Re­claim­ing a her­itage lost, stolen or sold

| At least 17 mil­lion Chi­nese cul­tural relics are scat­tered around the globe, with 1 mil­lion of them art ob­jects in 200 dif­fer­ent mu­se­ums in 47 coun­tries, not to men­tion pri­vate col­lec­tions. When and if they will be re­turned is an unan­swered — and avoid

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

LUNESCO num­bers

UNESCO es­ti­mates that at least 17 mil­lion Chi­nese cul­tural relics are scat­tered all over the world, far more than are housed in China’s own mu­se­ums.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Pace Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in cul­tural-her­itage man­age­ment, said that of those 17 mil­lion, 1 mil­lion are art ob­jects now in 200 dif­fer­ent mu­se­ums in 47 coun­tries, not to men­tion pri­vate col­lec­tions.

“So ba­si­cally we’re talk­ing about huge num­bers of Chi­nese art,” Lee said, adding that when you look closely at the his­tory of some of these items, most of them were taken from China since the late 19th century, but it’s not that sim­ple. “If we talk about ‘stolen’ Chi­nese art, one of the prob­lems is the def­i­ni­tion of ‘stolen’.”

“Most of the time we tend to fo­cus on those arts taken by for­eign in­vaders in the late 19th, like just af­ter the Boxer Re­bel­lion,” Lee said. “But af­ter the col­lapse of the Qing Dy­nasty (in 1911), we had huge num­bers of Chi­nese arts be­ing taken away from the old Im­pe­rial Palace by of­fi­cials, and they were put on the mar­ket in the 1910s and 1920s.”

Lee said it was also known that a huge amount of art was taken by the Red Guard dur­ing China’s “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966- eading his big­gest ever trade mis­sion to China last De­cem­ber, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron set up a mi­croblog­ging ac­count on China’s so­cial net­work Sina Weibo — the Chi­nese ver­sion of Twit­ter — to take ques­tions from any­one want­ing to sound off dur­ing his visit. Af­ter five days, the page had 260,000 fol­low­ers and, ac­cord­ing to the Lon­don Daily Mail news­pa­per, one of the most re­peated and per­sis­tent ques­tions was ini­tially posted by the China Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Eco­nomic Ex­changes, a highly re­garded Chi­nese think tank led by for­mer vice-pre­mier Zeng Peiyan.

The ques­tion was: “When will Bri­tain re­turn the il­le­gally plun­dered ar­ti­facts?”

The items in ques­tion are 23,000 artis­tic, cul­tural, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and re­li­gious ar­ti­facts sit­ting in the Bri­tish Mu­seum that al­legedly were plun­dered by the Bri­tish army dur­ing the Sec­ond Opium War in the 19th century.

The cen­ter­piece of that mil­i­tary ac­tion — the 1860 de­struc­tion of the mag­nif­i­cent Yuan­mingyuan, or Old Sum­mer Palace, which it­self had mu­se­ums within mu­se­ums — has been well doc­u­mented as a pun­ish­ment by Bri­tish and French troops for mis­treat­ment of pris­on­ers.

It was a self-or­dained “le­gal pil­lage” and so-called “prize agents” were ap­pointed to po­lice the loot­ing to see that no one side of the ex­pe­di­tionary force got more than any other. But greed took over and the sys­tem re­port­edly de­gen­er­ated into a fren­zied free for all. As one eye-wit­ness put it:

… French in­fantry, English­men, un­mounted cav­alry, ar­tillery men, Queens dra­goons, Sikhs, Arabs, Chi­nese coolies… this ant-heap of men of ev­ery color, of ev­ery race, this en­tan­gle­ment of in­di­vid­u­als from ev­ery na­tion on the earth, swarm on this mound of riches, hur­rahing in all the lan­guages of the globe … while each car­ried off some­thing… we did not sim­ply pil­lage; we wasted and squan­dered… my heart bled on see­ing, for in­stance, the space which sep­a­rated the palace from our camp cov­ered with silks and pre­cious fabrics tram­pled in the mud—goods worth twenty mil­lions… en­graved ivories, thrown into the trod­den paths over which rolled the wheels of wag­ons…

As Sheila Melvin writes in the Asia So­ci­ety’s Chi­naFile: “The Bri­tish were said to be bet­ter loot­ers than the French, work­ing to­gether and sys­tem­at­i­cally se­lect­ing valu­ables that they auc­tioned off right out­side the palace gates (and which Bri­tish auc­tion houses auc­tion off to this day).” 76) as well, “and those items are in the open mar­ket and also on the black mar­ket, ei­ther in China or in Hong Kong”.

