Is this stolen Mao Scroll worth $300 million?

The media is quick to say it is. But why?

When a work of art goes missing, one of the first questions that the media asks is “How much is it worth?”

Philosophically, the question is antithetical to art. “The true value of art is intrinsic,” I often tell journalists, “and only the beholder can determine the real worth.” As the great David Hume wrote, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

“Okay, but really,” comes the inevitable response from the reporter. “If you had to put it into dollar figures, what’s it worth.”

I understand. In order for something to be newsworthy, it has to appeal to a wide audience, and nothing appeals to a wide audience like money. So I’ll usually refer to some expert’s monetary valuation of whatever has gone missing. The bigger the amount, the more attention the story will receive. The more attention, the higher the likelihood that people will recognize the stolen work if they see it, and the more difficult it becomes to sell it.

Lots of things go into establishing an estimate: the artist’s fame; comparable sales; the size of the artist’s oeuvre; the subject matter; and the provenance of the work are all important parts of the equation that ultimately determine the dollar amount. And sometimes, dishonesty plays a part, too.

Some victims of theft might inflate the value of a stolen object for insurance purposes, or to draw attention to their collection, their loss, their wealth, or their taste. They might even exaggerate the value of a work in a self-conscious attempt to convince the world that something is real when in fact the authenticity is in question.

This week, big news came out of Hong Kong that a scroll featuring poetry said to have been handwritten by Mao Zedong was recovered after its theft just last month. The scroll was stolen when three men broke into the home of Fu Chunxiao, a well-known collector of stamps and revolutionary art, and took it along with antique stamps, copper coins, and other pieces of calligraphy by Mao.

The breathless reports of its value have been remarkable. The New York Times, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, and the BBC have reported that the loot is worth $645 million, with the scroll alone coming in at nearly $300 million. A Hong Kong police official is cited as the source of this value.

Police show a picture of a calligraphy scroll written by Mao Zedong worth about 300 million USD

Can that truly be the case? Surely someone beyond a police officer has an opinion on it. The most responsible reporting has come from Reuters, one of the very few to include in their story that “[a]n independent valuation was not immediately available.” Unfortunately, reporters will sometimes cling to any number attached to a stolen work, especially if it is sufficiently high. The ability to report that a piece is valued at or over a million dollars seems to be the key. So a figure in the hundreds of millions is irresistible. Is that what’s happening here?

Let’s examine some comps for the scroll’s $300 million price tag. The BBC reports that just last year, a calligraphic autograph letter written by Mao Zedong was auctioned off by Sotheby's for about $676,000. While the scroll is clearly a more impressive item, is it worth nearly five hundred times as much as the letter? Moreover, the only surviving work by Song Dynasty scholar Zeng Gong sold in 2016 for about $34 million—an impressive amount, but only around 1/9th the stated value of the scroll.

For an American historical comparison, a first printing of the Declaration of Independence sold for $8.1 million (2000). And for an artistic comparison, Leonardo’s notebook—the Codex Leicester—was purchased by Bill Gates in 1994 for today’s equivalent of about $53 million.

But who’s to say? Perhaps to the victim of the theft, Fu Chunxiao, the scroll is indeed worth $300 million (before an innocent buyer cut it in half, that is). But could he get that much for it on the open market? I suspect not.

In the end, there is perhaps no better illustration of the fact that value rests in the eye of the beholder than this: the thieves sold the scroll to a dealer who believed it to be counterfeit. He paid them $65—and no one disputes that.