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The Historic Tale of a Huge Crystal Ball and a Qing Dynasty Empress

The Historic Tale of a Huge Crystal Ball and a Qing Dynasty Empress

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The Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball (or crystal sphere) is an unusual and valuable artifact believed to have belonged to Empress Dowager Cixi, the de facto ruler of China in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty. In spite of its name, there is actually little evidence to link the artifact to its alleged previous owner. In any case, the Chinese crystal ball was eventually purchased for the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been on display there for almost 100 years.   

The Enigmatic Origin Of The Chinese Crystal Ball

Although there are many questions surrounding this unique crystal ball, it is clear that this artifact is the third largest crystal sphere in the world. The crystal ball weighs 49 pounds (22.23 kg) and has a diameter of 10 inches (25.4 cm). Incidentally, the only two crystal spheres larger than the Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball are one owned by the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC) and one belonging to the Crow Collection (Dallas).

While the origins of the sphere are debated, with some experts suggesting it is from Myanmar, there is no doubt about the material it was made from. The Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball was made from a chunk of naturally occurring pure quartz. The completely translucent artifact, made possible by the absence of any impurities in the quartz crystal, reflects the purity of the raw material. To transform the chunk of quartz into a sphere, it was turned constantly in a semi-cylindrical container filled with abrasive powder / sand and water. This process of slow abrasion may have taken years to complete. Thus, the time spent for the creation of the crystal ball, along with the purity of the raw material, would have made it a valuable object.

The Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball on its metal Japanese wave base, as it was displayed at the Penn Museum, before it was stolen. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

At present, the Chinese crystal ball rests on a silver stand in the shape of a wave. The words “Made in Japan,” written on the underside of the stand, suggests the object came from Japan. It has been speculated that this silver stand was commissioned as a replacement for an older one. This is based on a photograph from a Wanamaker’s catalogue, in which the sphere is shown to be resting on a different stand. Wanamaker’s, or the John Wanamaker Department Store, was the business that acquired the Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball for the Penn Museum.

The History Of The John Wanamaker Department Store

Founded by John Wanamaker in 1877, the John Wanamaker Department Store was one of the first department stores in the United States. The current building was opened in 1911, and at that time, it was advertised as the largest department store in the world. In addition to its size, this department store had several other elements that would have left its patrons in awe. One of these is a giant bronze eagle, which is almost as famous as the department store. The statue weighs about 1.1 tons (2500 lbs) and has 5000 bronze feathers. It was made in Germany for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and was purchased there by John Wanamaker. At the same exposition, Wanamaker purchased a 1.8 ton (4,091 lbs) pipe organ, which became another icon of his store. The department store was closed in 1995 (the building is today occupied by Macy’s), marking the end of an era.

The famous Eagle in the Grand Court of John Wanamaker Department Store. (Peetlesnumber1 / CC SA-BY 3.0)

In the year 1927, the store had an antique department, which was responsible for bringing the Chinese crystal ball to the United States. According to the store’s catalogue, the artifact was originally a treasure belonging to Empress Dowager Cixi, and therefore was part of the countless treasures on display and stored in Beijing’s Forbidden City. After Cixi’s death, however, many of her priceless possessions disappeared, including the crystal ball. The artifact, apparently, was reported in various Chinese locations for the next 10 years. Although there were many rumors about the crystal ball’s existence, and many sought its whereabouts, it was never actually seen. Eventually, the artifact appeared in Shanghai, where it was acquired by Wanamaker’s antique department.

As mentioned earlier, there is little in terms of concrete evidence to connect the crystal ball to Cixi. One may even suspect that Wanamaker’s antique department attached the empress dowager’s name to the artifact, in order to greatly increase its market price. This would not be entirely surprising, as Cixi was one of the most influential figures in the final decades of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial period.

The Empress Dowager Cixi in all her glory. (Hubert Vos / Public domain)

The Empress Dowager Cixi in all her glory. (Hubert Vos / Public domain)

The Life Of Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi was born on the 29 th of November, 1835 to a low-ranking Manchu official by the name of Huizheng. Cixi’s father belonged to the Yehenara clan, whereas her mother was a member of the Fucha clan. Little is known for certain about Cixi’s childhood, though many popular tales about her early years were in circulation. One of these, for instance, claims that the future empress dowager was actually a Han Chinese child adopted by her Manchu parents. This may in fact be an attempt to tarnish her image and call into question her legitimacy as a ruler.

In any case, it is generally agreed that Cixi spent her early childhood in Anhui Province, and moved to Beijing sometime between her third and fifteenth birthday. In 1861, when Cixi was 16 years old, she participated in a selection process for concubines for the Xianfeng Emperor, who had ascended the throne the year before. There were 60 other candidates, and Cixi was one of the few who was chosen to enter the emperor’s harem.

Although Cixi began her life in the Forbidden City as a low-ranking concubine, her status was soon elevated, as she became one of the emperor’s favorites. Moreover, in 1855, Cixi became pregnant, and gave birth to Zaichun (the future Tongzhi Emperor), Emperor Xianfeng’s first and only son. When her son was a year old, Cixi was elevated to the rank of “Noble Consort,” making her an imperial consort of the Third Rank. Thus, Cixi outranked all the women in the imperial harem except the “Imperial Noble Consort” and “Empress Consort.” Since the former position was vacant at that time, however, Cixi was in fact the second most powerful woman in the harem.

