Archer's story contains a story within a story. In the framing story, an art collector reads in the Sotheby's catalogue that a Chinese statue is coming up for auction, “the property of a gentleman.” This piques the first-person narrator's curiosity. He knows such anonymity protects the reputation of financially distressed aristocrats, but he nevertheless wants to know the history of the statue.
This leads to the story within the story, which the narrator relates very simply: the statue was obtained by a Sir Alexander Heathcote, a diplomat who served the queen and was sent to China in the nineteenth century.
The story is written in a simple, accessible, unembellished style. It offers a dry twist at the end, in which the base that was almost indifferently attached to the statue ends up being worth far more than the statue itself, which is revealed as a copy of a more famous piece.
The story is an example of colonial literature that "orientalizes" the Chinese. The concept of "orientalism," first presented by Edward Said in his groundbreaking book of the same name, asserts that countries in the West, especially Great Britain and France, created the false idea of "the Orient," a vast, mysterious, exotic, and feminized area comprising many cultures from Egypt to China. "Orientals" as a whole were depicted as childlike and inferior to Europeans and in need of their guidance.
True to form, the story both exoticizes—emphasizes the differences between the Chinese culture, with the Queen's imperial court filled with beautiful works of jade and run by silent and mysterious Mandarins, and England—and emphasizes European superiority: Sir Alexander is very tall, six foot three, and quite dignified, a sharp contrast to the short, pigtailed, toothless, scurrying, and "blue" Chinese artist with whom he interacts. In contrast to the reality of the British imperial presence in China, which essentially ruthlessly looted the country, Sir Alexander is shown as generous and munificent, rewarding the gift of the statue with a beautiful house for the artist.
The story is thus a fantasia told entirely from a Western point of view. Nevertheless, it is spare, well-paced, and entertaining.