UNKNOWN CHINESE ARTIST. Six-fold Screen with view of the Yihe-yuan Imperial Summer Palace.Maggs Bros, Ltd.
Six-fold screen showing the Imperial Summer Palace, c1890. It is one of the items on sale at the China in Print fair in Hong Kong © Courtesy Maggs Bros, Ltd

Following the fashions to buy western art and classic wristwatches, historical Chinese artefacts are now the must-have item for the country’s wealthy collectors who are snapping up maps, books and other objects that have been in foreign hands for often hundreds of years.

Interest in Chinese artefacts has intensified since President Xi Jinping began pushing to highlight the role of the country’s heritage in the national narrative, according to dealers.

“Some Chinese buyers feel that their past was looted from them so they want to purchase back a piece of their history,” says Andrea Mazzocchi of Bernard Quaritch, a London-based rare books seller and organiser of the annual China in Print fair, which takes place this weekend in Hong Kong. “Previously interest was limited to Hong Kong residents and expatriates but in recent years more and more customers from China are coming.”

Jonathan Stone, chairman of Asian art at Christie’s auction house, says Chinese collectors have developed the “desire and ability” to take back the paintings, sculptures and other artefacts that were in previous centuries bought up by buyers around the world.

Complete map of the Unified Realm of the Imperial Provinces, 1832
Map of China's imperial provinces, 1832

The new wave of buyers is driven by a patriotic urge to bring back great objects as well as hopes for future financial gains. “It’s an expression of the soft power of China,” says Mr Stone. Christie’s sold £430.9m of Asian art in the first half of 2017, double the figure for the same period last year.

Pieces on offer at the Hong Kong fair include a book of astronomical instruments written by Jesuits in the 17th century to prove the supremacy of western science to the Chinese emperor. An asking price of $750,000 has been set.

A 13th-century printing block used to make paper money at the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan is on sale for $250,000. “Demand from China is rising, especially at the top end,” says Douglas Stewart, the Australian dealer selling the printing block.

William Schneider of Herman HJ Lynge & Son, a Danish bookseller who hopes to sell a 14th-century Chinese bank note for more than $15,000, says demand is underpinned by the fact that the object demonstrates China’s superiority in the field of money printing. “The first paper bank notes were not produced in Europe until the 17th century,” he says.

Historical maps will also attract interest, according to Barry Ruderman, a California-based dealer. This year he sold a 17th-century map of the world, made in Beijing by the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, to a Chinese buyer for more than $200,000, having paid $24,000 for it in 2016. “The value of all things that are interesting to Chinese collectors has exploded in the last couple of years,” he says.

Even objects previously considered inauspicious, such as archaic jade from tombs, are being sought by Chinese buyers.

Mr Stone of Christie’s says the boom is also driven by a wave of new privately owned institutions such as the Long Museum in Shanghai, founded by billionaire investor Liu Yiqian. Mr Liu has bought a 600-year-old Tibetan tapestry for $45m and paid $36m for a 15th-century porcelain cup.

The buying spree is supported by China’s government, which is backing a $450m branch of Beijing’s famed Palace Museum being constructed in Hong Kong, among other initiatives.

“It’s about the emergence of China,” Mr Stone says. “The government sees art and culture as a key industry. It’s part of the strategy for the development of China.”

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