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One morning in 1964, a young man brought a package to Rongbaozhai and said that he wanted to sell it. When the shop assistant opened the package, his jaw dropped. Inside were more than 30 paintings and calligraphic works, many of them state-level cultural relics. There were pieces by Su Shi, a poet and calligrapher of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127); Fan Zhongyan, a prominent statesman, strategist, educator and writer of the Northern Song; and Mi Fu, one of the four most important calligraphers of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The most valuable piece in the collection was the Shaoxi Poem Scroll by Mi Fu.

Zheng Maoda, who was a specialist in Rongbaozhai's history, said, "These works are important cultural treasures of the nation, and their value can't be measured in money. That young man asked for 1,500 yuan (US$181) for them, far below their actual value. But the appraisers knew from experience that if they gave him more than he asked, he would be confused or even scared, and might run off with the pieces."

Rongbaozhai bought those priceless treasures for just 1,400 yuan (US$169).

In the first half of the 20th century, China was in turmoil and its government frequently changed. The relics and treasures originally hoarded in the Forbidden City or nobles' mansions were scattered throughout the country.

The best way to reclaim these antiques was to dispatch specialists around the country to locate and buy them back. Rongbaozhai, as an enterprise partly owned by the government and with more than a century of experience in fine art, joined the effort to locate and restore lost antiques. Because of the company's proven ability as an appraiser of antiques, Rongbaozhai became the government's leading agent to buy back the lost treasures.

Most of the pieces purchased through Rongbaozhai were paintings and calligraphy from the Ming (1358 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasties, eras in which these arts thrived.

Although the cross-regional transfer of cultural relics was forbidden, the Ministry of Culture granted special permission to Rongbaozhai to scour the entire country for treasures. It also gave the agents access to local governments as well as a great deal of financial support.

As Rongbaozhai's collection of recovered artwork grew, it became apparent that many of the items were damaged and in desperate need of repair. And all of them, whether damaged or not, were in need of careful protection.

With the public-private joint ownership reform, the most prominent picture restorers and framers on Liulichang Street all went to work at Rongbaozhai. For a time, the skill of the technicians' there rivaled those of the Forbidden City.

Of the many works that were restored at Rongbaozhai, the most famous and most difficult one was the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) Tripitaka.

Rongbaozhai continued to add to its own collection as well.

Years before Rongbaozhai had started out selling paper, and was a specialist in the Four Treasures of the Studio: paper, brushes, ink and ink stones. Its collection of writing implements was extensive, and included many examples of Tianhuang stone, known as the "emperor of stones."

In the 1980s, someone sent a message to Rongbaozhai saying that they had found a 4.5-kilogram Tianhuang stone in Shoushan Village, Fujian Province. The experts at Rongbaozhai were skeptical: chances of finding such a stone were very slim indeed. But they decided that it was certainly worth checking, so they dispatched agents to Shoushan.

As it turned out, the stone had been discovered and dug up by five men. They had kept the find a secret even from their wives.

Yuan Liang, the Rongbaozhai purchasing agent says, "After we checked the stone, we began to negotiate. But after we made a deal, they said that they had to be paid in cash."

The Tianhuang stone deal was clinched at 135,000 yuan (US$16,310). The 50- and 100-yuan denominations of Chinese currency had not yet been launched at that time, so carrying such a huge amount of cash from Beijing to the mountain village would be a difficult and risky venture. Thus, everyone was sworn to secrecy about the transport of the money.

It was well worth the trouble. Rongbaozhai's Tianhuang stone is still one of the largest in the world, and is considered priceless.

But for all the acquisitions of treasures over the years, the experts at Rongbaozhai still consider the story of the Shaoxi Poems Scroll of Mi Fu the best.

Who was the young man? How had he come by so many state-level cultural relics? Was he a front man for someone who wished to remain anonymous?

Thirty years after Rongbaozhai bought the scroll, a local newspaper provided a lead that helped to solve the mystery.

In the March 30, 1996 edition of the Harbin Evening News, reporter Yuan Xiaoling wrote a feature story about the young man and his mother.

The family had kept their experience a secret for decades, and they wished to maintain their anonymity. The reporter used pseudonyms in the story.

The young man was named Ding Xingang, and it was his father, Ding Zhenglong, who had acquired the treasures

Ding Zhenglong was an educated man, having studied in Europe after graduating from Northeast University. In August 1945, he received an assignment to go to work at the Yingkou coal mine.

On September 8, 1945, Ding Zhenglong bid farewell to his family and went with his friends Luo Dazhao and Wang Xuewu to visit his old teacher in Changchun. Japan had just surrendered, ending World War Two, and many peddlers in Changchun were selling antiques and art treasures that had been taken from the palace of the puppet emperor in Manchuria. Ding Zhenglong bought many paintings and works of calligraphy.

Not long after, Ding Zhenglong's wife, Sun Manxia, received word that her husband had been killed and his body found by the railroad tracks near Yingkou. Luo Dazhao, the friend and who had accompanied her husband on the trip, said Ding Zhenglong had been killed by Russian soldiers. But late one night, a worker from the coal mine came secretly and told Sun a different story.

When she thought carefully about all she had heard, Sun realized that there were many questionable points in Luo Dazhao's statement. After talking to a number of people, she concluded that Luo had murdered her husband. The very night that Ding Zhenglong had purchased all those art treasures, the greedy Luo had decided he wanted them for himself. He murdered his friend on September 20 and took the paintings and calligraphy.

Sun Manxia formally accused Luo Dazhao and in the face of the evidence she presented, he could not deny his crime. Sun had avenged her husband and recovered the stolen treasures.

In the 1960s, Sun Manxia began to fear that she could not protect the fragile old artworks. If they were destroyed, she would feel guilty before the spirit of her husband and before the nation. She decided to find a better home for them.

And so the thousand-year-old treasures finally made their way back to Beijing, where Rongbaozhai donated them to the Forbidden City.

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