When in Australia: Ming Dynasty Banknote Found in Chinese Sculpture

In Australia, a high-value banknote with a blood-chilling beheading threat to counterfeiters is found in a wooden sculpture from China.

Treasure stashed away or a gift to the gods? The latter is a more accurate description of this banknote from the Ming Dynasty, which was found hidden in a figurehead bought from London collectors by Raphy Star, an Australian collector of Asian art. Apart from that journey from London to Australia, not much else seems to be known about how the figurehead got from China or how it survived with the note intact inside it, for all those centuries.

History Rediscovered

History does not stay hidden; it always comes back. And this time, it has come back in the form of a historic treasure. Why was the discovery of this banknote so exciting compared to other items found in some unusual places? This is because, while finding scrolls and precious stones within sculptures and vases is more common, finding historic banknotes in a similar fashion is extremely rare.

This find resulted in some exciting discoveries. The banknote itself was from the Ming Dynasty, which reigned in China from 1368–1644, after the Yuan Dynasty. The wooden sculpture is that of a Luohan figure, the name that was given to people who were considered to have gone through all four stages of enlightenment and thus achieved the state of Nirvana. Its style and carving design suggests the sculpture was carved during the reign of the Yuan Dynasty, between 1279 and 1368.

An Exciting Discovery

Mossgreen, an auction house and art gallery located in Australia, specializes in Chinese and Asian art.

While cataloging their Raphy Star Collection of Important Asian Art in preparation for an upcoming auction, a rare banknote was found inside a Luohan sculpture. Now, further studies and analysis have shown that the note was issued in the 3rd year of the Ming Dynasty, specifically in 1371 when going by the modern calendar, in the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang. While most of the features are outstanding, one of the most notable features on the banknote is the dire warning of death by beheading to counterfeiters.

According to Paul Sumner, the CEO of the Mossgreen Auctions in Melbourne, the banknote is 645 years old, meaning that it holds a rich history. That the note was found in a religious figure of Chinese Buddhism also means a lot as it could have been a family sculpture or it could have belonged to a temple. That is yet to be determined, but the positive thing is that the banknote can assist in determining the age of the figurehead.

Why This Banknote is Important

What makes the discovery of this banknote a rare find is that it is the very first time that a banknote has ever been found inside a figurehead of Buddhist origin. Grains, stones (semi-precious), scrolls, incense, and relics have been found many times in sculptures, but never a banknote. This could, therefore, imply many things, including the fact that the figurehead could have belonged to a rich family.

This is a rare note and seems to have originated in an era when paper money had not been heard of outside of China.

The official stamp on the banknote and the Chinese characters suggest that it was valuable during its time. Its value equates to a guan, which at the time was the equal of 1000 coins of copper, which is equivalent to an ounce of pure silver.

What Will Happen?

Most likely, both the banknote and figurehead will be sold to Chinese collectors who for a long time now have been trying to buy back Chinese art and return it to China. And in respect to the beheading threat to counterfeiters, it’s only fair that the note goes back to China with the sculpture, no?

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