For decades, the Chinese robe resided among the other artifacts at the Oklahoma Historical Society — not forgotten, exactly, but not celebrated, either. No one realized how precious it was. The 19th century Ch'ing dynasty robe was a 1951 gift to the historical society from the wife of Robert Latham Owen, an Oklahoman who served in the U.S. Senate from 1907 to 1925, said Bob Blackburn, the society's director. However, the group didn't really have much use for it. With no displays on China and nothing to tie it to other exhibits, the robe remained an obscure relic. Recently, though, the Oklahoma History Center mounted a few cases dedicated to Oklahoma's cultural history. The robe finally made a public appearance. "Some of the staff noticed that more and more Chinese people were coming in to look at this robe,” Blackburn said. "We decided to investigate.” As it turned out, the history group had unknowingly housed a true treasure for years. The hand-embroidered robe, bearing an image of a five-toed dragon, has black-and-gold neck edging, indicating it is a summer garment, said Dan Provo, history center director. Its design is intricate. More importantly, it is a "symbol robe” containing at least one of the 12 images that represent the emperor's royal authority. The emperor — the only person allowed to wear all of the symbols — would not have donned this particular robe, but a high-ranking imperial official would have, Provo said. The garment's value has not been appraised, Provo said. Blackburn estimated its worth at "well over $1 million.” The robe's rediscovery has helped spark interest in the Asian community's Oklahoma history, Blackburn said. The history center since has hosted an Asian festival. An exhibit and documentary on the Chinese experience is planned at the center. And the million-dollar robe is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Right: A five-toed dragon decorates the robe, believed to have been worn by a high-ranking imperial official. BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN