Hong Kong, January 25, 2013
In early 2012, a brother and sister clearing out their late mother’s attic in the London neighborhood of Hampstead discovered what appeared to be a cluster of old Chinese scrolls at the bottom of a steamer trunk. By chance, the sister had a friend who worked at Christie’s, so she dropped them off--in four Sainsbury’s grocery sacks--at the auctioneer’s salesroom on Old Brompton Road, hoping they might “take a look and tell us if they’re worth anything.”
When the senior specialist of Chinese Classical Paintings opened up one of the silk scrolls, he nearly went into cardiac arrest. Unfurled before him was an image so remarkably rendered, it immediately reminded him of a set of hanging scroll paintings long thought to be destroyed. Could this be The Palace of Eighteen Perfections? The artwork, created by the Qing dynasty artist Yuan Jiang in 1693, was believed to have been secretly removed from China during the Second Opium War in 1860, when many of the royal palaces were ransacked, and lost forever.
As staffers scurried around unrolling the scrolls, they discovered twenty-four pieces, each almost seven feet tall and in immaculate condition. Placed side by side, they spanned thirty-seven feet, almost filling the floor space of two workrooms. At last, the senior specialist could confirm that this was undoubtedly the mythical work described in all the classical Chinese texts he had spent much of his career studying.
The Palace of Eighteen Perfections was an opulent eighth-century imperial retreat in the mountains north of modern-day Xi’an. It was said to be one of the most magnificent royal residences ever built, with grounds so vast that one had to travel between the halls on horseback. On these ancient silk scrolls, the intricate pavilions, courtyards, and gardens that meandered through a dreamlike blue-and-green mountain landscape were painted in colors so vibrantly preserved, they seemed almost electric in their iridescence.
The auction-house staff stood over the exquisite masterpiece in awed silence. A find of this caliber was like discovering a long-hidden painting by da Vinci or Vermeer. When the international director of Asian Art rushed in to see them, he began to feel faint and forced himself to take a few steps back for fear that he might fall onto the delicate artwork. Choking back his tears, the director finally said, “Call François in Hong Kong. Tell him to get Oliver T’sien on the next flight to London.”1
The director then declared, “We need to give these beauties the grand tour. We’re going to start out with an exhibition in Geneva, then London, then at our Rockefeller Center showroom in New York. Let’s give the world’s top collectors a chance to see it. Only then will we take it to Hong Kong, and sell it right before the Chinese New Year. By then the Chinese should be frothing at the mouth in anticipation.”
Which is precisely how Corinna Ko-Tung came to be sitting in the Clipper Lounge of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong a year later, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Lester and Valerie Liu. Her richly embossed business card listed her as an “art consultant,” but for a few select clients, she was a great deal more than that. Corinna was born to one of Hong Kong’s most pedigreed families, and she secretly parlayed her extensive connections into a very profitable sideline. For clients like the Lius, Corinna did everything from refining the art on their walls to the clothes on their back--all in service of getting them memberships at the most elite clubs, their names onto the right invitation lists, and their children into the city’s top schools. In short, she was a special consultant for social climbers.
Corinna spotted the Lius as they ascended the short flight of stairs up to the mezzanine lounge overlooking the lobby. The couple cut quite a striking picture, and she had to pat herself on the back for this. The first time Corinna met the Lius, they were both in head-to-toe Prada. To these new arrivals from Guangdong, it was the height of sophistication, but to Corinna, it just screamed clueless Mainland money. Thanks to her handiwork, Lester entered the Clipper Lounge looking particularly dapper in a bespoke three-piece suit from Kilgour of Savile Row, and Valerie was chicly clad in a silvery Persian lamb parka from J. Mendel, appropriately sized black pearls, and dove-gray suede Lanvin ankle boots. But there was something a little off about her outfit--the handbag was a mistake. The glossy ombre-dyed reptile-skin bag obviously came from some nearly extinct species, but it reminded Corinna of the sort of handbag only a mistress would carry. She made a mental note to drop a hint at the appropriate moment.
Valerie arrived at the table apologizing profusely. “I’m sorry we’re late. Our chauffeur mistakenly took us to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental instead of this one.”
“Not a problem,” Corinna replied graciously. Tardiness was one of her pet peeves, but with the kind of retainer the Lius were paying her, she wasn’t about to complain.
“I’m surprised you wanted to meet here. Don’t you think the tearoom at the Four Seasons is much nicer?” Valerie asked.
