The narrator is present at an auction house. On display is an old statue of a Chinese Emperor, the property of Sir Alexander Heathcote. He carried it from China when he was deployed as a diplomat there.
The British diplomat had a spirit of adventure and traits of punctuality and discipline. He was also a scholar of oriental art and history. Due to his scholarship in Chinese art and history, he was offered a diplomatic post in the region which he embraced happily. He was stationed in Beijing.
During his stay in China, Sir Alexander travelled far and wide throughout the kingdom of China and learnt and saw every piece of history and artistic delights possible. One day, he entered a small antique store and was attracted by the same statue.
He was charmed with its craftsmanship and assumed that it must have been handcrafted by a legendary craftsman. However, it lacked its original base.
Seeing his happiness and earnest desire, the owner of the store was compelled to offer the statue as a gift (customary in 19th century China). The craftsman affixed a new base and handed it to him. As a token of gratitude, he offered a new cosy place to stay to the craftsman who accepted it in good faith.
The narrator, present at the auction, was informed that the statute had been passed over as a family heirloom over several generations and was being auctioned only after Sir Alexander’s great-grandson, Alex, got involved in some financial trouble owing to his gambling ways.
However, contrary to the assumed lineage of the statute, it turned out to be a cosmetic copy and poor imitation of the original and had meagre value. The narrator got the statue without much competition.
The real surprise turned out to be the new base of the statute. It was a genuine piece of art and historical value and was auctioned to a wealthy American for a staggering amount.