grandfather had paid for it, and the way the base was retro-fitted to the statue just before changing hands. In all, the Emperor got all the attention he deserved. In the opportune time, the Bishop made his will that made his son, Captain James Heathcote, the custodian of the precious heirloom in future. Captain James was the grandson of Sir Alexander. Like his father, he was a military man. Soon, the Emperor left the Bishop’s palace and found its way back to the Hallifax officers’ mess.
Sadly, Captain James fell in the battlefields of Dukirk. His premature death made his two-year-old son the inherior of the artefact. The young child’s name was Alex Heathcote. Unfortunately, he grew up to be a wayward and immoral person, in complete reversal of the family that gave the society men of such sterling character and distinction. Alex’s mother fawned over him, pandering to his demands. This spoiled the young lad even more.
Eleventh page … Alex was a nuisance at school, and had to leave it to avoid being thrown out. He was a spendthrift, and a reckless man. He owed money to many, who began to use coercive means to collect their dues. On one occasion, he received a stern call from his creditors to repay them six thousand pounds in a fortnight’s time. Somehow, Alex had to arange six thousand pounds. He mulled over the idea of selling the Ming Emperor. After all, his great grandfather had allowed its sale when the family’s honor was at stake.
He looked at the Ming Emperor with poignant eyes. ‘I am undone,’ he reasoned to himself. With the Emperor, he went to Sotheby’s where he thought he could get it auctioned for a good amount to pay off his creditors.
Twelfth and last page … The expert at Sotheby’s scrutinized the statuette and appeared to be initially appreciative of its worth. However, he said it would take a few days for the detailed examination of the artefact to be over. Till then, he reserved his judgement. Alex was pleased, as the estimate about its worth, if received before the 14-day deadline, could keep his tormentors at bay.
He called his creditors to tell them that the statuette is under evaluation at Sotheby’s and they could expect some good news before their 14-day deadline ended. The creditors agreed to wait. Deep in his mind, Alex paid his gratitude to his great grandfather.
After a few days, agog with an expectant mind, Alex headed to the Sotheby’s to get a sense of the windfall he was to get for the statuette. But, he was in for a rude shock. With a cold and indifferent expression, the lady at the counter told Alex that the artefact was a fake. It was just about two hundred to two hundred fifty years old. It could fetch something like seven hundred to eight hundred pounds at the best — a fraction of Alex’s debts.
Dejected and shattered, Alex began to head back home, contemplating to buy a gun to kill himself. He casually told the person at the counter to sell it off for whatever it was worth. Curiously, the base was found to be a fifteenth century masterpiece.
At Sotheby’s, the author was looking at this combination of a fake statuette fixed on a genuine base in Lot no. 103. He won the bid for the Emperor sans his base for seven hundred twenty guineas. The base was won by an American collector for twenty-two thousand guineas.
1. Describe the character of Sir Alexander.
Sir Alexander Heathcote represented Her Majesty the Queen of England in China. He was a diplomat with great scholarship, and a deep understanding and personal interest in the history of the art and culture of medieval China. Perhaps, it is this unique quality that made the British Foreign Service to post him in China. He performed his duty with great dedication and dignity. As a gentleman, he was immaculate, both in mind and manners. Perhaps, his obsessive interest in Chinese history and its artefacts that proved to be his undoing. A wily local artisan shop owner could dupe him of nearly his life’s savings through deceit.
It is unclear why Sir Alexander Heathcote chose to go on an outing to the countryside with just a minion as his aide. He could have taken a member of his senior staff to guide him. Perhaps he was a bit naive or his excessive fascination to take home a antique Chinese art piece blinded his discretion and judgement. After bringing the spurious artefact to his residence, he had months to have it assessed by an expert. If he had done this simple check, he wouldn’t have been so miserably misled. This exposes a lack of tact and rigor in his nature. The artisan in the village Ha Li Chuan was too deferential to Sir Alexander to accepted as a normal salesman. He offered the statuette to the esteemed visitor without insisting on payment. Sir Alexander was swayed by the cunning Chinese old artisan to believe that the art piece belong to the era of the Ming dynasty. How and why Sir Alexander threw all caution to air and go by the word of the old man is hard to understand.
In a nutshell, we must concede that Sir Alexander Heathcote was a learned China enthusiast, and he was a thorough gentleman. He fell prey to his own over enthusiasm and indiscretion.
2. Do you feel the Mandarin serving Sir Alexander had a hand the way his master was fleeced?
The Mandarin was a local man, and he must have been in the know of the perfidy of his fellow men. However, he didn’t caution his gullible master to stay away from buying anything from the shop. He didn’t do this. So, it is safe to assume that he had a hand in this fraud, and must have got a cut from the price his master paid for the artefact.
3. Do you feel Yung Lee, the old artisan knew he was passing off a fake to the British ambassador?
Yung Lee was an old hand in the manufacture and trade of antiques. He knew the ins and outs of the trade, and the way some foreigners fancied possessing antics of ancient China. He knew exactly what he was doing, and acted in that servile way to hide his wicked intent.
It was a strange confluence of cunningness of Yung Lee and the boyish naivety of the seasoned British diplomat. As the ambassador from a country, otherwise known as the nation of traders, he should have known that no antique trader would ever sell an item in credit, that too the credit period extending to months. This is an absurd idea. He should have smelled a rat here and abandoned his purchase. The Chinese trader took two precautions to preempt any legal complication later. He allowed Sir Alexander to take home the artefact without asking for payment. A trader extends such credit facility when he knows his merchandise is worthless. Yung Lee could sense Sir Alexander’s obsession with Ming dynasty statuettes. He acted cleverly to convince his distinguished visitor that the item on offer was indeed a remnant of that era. Yung Lee perhaps sensed that legal problems could follow. So, he gave the base of the statuette that was genuinely of Ming era. He put a recently produced replica of the toy of that ancient time and passed it off as a genuine antic artifact. He probably kept a escape route through such a ploy.
The stage-managed visit of the Ambassador and his minion was an act of deceipt. Yung Lee was able to convince that he was a descendant of the famed Yung Shau clan of artisans who served the Manchu royals. The Ambassador was convinced that he had hit upon a real rare source of Chinese treasure.
It is strange that the learned representative of the Queen of England went by whatever Yung Lee said, and didn’t get his version fact-checked. He was easily duped as a result. The subterfuge was possible because Sir Alexander succumbed to the guile of Yung Lee.