A far-travelled heirloom

I had been working in the world of Chinese art for many years, dividing my time between China and Paris. One day I received a call from an elderly lady near Montpellier. She told me she had a rare painting, passed down to her from her Chinese father, with letters to verify her story. She added that her father had told her the painter was a very important man and that should she need money in the future, she should remember she had it in her possession.

I had always wanted to see the Musée Fabre so I bought a ticket on the off-chance this was indeed a rare painting and soon I was travelling to the south coast of France to investigate. The lady was half-Chinese (her mother was French). The young family had migrated to France when the Communists took over China.

Pia Copper

  • Contemporary Chinese Art
  • Contemporary Iranian Art

The old lady from Montpellier paid off the rest of her mortgage and surely thinks to this day of her father who had carefully stowed a painting that would one day bring comfort to her in old age.


She lived in a simply furnished old house outside the city, but it was filled with oddities, carpets and trinkets which her father had brought back from his homeland.

She took out from a drawer a beautiful handwritten letter and a photograph of an oil painting commission – a portrait of her mother. The painting was subsequently lost. But she still had an ink drawing. Her father had bought it at a charity auction in Shanghai at the Astor Hotel helped send Chinese students overseas.

It so happened that I had an American friend in Shanghai with a collection of auction catalogues from the ’20s and ’30s when Shanghai was called the “queen of the whore cities, of opium, courtesans and gangsters.” She knew of the Peacock Ballroom and auctions held there.


She was quick to spot the painting in one of her well-thumbed Shanghai annuals, an abstract and powerful ink by Lin Fengmian, chrysanthemums in a vase. Though undated, this was undoubtedly a rare and early work, foreshadowing the artist’s experimentation with the Chinese aesthetic.

As I hauled the painting back to Paris for the auction block I imagined all the stories and memories a painting can evoke. A beautiful French woman marries a Chinese man in Shanghai in the 1930s, her loveliness is captured on canvas, the canvas is lost in the upheaval of life. I also thought of the ironies of history, a work from an auction held to benefit Chinese students wanting to go to study abroad ends up in France with the daughter of a Sino-French couple, but also making history itself with its broad ink and gouache strokes perhaüs evoking the influences of Picasso and the later Fauvists on Chinese art. Whose voyage to Europe had the painting at auction financed?

The political inventor of capitalism in China, Deng Xiaoping, or the courtesan turned painter Pan Yuliang who went on to become Matisse’s mistress and harbinger of a new nude style… stories are what history is made of.

The painting sold for over €50,000 and continued its journey around the world. The old lady from Montpellier paid off the rest of her mortgage and surely thinks to this day of her father who had carefully stowed a painting that would one day bring comfort to her in old age.