“Or even the Peninsula,” Lester chimed in, casting a dismissive eye at the rectangular 1970s-era chandeliers cascading from the ceiling of the lobby.
“The Peninsula gets too many tourists, and the Four Seasons is where all the new people go. The Mandarin is where proper Hong Kong families have been coming to tea for generations. My grandmother Lady Ko-Tung used to bring me here at least once a month when I was a girl,” Corinna patiently explained, adding, “You must also leave out the ‘Oriental’--we locals simply call it ‘the Mandarin.’ ”
“Oh,” Valerie replied, feeling a little chastised. She glanced around, taking in the subdued oak-paneled walls and armchairs with just the perfect amount of sag in the seat cushions, her eyes suddenly widening. Leaning closer in, she whispered excitedly to Corinna, “Do you see who’s over there? Isn’t that Fiona Tung-Cheng with her mother-in-law, Alexandra Cheng, having tea with the Ladoories?”
“Who are they?” Lester asked, a little too loudly.
Valerie nervously shushed her husband in Mandarin. “Don’t stare--I’ll tell you later!”
Corinna smiled in approval. That Valerie was a quick study. The Lius were relatively new clients, but they were Corinna’s favorite type of clients--Red Royals, she called them. Unlike fresh-off-the-boat Mainlander millionaires, these heirs of China’s ruling class--known in China as fuerdai, or “second-generation-rich”--had good manners and good teeth, and had never known the deprivation of their parents’ generation. The tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were ancient history as far as they were concerned. Obscene gobs of money had come easily to them, so obscene gobs they were ready to part with.
Lester’s family controlled one of China’s largest insurance companies, and he met Valerie, the Shanghai-born daughter of an anesthesiologist, when they were both at the University of Sydney. With an ever-growing fortune and ever-refining taste, this thirtysomething couple was ambitiously striving to make their mark on the power scene in Asia. With homes in London, Shanghai, Sydney, and New York, and a newly constructed house that resembled a cruise liner in Hong Kong’s Deep Water Bay, they were anxiously filling the walls with museum-quality art in the hopes that Hong Kong Tattle might soon do a feature.
Lester got right down to business. “So how much do you think these scrolls will end up going for?”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to discuss with you. I know you said you were prepared to go up to fifty million, but I have a feeling we will break all records tonight. Would you be prepared to go up to seventy-five?” Corinna said carefully, testing the waters.
Lester didn’t flinch. He reached for one of the sausage puffs on the silver cake stand and said, “Are you sure it’s worth that much?”
“Mr. Liu, this is the single most important work of Chinese art to ever come on the market. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--”
“It’s going to look so good in the rotunda!” Valerie couldn’t help blurting out. “We’re going to hang it so that the whole painting is panoramic, and I’m having the walls on the first and second floors repainted to exactly match the colors. I love those turquoise tones . . .”
Corinna ignored Valerie’s chatter and continued. “Aside from the artwork itself, the value of owning it will be incalculable. Think how much it will raise your profile--your family’s profile--once it’s known that you acquired it. You will have beat out the top collectors in the world. I’m told that representatives for the Bins, the Wangs, and the Kuoks are bidding. And the Huangs just flew in from Taipei--interesting timing, isn’t it? I also have it on good authority that Colin and Araminta Khoo sent a special team of curators from the National Palace Museum in Taipei to examine the piece last week.”
“Ooh--Araminta Khoo. She’s so beautiful and chic! I couldn’t stop reading about that incredible wedding of hers. Do you know her?” Valerie asked.
“I was at the wedding,” Corinna said simply.
Valerie shook her head in wonder. She tried to imagine the middle-aged, mousy-looking Corinna, who always wore the same three Giorgio Armani pantsuits, at the most glamorous event ever to hit Asia. Some people had all the luck, being born into the right family.
Corinna continued her lecture. “So let me give you the drill. The auction tonight begins at eight sharp, and I have secured us entry to the Christie’s VVIP skybox. That is where you will be throughout the auction. I will be downstairs on the auction room floor, bidding exclusively for you.”
“We won’t be with you?” Valerie was confused.
“No, no. You’ll be in this special lounge where you can look down onto all the action.”
“But won’t it be more exciting to be down on the floor itself?” Valerie pressed on.
Corinna shook her head. “Trust me, you don’t want to be seen on the auction floor. The VVIP skybox is where you want to be. That’s where all the top collectors will be, and I know you will enjoy that--”
“Wait a minute,” Lester interrupted. “What’s the point of buying the damn thing then? How will anyone know we made the winning bid?”
