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Where are the treasures of Prince Kung's Palace today?

Updated: Aug 29, 2018

Prince Kung's Palace is an artistic treasure, not only because of its magnificent architecture, but also its rich furniture and collections. Unfortunately, almost all the movable collections in Prince Kung's Palace disappeared in the past century. What were those collections, and where are they now? 

To find the answer, we are collecting the lost cultural relics from Prince Kung's Palace: Some are the antiques that Prince Kung once collected, and others are the daily items of Prince Kung's Palace, including daily necessities, practical artifacts and decorations.

Shining treasures show the Prince's style

Yixin spent 46 years of his life at Prince Kung's Palace, from the second year of Emperor Xianfeng (1852) to the 24th year of Emperor Guangxu (1898). Most of the buildings, utensils and collections in the mansion reflected his aesthetic taste. He built a courtyard on the west of the mansion to store his collections. The main room of the courtyard was called Xijin Studio, which housed The Consoling Letter (Pingfu tie), a calligraphy work written by Lu Ji, a great litterateur and calligrapher of the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). The name of the west wing room where other calligraphy works and paintings were stored was named Er'er Studio, which meant that the collections housed there were no better than The Consoling Letter (Pingfu tie) calligraphy. The antiques were stored in the east wing room, called Legu Studio.

Calligraphy and painting through the ages

Since his youth, Yixin had been interested in appreciating and collecting inscriptions, celebrity calligraphy and paintings by literati and refined scholars. What treasures did he collect in the mansion? Although we can't find any in today's mansion, we still discover something about them in the autobiography of Yixin's great grandson, the famous master of calligraphy and painting Pu Xinyu, and the research by scholars such as professor Fukuda of Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.

Many famous calligraphy works and paintings of ancient China were stored in Prince Kung's Palace, such as Lu Ji's Consoling Letter (Pingfu tie), Wang Xizhi's Youmu Letter (outline and fill-in copy) and Wang Xianzhi's Equn Letter (outline and fill-in copy). Therefore, the collections in Er'er Studio are not ordinary at all. These are all famous works, which make the Prince Kung's Palace exceptionally brilliant.

Gorgeous, beautiful and noble red sandalwood furniture

In addition to the collections, many practical artifacts from Prince Kung's Palace have become very precious works of art today. The Golden-thread Nanmu Wood partition boards embedded with carved red sandalwood is the most luxurious interior decoration preserved in Xijin Studio at Prince Kung's Palace. 

Before 1940, Katz, an American scholar, accompanied by the Chinese scholar Chen Hongshun, visited Prince Kung's Palace. In the article Prince Kung's Palace and Garden in Beijing, they described the interior decorations in the palace as follows: the interior is divided, elegant in design, antique and exquisitely carved with precious wood.

Collections of Prince Kung's Palace lost

The treasures at Prince Kung's Palace have had different destinies. Some were destroyed and disappeared and others were shipped overseas. 

In 1913, auctions with the theme of Prince Kung's collections were held in New York and London. They attracted many antique dealers. About 700 pieces of antiques were sold, combined fetching more than $300,000. 

So, why were those treasures there? With the decline of the Qing Dynasty, the princes lost their stable economic sources. In order to maintain their dignity and luxury, almost all princes began to sell collections or even mortgage their mansions. In just 20 or 30 years, most mansions of imperial kinsmen were sold out.

In 1912, Puwei wanted to restore the Manchu Qing regime with the support of the Japanese.  He was in bad financial status and urgently needed money to launch restoration activities. So, he sold all the treasures of Prince Kung's Palace except for calligraphy and paintings to the Japanese antique dealer Yamanaka Sadajiro.

After receiving the treasures, Yamanaka soon organized the New York and London 1913 auctions. The sales of the New York auction brought in more than $270,000.

Red sandalwood furniture becomes an exhibit

The red sandalwood furniture of Prince Kung's Palace, which is now stored at the Taipei Palace Museum, has a tortuous story. The furniture was obtained by members of the Committee for the Disposition of the Qing Imperial Possessions during the period of the Republic of China. It was brought from Beijing to Shanghai, then taken to Hong Kong, and was finally transferred to Taiwan. It was collected by Soochow University in Taiwan, and finally acquired by the Taipei Palace Museum.