On the 22 nd of August 1861, the Xianfeng Emperor died. Before his death, however, the emperor asked the “Eight Regent Ministers” to help govern the state, as his son was still a minor. On his deathbed, the Xianfeng Emperor summoned Cixi and his empress consort (the soon-to-be Empress Dowager Ci’an) and gave each of them a stamp. The dying emperor hoped that the two women would work together to assist his successor, and that they would serve as a check on the power of the regents. It did not take long for tensions to grow between the regents and Cixi, and in November 1861, the two empress dowagers, along with Prince Gong, launched a coup, now known as the Xinyou Coup, and ousted the Eight Regent Ministers.

Portrait of Empress Dowager Ci'an (co-regent with Cixi), with whom Cixi staged the Xinyou Coup. (Palace Museum, Beijing / Public domain)

Portrait of Empress Dowager Ci'an (co-regent with Cixi), with whom Cixi staged the Xinyou Coup. (Palace Museum, Beijing / Public domain)

Cixi’s Rule Behind The Imperial Curtain

In the decades that followed the coup, Cixi was practically in control of China, though she ruled from “behind the curtains”. For instance, the Tongzhi Emperor was only able to reign in 1873. Nevertheless, Cixi’s maintained a strong influence at court, and became regent once again when the emperor fell ill with smallpox in 1874.

As the Tongzhi Emperor died without an heir in the following year, he was succeeded by his cousin, Zaitian, who became the Guangxu Emperor. As the new emperor was merely three years old, Cixi was, once again, in the position of regent for an extended period of time. When the Guangxu Emperor finally assumed power in 1889, Cixi nominally relinquished her control of the government, and retired to the Summer Palace, which had been reconstructed following its destruction during the Second Opium War. 

In 1898, however, Cixi was back again as regent. This was caused by radical reforms to China’s political and economic systems implemented by the Guangxu Emperor shortly after China’s defeat by Japan during the First Sino-Japanese War. The short-lived reform movement, now known as the “Hundred Days of Reform,” was opposed by conservative officials, who rallied around Cixi. The empress dowager and her supporters successfully staged a coup, putting Cixi in control once more. Although the Guangxu Emperor was still nominally China’s ruler, he was practically powerless. The Guangxu Emperor died on the 14 th of November 1908, just a day before Cixi’s death.            

The History Of Chinese Crystal Ball Continued . . .

As indicated previously, the Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball was acquired by Wanamaker’s antiques department 18 years after Cixi’s death. When the artifact was on display in the department store, it was spotted by Eldridge Reeves Johnson, an American entrepreneur who founded the Victor Talking Machine Company. Johnson was also a benefactor of the Penn Museum. For instance, he had earlier purchased and donated two of the six horse reliefs of the Emperor Tang Taizong to the museum.

When Johnson first saw the crystal ball, he was hesitant to purchase it. The entrepreneur thought that the asking price, $50000, was too high, and wrote to George Byron Gordon, the museum’s director, to ask for his opinion. Later that month, however, Gordon died suddenly. As a consequence, Johnson bought the artifact, along with several other pieces, and donated them to the Penn Museum as part of the Gordon Memorial Collection.

The Grand Court in the world-famous John Wanamaker Department Store, which was eventually purchased by Macy’s Department Store in 2006. (Difference engine / CC SA-BY 4.0)

The Dowager Empress crystal ball resided in the museum peacefully for the next 61 years, until it was stolen on the 10 th of November 1988. The artifact was one of two artifacts that went missing from the museum, the other being a bronze statue of the Egyptian god Osiris. It is believed that the statue was used to smash the crystal ball’s display case. The authorities were unable to track down the lost artifacts, and they were only found by chance three years later.

It was Jes Canby, a Near Eastern scholar and museum research associate at the museum, who spotted the Osiris statue on a shelf in a thrift store on South Street, across the Schuylkill River from the museum. It was thanks to this lead that the Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball was found and returned to the museum.

Upon questioning, the thrift store owner revealed that the artifact was purchased from “Al the Trashpicker.” Al led the investigators to Lawrence Stametz, who had given the statue to him. According to Stametz, he had been lending out his nearby garage storage space to various acquaintances over the years. One day, as he was cleaning out the storage space, he came across the statue and the crystal ball. He thought that the statue was “ugly,” and that it was like a guardian to the crystal ball, which looked like “an alien egg.” Although it is not known who left the artifacts in Stametz’s storage space, the investigators were able to trace the whereabouts of the crystal ball.  

Whilst the Osiris statue was given to Al, Stametz gave the crystal ball to a friend who was interested in the occult. The trail subsequently led the investigators to Hamilton, New Jersey, and the Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball was found in the home of Kim Beckles. Needless to say, Beckles had no idea that the crystal ball was a priceless artifact. She had initially placed it near her window. When her arm was nearly burned by the light passing through the crystal ball, Beckles decided to move the artifact somewhere else. After that, it was used by Beckles’ husband as a hat stand.

Soon after their rediscovery, the Osiris statue and the Dowager Empress Chinese crystal ball were back in the Penn Museum, where they have been ever since. This time, however, more protection has been given to the Chinese crystal ball, including constant surveillance and a bulletproof case.

The Precious Artifact Is Safe But Questions Remain

Even though there is no evidence to link the Chinese crystal ball to Cixi, the story of its travels, i.e. from China to the John Wanamaker Department Store, and finally to the Penn Museum, and its subsequent theft and recovery, make it a fascinating object nonetheless. Perhaps, someday, we will have a better understanding of the artifact’s origins, but until then, we will just have to accept the assumption that it once belonged to Empress Dowager Cixi.

Top image: Representative images of a quality Chinese crystal ball.  Source:  Wirestock / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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