Art: Yehonala's Loot

"I nearly dropped my spectacles," said 62-year-old Hugh Alexander Matier. Browsing through the Seattle Art Museum's far eastern collection, scholarly amateur Orientalist Matier stopped short before a piece of heavily carved jade, five inches square. Looking at its two imperial dragons, its authentic yellow tassels and its archaic characters, he was suddenly certain that he had found the long lost Imperial Seal of China's Hsien Feng.

The dissolute Emperor, who often complained of its excessive weight (10 Ibs.), used the Imperial Seal to authenticate all official documents. Like the engraving on currency, its elaborate background carving was designed to prevent counterfeit.

When the...

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