In 1983, a special exhibition was held to showcase this collection of precious red sandalwood furniture in the Taipei Palace Museum. The staff members from the museum combined the furniture with porcelain, calligraphy and paintings and other cultural relics to restore some life scenes of the royal mansion in the Qing Dynasty in the exhibition hall.

Fate of calligraphy and paintings

The collections of calligraphy and paintings of all dynasties are the most important treasures in the Prince Kung's Palace, and fully reflect Yixin's royal identity and artistic taste. However, with the demise of the Qing government in 1911, these precious calligraphy works and paintings went to the hands of various people in just 20 or 30 years, and suffered different fates.

Youmu Letter by Wang Xizhi of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420)

It is said that it was brought out of the mansion around 1900 and into Hiroshima, Japan, after the Xinhai Revolution, which brought down the Qing government. It was reduced to ashes by the atomic bomb of 1945. Now only copies have been handed down.

Gaoshen Manuscript by Yan Zhenqing of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

It was mortgaged by Puwei to Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan around 1913. In 1930, Japanese calligrapher Nakamura Fusetsu bought it. It is now collected in the Calligraphy Museum in Tokyo, Japan.

Five-Colored Parakeet on a Blossoming Apricot Tree by Zhao Ji, Emperor Huizong of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) 

It was lost around the Xinhai Revolution. It was later purchased by the Japanese collector Yamamoto and is now collected in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the United States.

It is a distressful thing to list the lost ancient calligraphy works and paintings from Prince Kung's Palace as most of them have drifted overseas or disappeared on their return, and for some of them we have no way of knowing even their names and contents.

Collection of cultural relics in Prince Kung's Palace

"In March 1912, Yamanaka, a Japanese antique dealer, bought a large number of cultural relics of Prince Kung's Palace from Puwei. But the whereabouts of the cultural relics are unknown," according to a publication by a professor at Tohoku University.

At the beginning of 2004, with the help of Gu Changjiang, some people went to Japan to look for clues about the loss of Prince Kung’s cultural relics.

They met Yamanaka, president of Yamanaka & Co. in Osaka, Japan.

Gu introduced the preparations for the construction of Prince Kung's Palace Museum and explained that this trip was to find the cultural relics of Prince Kung's Palace. 

After hearing this, Yamanaka was very moved. He took out the auction catalogue named "AAA Prince Kung auction in New York in 1913" from the archives of Yamanaka & Co.. The catalogue contains the collections of Prince Kung's Palace auctioned in New York that year, including more than 500 pieces in seven categories: jade, bronze, ceramics, wood, enamel, stone carving, weaving and embroidery.

Yamanaka said that although this is one of the family treasures left by the elders of the Yamanaka family, he was willing to donate it to Prince Kung's Palace Museum in view of its greater historical role in the museum and China.

At the beginning of 2006, with the help of the staff members of the Chinese embassy in the United States, we found the Malachite sculpture listed as No 134 in the auction catalogue, although its hardwood base had disappeared. It is now collected in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed in the Asian department of the museum on a daily basis as an exhibit of Chinese decorative art.

The story of old photos

In 2004, pieces of Mahogony furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and embedded with marble panels were found in a citizen's home, according to the Tianjin Cultural Relics Bureau. It was identified as a cultural relic of the late Qing Dynasty.

There is no furniture of this kind in the documents of Prince Kung's Palace, so should it be collected? An old photo confirmed the legitimacy of the furniture.

The old photo shows Yixin and his brother Yixuan sitting on a bench inlaid with mother-of-pearl and embedded with marble panels when Yixin was fifty years old. The photo records that this kind of furniture was popular in Prince Kung's Palace in the late Qing Dynasty, justifying its collection.

A batch of Ming Dynasty rosewood furniture

In 2004, an old man in Beijing wanted to sell some Ming Dynasty rosewood furniture, which is really precious in the cultural relics market. 

His small room was full of several sets of antique furniture. There were pairs of Chinese rosewood cabinets with Ming Dynasty Wanli style, and red sandalwood duobaoge (a cabinet for displaying antiques) and so on.

However, due to the shortage of funds for the collection of cultural relics, only the Chinese rosewood cabinets with Ming Dynasty Wanli style and a round corner cabinet with the best appearance were selected for collection. 

Wood experts from the National Appraisal Committee appraised the items. The experts told us that this batch of furniture contained rare treasures. Two days later, they called again to inquire about the progress of the collection of the furniture, which we quickly collected due to its historical value.

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