Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Rare Ming Dynasty Banknote Found Hidden Inside a Chinese Sculpture

Rare Ming Dynasty Banknote Found Hidden Inside a Chinese Sculpture

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A team of specialists working at the Australian auction house Mossgreen have discovered a rare Ming Dynasty banknote hidden within a Chinese wooden sculpture. The discovery happened unexpectedly as they were cataloguing the enormous ‘Raphy Star Collection of Important Asian Art’ for an upcoming auction.

An Unexpected but Delightful Moment

Hidden in an empty space within a large wooden Luohan figure, the crumpled banknote provided the experts with a lot of information about the actual date of the sculpture. reports that it is estimated the figure is from around the 13th or 14th century. Ray Tregaskis, head of Asian art at Mossgreen described the feelings and excitement he felt while discovering this valuable banknote, “It was a thrilling moment,” he said, “While it was not unusual for consecration items such as semi-precious stones or scrolls to be left within the base or on the back of a sculpture, the discovery of this rare Ming Dynasty banknote is an exciting one and, importantly, it verifies the date of the sculpture.”

The Ming Dynasty's "Yi Guan" banknote that was found inside the wooden Luohan sculpture.

The Ming Dynasty's "Yi Guan" banknote that was found inside the wooden Luohan sculpture. (Mossgreen Auctions)

The word Luohan in Chinese refers to individuals who have completed the four stages of Enlightenment and reached the state of nirvana. The wooden sculpture is based on the style and carving techniques of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

Example of a Luohan dating to the Liao Dynasty, Circa 1000.

Example of a Luohan dating to the Liao Dynasty, Circa 1000. (PHGCOM/CC BY SA 3.0)

The Yuan Dynasty’s Legacy

Genghis Khan and his sons were the ones who set the foundation for the Yuan Dynasty by destroying the Western Xia and successfully invading and conquering Central Asia, Mongolia, and the Hexi Corridor. However, it was another significant historical figure who witnessed and wrote about the massive power of the Yuan Dynasty: Marco Polo. The famous European explorer spent more than 17 years in China, until the year 1292. His stories about his travels and adventures provided the Western world with a detailed account of the early years of the Yuan Empire.

Polo described it as a very rich and large empire that stretched from the far north of Mongolia, into Central Asia, and at times also south into parts of Vietnam. It was undoubtedly the largest of the dynastic empires that existed in the region and possibly the most powerful too.

In 1273, Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty in China, issued paper banknotes called chao; a very significant innovation in the banking and monetary system. Despite paper currency already being in use during the Song Dynasty era, the Yuan Empire was the first globally to use paper currency as the main circulating medium. Paper currency contributed to an increase in the empire's trade with the rest of the world and significantly added to its total wealth.

Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty.

Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty. (Public Domain)

Closely Examining the 700-Year-Old Ming Dynasty Banknote

Antique Buddhist sculptures are well-known treasure troves and the experts concluded that the sculpture originally was a part of a set of several Luohan which had belonged to a Buddhist temple. However, this banknote is a unique discovery. As Luke Guan, a Mossgreen Asian art specialist said, "It's typical to find materials such as mantra rolls, relics, grains, incense and semi-precious stones that have been placed inside gilt bronze sculptures by a monk or lama. However, we've never heard of anyone finding money inside a wooden sculpture before." [Via]

Warning Ambitious Forgers and Encouraging Aspiring Collectors  

Another interesting thing about this banknote is how it was stamped with three official red seals that date back to the third year of the Ming Dynasty - the Hong Wu period (1368-1398). A note is inscribed on the lower section with a threatening message to any would-be forgers:

“Authorized by the Department of Finance, this bank note has the same function of coins, those who use counterfeit bank notes will be beheaded, the whistle-blower will be rewarded 250 Liang silvers plus all the properties of the criminal. The third year of Hong Wu period.”

A Ming Dynasty banknote.

A Ming Dynasty banknote. (Public Domain)

Aside from its significant historical and cultural value, the banknote also helps one to understand that era’s printing methods. It looks like the bills from that time were crafted from handmade mulberry bark paper and printed using a carved woodblock - a technology that has played an important role throughout Chinese history.

The sculpture and banknote are currently on a world tour, but they will return to Mossgreen in Sydney, Australia in December for auction. There’s already a high level of interest from collectors and institutions all over the world, and the pair of artifacts are estimated to fetch between $30,000 to $45,000. 

Top Image: Ming Dynasty banknote (1370) and the wooden head in which it was discovered. Source: Mossgreen Auctions

By Theodoros II

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

Next article