“First of all, you will be seen by everyone at the VVIP skybox, so people will already suspect, and first thing tomorrow, I will have one of my sources at the South China Morning Post issue an unconfirmed report that Mr. and Mrs. Lester Liu of the Harmony Insurance family acquired the painting. Trust me, that’s the classy way to do it. You want people to speculate. You want to be that unconfirmed report.”
“Ooh, you’re so brilliant, Corinna!” Valerie squealed in excitement.
“But if it’s ‘unconfirmed,’ how will people know?” Lester was still confused.
“Hiyah, slow tortoise, everyone will see the painting when we throw our housewarming party next month,” Valerie chastised her husband, smacking him on the knee. “They will confirm it with their own envious eyes!”
The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, situated right on the harbor in Wan Chai, boasted overlapping curved roofs that resembled a gigantic manta ray gliding through the water. That same evening, a parade of starlets, boldface-name socialites, low-level billionaires, and the sort of people Corinna Ko-Tung deemed to be inconsequential paraded through the Grand Hall, vying for the most visible seats at the auction of the century, while the back of the room was packed to the rafters with the international press and onlookers. Upstairs in the plush VVIP skybox, Valerie and Lester were in seventh heaven as they rubbed elbows with the serious-money crowd over Laurent-Perrier champagne and canapes prepared by Cafe Gray.
When at last the auctioneer stepped up to the polished wood podium, the lights in the hall began to dim. A massive gold latticework screen ran along the wall facing the stage, and at the appointed moment, the screen began to part, revealing the hanging scrolls in all their glory. Brilliantly enhanced by the state-of-the-art lighting system, they almost appeared to glow from within. The crowd gasped, and when the lights came up again, the auctioneer promptly began the session without any fuss: “An exceedingly rare set of twenty-four hanging scrolls from the Qing dynasty, ink and color on silk, depicting the Palace of Eighteen Perfections, by Yuan Jiang. Inscribed by the artist, and dated 1693. Shall we have an opening bid of--one million?”
Valerie could feel the adrenaline coursing through her veins as she saw Corinna raise her blue-numbered paddle to volley the first bid. A flurry of paddles began popping up around the room, and the price began its stratospheric climb. Five million. Ten million. Twelve million. Fifteen million. Twenty million. Within a matter of minutes, the bid was at forty million. Lester leaned forward in his chair, analyzing the action on the auction-room floor like some complex chess match, and Valerie clawed her nails into his shoulder repeatedly in high anticipation.
When the bidding hit sixty million, Lester’s phone rang. It was Corinna sounding frantic. “Suey doh sei,2 it’s going up too fast! We’re going to pass your seventy-five-million limit in no time. Do you want to keep bidding?”
Lester breathed in deeply. Any expenditure over fifty million would surely be noticed by his father’s bean counters, and there would be some explaining to do. “Keep going till I stop you,” he ordered.
Valerie’s head was spinning in excitement. They were so close. Imagine, soon she would own something that even Araminta Khoo coveted! At eighty million, the bidding finally slowed down. No more paddles in the room were raised with the exception of Corinna’s, and it seemed like there were only two or three telephone buyers remaining to bid against the Lius. The price was going up only in increments of half a million, and Lester closed his eyes, praying he would get it for under ninety million. It was worth it. It was worth the scolding he would get from his father. He would make his plea that he had bought the family a billion dollars’ worth of good publicity.
Suddenly there came a commotion from the back of the auction room. Murmurs could be heard as the standing-room-only crowd began to give way. Even in a room packed with celebrities dressed to the nines, a hush came over the space as a strikingly attractive Chinese woman with jet-black hair, powdered white skin, and crimson lips, dramatically dressed in a black velvet off-the-shoulder gown, emerged from the crowd. Flanked by two snow-white Russian wolfhounds on long diamond leashes, the lady began to walk slowly up the central aisle as every head swiveled toward the sensational sight.
Clearing his throat discreetly into the mic, the auctioneer tried to regain the attention of the room. “I have eighty-five point five million, who will say eighty-six?”
1 Oliver T’sien--one of Christie’s most highly valued deputy chairmen--has long-standing relationships with many of the world’s top collectors. (Being related to practically every important family in Asia didn’t hurt.)
2 Cantonese for “So rotten I could die!”