As a good ex­am­ple, Lee men­tioned a Shang­hai his­to­rian who told him that most of the collection in the mu­nic­i­pal mu­seum in Shang­hai came from three ma­jor lo­cal col­lec­tor fam­i­lies and most of the items had been con­fis­cated by the state af­ter 1949.

More re­cently, there is yet a fourth group of cul­tural relics that have been pil­laged: those ran­sacked from ar­eas that ex­pe­ri­enced ma­jor de­vel­op­ment projects, the most well-known be­ing the Three Gorges Dam, which led to what Ar­chae­ol­ogy Mag­a­zine in 1998 called “an un­prece­dented rash of loot­ing” in the mid­dle reaches of the Yangtze River.

The dam — the largest hy­dro­elec­tric project ever un­der­taken — sub­merged 13 cities, 140 towns, more than 1,600 vil­lages and 300 fac­to­ries, re­lo­cat­ing 1.5 mil­lion people, not to men­tion an un­told num­ber of cul­tural and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures. The govern­ment ini­tially al­lo­cated $250 mil­lion for the “race” to ex­ca­vate and pre­serve cul­tural her­itage items; the fig­ure was re­duced to $37.5 mil­lion and even­tu­ally tied up in bu­reau­cratic in­de­ci­sion, with only trick­les al­lo­cated, ac­cord­ing to the Ar­chae­ol­ogy mag­a­zine. Pil­lag­ing ram­pant

Pil­lag­ing filled the void preser­va­tion ef­forts left be­hind. Loot­ers, flush with money from their sales, equipped them­selves with high­tech prospect­ing equip­ment. Burial grounds hold­ing thou­sands of tombs dat­ing from 206 BC to 1644 AD were dy­na­mited for the ex­ca­va­tions and peas­ants scav­eng­ing ar­ti­facts over­ran the sites.

Not un­like the Egyp­tians, the an­cient Chi­nese be­lieved the af­ter­life was a kind of par­al­lel uni­verse where people lived in much the same way as they lived their daily lives and they cre­ated and were buried with mod­els of the things they would need — food, fur­ni­ture, ser­vants, an­i­mals —as well as trea­sured pos­ses­sions such as bronze rit­ual ves­sels and even silk. This was booty loot­ers were af­ter.

Lark Ma­son, head of Lark Ma­son As­so­ciates auc­tion house in New York and a fre­quent ex­pert ap­praiser of Chi­nese art on PBS’s An­tique Road­show, is skep­ti­cal of the 17 mil­lion fig­ure. He said that a lot of those items could be clas­si­fied as ma­te­rial that was pur­posely ex­ported from China and made for a for­eign mar­ket.

“When you look at the China ex­port trade that has gone on with the West since the 16th Century and through­out South­east Asia for hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years be­yond that, then there are mil­lions and mil­lions of items that were sent abroad from China,” Ma­son ex­plained.

Limit the count to just those ob­jects that

w‘ If e talk about ‘stolen’ Chi­nese art, one of the prob­lems is the def­i­ni­tion of ‘stolen’.” JOSEPH TSE-HEI LEE PRO­FES­SOR OF HIS­TORY AT PACE UNIVER­SITY When you look at the China ex­port trade that has gone on with the West since the 16th Century and through­out South­east Asia for hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years be­yond that, then there are mil­lions and mil­lions of items that were sent abroad from China.’’ LARK MA­SON HEAD OF LARK MA­SON AS­SO­CIATES AUC­TION HOUSE IN NEW YORK.

were cre­ated in China as burial wares — from an early pe­riod to the Ming Dy­nasty (13681644), for in­stance — and were ex­ported af­ter be­ing buried and never in­tended for ex­port, he said, “then I think you’re look­ing at a much, much smaller num­ber”.

At the In­ter­na­tional Asian Art Fair in New York in the spring of 1998, a four-foot­tall bronze can­de­labrum dat­ing to the Han Dy­nasty (206 BC to 220 AD) sold for $2.5 mil­lion and was be­lieved to be il­le­gally ex­ca­vated from the city of Baidicheng. The piece was ex­tremely rare, there be­ing only two oth­ers of its kind in all of China. NYU art his­to­rian El­iz­a­beth Childs-John­son called it “an ex­cep­tional work of art” of na­tional im­por­tance and if in­deed it had been stolen by grave rob­bers, “China’s loss of this piece is a trav­esty”. Yu We­ichao, di­rec­tor of con­ser­va­tion of cul­tural relics in the Three Gorges area at the time, promised to look into the case.

Lee called the failed ef­fort to deal with the Three Gorges ex­ca­va­tions “a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of how things are done in China”.

