The Most Valuable Item Ever Seen On Antiques Roadshow

Estimated read time 10 min read

Antiques Roadshow presenter for 24 years, Lark E. Mason thought he had seen it all but during one episode he was confronted with a statue that left him stunned and shocked, especially when the women told him how she had acquired such a unique item.

While he had seen people bring precious items from all over the world and loved trying to decipher the history and value of the item, Mason never expected such a rare item ever being brought in front of him.

Experienced Mason

It should have been just another episode of Antiques Roadshow for Lark E. Mason but it turned into a story that he would recall time to time again. It was early 2002, as the owner walked towards him, Mason eyes only saw the lion statue that was being brought to him.

He had spent a lifetime learning and teaching about antiques, especially from China, so if anyone could find more about the unassuming statue it was Mason. And just by simply looking at it, he knew that the owner had no idea how valuable of an item she was holding in her hands.

How Did She Get It?

The first question Mason asked was “How did she get it?” but the answer wasn’t as simple as the question. It seemed that the statue has been in the owner’s family for a long time and her early memories of how it came to be in her family are pretty murky.

“My grandparents picked it up. They travelled a lot in China,” she said, “When were they in China?” Mason asked. The lady replied by saying, “probably in the early part of the century.”

A Part Of Her Family

“Where have you had this since then?” Mason asked. “My mother’s had it in her house, and since then, I inherited it and brought it west,” she said. Since then the statue has stayed in the corner of her living room. She even gave it a name, “Leo The Lion”!

To the owner, the statue wasn’t just a piece of history but an item that was a part of her family, something which bound three generations of her family together. While it had a great sentimental value, no one in her family knew the real monetary value of the piece.

Mason Was Emotional

For someone as experienced as Mason was in the world of antiques, it was amazing to see him become so genuinely emotional on-air, especially since at the point he had seen hundreds of antiques.

“Okay. Well, I’ll start by saying when this came up, I could barely…” he said. He was lost for words and was slightly trembling. His deep love for history and antiques were making it hard for him to stay professional.

Keeping It Together

But he had to pull himself together because the owner deserved to know more about “Leo The Loin”.He inspected it further and said “It’s fantastic. This is truly…Sorry, I’m a little worked up,” he said.

“This is among the finest examples of Chinese art that we have seen on the Roadshow. The carving is beautiful. The workmanship is stunning.” Mason continued “The carver who did this was truly a master,” he said. “You can see the muscles rippling under the surface. It’s the finest quality marble you can get. It’s truly magnificent.”

Completely Unscathed?

To the layman’s eyes, the loin statue looks like any other but Mason tried to explain why he was so overwhelmed by this piece of history by showcasing the small details around the side of the status.

“And as you look at this…any way you look at it…it’s fantastic, breathtaking,” Mason said. Every detail in the craftsmanship had been saved, making it a pristine specimen that was meant for museums, not living rooms.

One Of A Kind?

But still, this detail still does not seem enough to drive the antique expert to tears, it was also because of its rarity. “I see little tiny versions of these that come in for sale…but never does one see one like this,” he said.

And he wasn’t exaggerating, to date they haven’t been found a single statue of this size in the same style and surely, they were once created but none has survived and made into the hands of historians.

What A Find!

The more Mason talked about “Leo’, the more the owner knew that what her grandparents had once found was surely a once in a lifetime purchase. It seemed like her family was meant to have this piece of history!

And Mason agreed “Your grandparents bought something when they were on their trip that you can’t get now,” he said  He continued “You can see examples like this in museums. Occasionally they come up at auction…It’s wonderful,”

Stood The Test Of Time

It wasn’t just the size, that Mason was impressed with but also that most other lion statues which had survived had some damage to them but Leo seemed to have been untouched by history.

“Something that has been handled and has been around for a while…it’s a great thing, Rarely do you find something so beautiful and unscathed that has been around for so long? Most statues or artefacts as old as the statue would have at least had a handful of blemishes”

No One Signed It

But one thing, that was rather off about this statue and a reason why the owner never thought it was worth anything was because there weren’t any visible signatures present on the statue.

“The artist didn’t sign it,” the owner brought up thinking that would affect the value of the piece but Mason had an explanation for that as well. “No, these were never signed,” Mason followed up with and assuring her that it wouldn’t affect the value.

