“What has it got in its pocketses?” hissed Gollum to Bilbo in the Riddles in the Dark chapter of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We all know what it was – the ‘One Ring to rule them all.’ It was Gollum’s obsession with the One Ring that eventually led to his fall into the fiery depths on Mount Doom.
And that, in a nutshell is it. The obsession to ‘own’ something (or someone) and in so doing control its destiny. There’s something even worse than just ‘control’ however, it’s the owning of something and the not sharing of it with the rest of humanity. The denying to humanity its common heritage. We saw that recently with the sale at Christie’s in London of the Egyptian Sekhemka statue which was taken from the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and sold to a private collector who now wishes to remain anonymous (the statue hasn’t been seen in public since the sale and may never be seen by the public again).
The Meiyintang Chicken Cup from the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
And now we have the curious case of the Shanghai-based art collector Mr Liu Yiqian who recently spent some £21 million ($36 million) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on a tiny porcelain cup decorated with a rooster, hen and their chicks. Mr Liu bought the cup at the Sotheby’s auction last week during a bidding war that lasted seven minutes. He paid the hammer price of $36.3 million by swiping his American Express card 24 times through the card reader and then took a celebratory sip from his new purchase. Images of Mr Liu sipping away went viral last weekend and sparked condemnation from Chinese observers. One Weibo user wrote, “You think you can drink from the cup and become immortal? Or that it will extend your life? In fact, isn’t it just a way to satisfy your vanity?” The same can be said for all who would satisfy their vanity by denying the rest of humanity their common heritage (whether art, wildlife or the natural world) and perhaps such people should remember the words of Gollum as he plunged to his death in the fires of Mount Doom –
‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. My precious! o my precious! And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.
Let’s hope Mr Liu (and others like him) will do the noble thing and donate, or put on permanent loan, his new acquisition. Shanghai Museum’s splendid Gallery of Chinese Ancient Ceramics might be the place to start. There, both his countrymen and people from around the world could, metaphorically speaking, also drink from the Meiyintang cup and toast the man who was willing to share it with them.