It’s Not Ming

During the owner’s initial search for information regarding the statue, she was told that it was likely from the Ming Dynasty but she was just about to find out that this information couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just with a look, Mason knew that this wasn’t the case and this is another reason why he was so emotional in the first place. It was from the Tang dynasty! “This dates from the golden period of Chinese art, which is called the Tang Dynasty, between the sixth century and the ninth century,” he said. So how much was it worth?

The Golden Age Of Chinese Art

The statue comes from the time of the Tang Dynasty. This Chinese empire, which existed between 618 to 907 AD. While we haven’t done the math but just by looking at the time frame, you can imagine that it was a very very very long ago.

This time period is also considered by many experts to be the golden age of art in ancient China. Everything from music to literature was changing and evolving in this era, creating some of the most iconic items in the world, including Leo The Loin.

Tang’s Global Influence

To think that the work from the Tang Dynasty would one day find its way into a suburban home in New Mexico and later, on a national t.v show. The odds were very slim and only added to the drama of it all.

Though, that does not say that Tang’s work didn’t stretch far and wide. Chinese craftsmanship was appreciated and exported to all parts of the world, especially India and the Middle East.

Sculptures Galore

The lion statue is just a hint of the real beauty of that majestic time. While many more sculptures can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty, mostly are dotted around China and rarely make their way to the west.

Also, at that time Buddhism was the most commonly practised religion in the country and a huge amount of these statues depicted Buddha in all varying sizes. Due to this reason, the loin statue is even rarer since it wasn’t widely produced.

World Heritage Status

Another example, which will provide more context to how important Leo was to history is to know that, recently the Longmen Grottoes, a cave system depicting Chinese Buddhist carvings was turned given World Heritage status by the governing body of UNESCO since the turn of the millennium.

The carvings were referred to as “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity” for their size and magnificence and this loin statue was created somewhere during the same time!

Making Headlines

When the lion statue resurfaced, it surely headlines inside the Antiques Roadshow community. On the official website of the show, Larry Canale, who is the editor-in-chief,  has said that the lion is one of, if not the, greatest and most important antiques to ever pass through the Antiques Roadshow.

In his account with the Antiques Roadshow Insider, Mason stated “Surprise, astonishment, and disbelief washed over me the moment the owner of a white marble lion walked up to the Asian Arts table in Albuquerque last summer,” he said. “Discovering a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) lion in such an unexpected venue, however, ranks as one of the greatest surprises of my career. It’s exceptional not only for its size (around 18 inches tall) but because of its quality and condition.”

Perfect Sculpture

As far as Mason was concerned, the statue’s base spoke volumes. “One of the ways that I can tell you that it’s what it’s supposed to be…not only from the artistic aspects of it…” Mason said.

“But when you look at it underneath, you can see that there is every indication of great age from the chisel-work that has taken place to the sort-of sandy surface, which is fantastic that gives you the kind of patina that you want to see.”

Intricate Detail

Again, one of the things that Mason just couldn’t get over about the statue was the original crafter’s incredible consideration to detail. “The craftsman treated this large sculpture in a manner more typical of carvings of much smaller size,” he said.

“The surface is smooth and unmarred from damage. The details are as crisply rendered as the day it left the carver’s workshop. I told the lion’s owner that its value might be a bit more than expected…” The question remained though: how much was it actually worth?

Real Value

And now, we reveal what you all came here for. The value of the item about which Mason said “I would feel pretty confident that one could get between $120,000 and $180,000 for it,” he said.

However, that might not be its true value! “Now, the value I gave you is an auction estimate value,” he said. “But an insurance figure on this would be somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000, probably toward the high end. I would probably say around $250,000 for insurance purposes.”

Crunching Numbers

Imagine an 18-inch statue, costing a colossal $250,000 and this was in 2002! This figure would have skyrocketed and even some believed at the time that it should and would be worth much more.

Larry Canale recalled “I told the lion’s owner that its value might be a bit more than expected: around $250,000,” Canale said. “But the lion’s owner took it in stride. She was as cool as a cucumber, even if she was as astonished by the value as Mason was by the lion itself.”

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