“If you look at the Chi­nese govern­ment’s track record,” Lee ex­plained, “they in­sti­tute a num­ber of good laws on the pro­tec­tion of cul­tural her­itage in 1982 and they re­write that law in 1988 and again in 1991. Those laws make it very clear that it is ab­so­lutely il­le­gal to steal and smug­gle Chi­nese arts out­side of the coun­try. In some cases people were ex­e­cuted by the state for do­ing that.

“The main prob­lem is the en­force­ment of some of these poli­cies at the lo­cal level,” Lee said.

With­out nam­ing any names, Lee said one com­pany’s CEO in China who worked for a ma­jor State-owned en­ter­prise told him it was com­mon prac­tice for them to use the com­pany budget to buy some art — old paint­ings or antiques — to dec­o­rate their of­fices and af­ter they fin­ish their term, they would just take the cul­tural items as their per­sonal property.

Ma­son said that the de­mand for a lot of an­cient Chi­nese tomb pot­tery and burial ma­te­rial has “largely sub­sided” among col­lec­tors, “par­tic­u­larly items that were il­le­gally ex­ported and taken out of China”, for three main rea­sons: the widely pub­li­cized in­for­ma­tion about the il­le­gal­ity of the ma­te­rial; the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fakes and items that are nearly fake — mean­ing au­then­ti­cally an­cient frag­ments that are re­assem­bled into new ob­jects; and the me­moran­dum of un­der­stand­ing re­cently re­newed be­tween the US and China that makes it il­le­gal to im­port a lengthy laun­dry list of items from China, whose own law is roughly that noth­ing older than 100 years can leave.

“These three things have con­spired to erode the value, es­pe­cially at the lower end of the mar­ket,” items, he ex­plained, that 30 years ago were con­sid­ered rare and un­usual and fetched as­tro­nom­i­cal prices but to­day, as tomb wares are more com­mon, sell for un­der $5,000. ‘Big prizes’

Col­lec­tors now are af­ter the re­ally best ex­am­ples from le­git­i­mate sources, wellestab­lished deal­ers with strong rep­u­ta­tions and auc­tion houses that sell items that have a strong prove­nance from be­ing pre­vi­ously sold at auc­tion or sold through a rep­utable dealer.

“All of the ‘big prizes’ to­day are items that have a his­tory of prior own­er­ship,” Ma­son said. “It’s al­most es­sen­tial that items have some sort of a prove­nance — au­then­ti­cated and sold in the open mar­ket — so there’s not go­ing to be any kind of is­sues with the dis­po­si­tion in the fu­ture.

“For the col­lec­tor, the Holy Grail is to find an ob­ject that is rare, that is beau­ti­ful, that is in good con­di­tion and that also has a strong prove­nance,” Ma­son said. “It’s un­usual to find some­thing that possesses all of those fea­tures.”

As for the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s collection and the un­of­fi­cial call for it all to be re­turned, the UK Depart­ment for Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport said, “Ques­tions con­cern­ing Chi­nese items in mu­seum col­lec­tions are for the trustees or gov­ern­ing au­thor­i­ties of those col­lec­tions to re­spond to and the govern­ment does not in­ter­vene.”

The Bri­tish Mu­seum’s stance is the same as it is with other ar­ti­facts — such as the El­gin Mar­bles re­moved from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 — ar­gu­ing that they are ob­jects of world her­itage and more ac­ces­si­ble to more view­ers by be­ing in Lon­don.

“There is clearly a se­ri­ous mis­un­der­stand­ing,” a spokesman for the Bri­tish Mu­seum said. “There are around 23,000 ob­jects in the mu­seum’s Chi­nese collection as a whole, the overwhelming ma­jor­ity of them peace­fully traded or col­lected, many in­deed made for ex­port. Very few ob­jects en­tered the collection in the con­text of, even less as a re­sult of, [the Opium Wars].”

Ear­lier this month, a Nor­we­gian mu­seum an­nounced that it would re­turn seven mar­ble col­umns taken from the Old Sum­mer Palace 150 years ago, in a three-way deal be­tween the Kode Art Mu­seum in Ber­gen, Pek­ing Univer­sity (where they will re­side) and wealthy Chi­nese ty­coon Huang Nubo, who will do­nate $1.63 mil­lion to the mu­seum.

Huang said he vis­ited the mu­seum last year. “The mo­ment I saw the col­umns, my eyes teared up,” he said. “Af­ter all, the lost relics from Yuan­mingyuan rep­re­sent an in­deli­ble his­tory for all Chi­nese. I told the mu­seum staff the relics should not be on show and they were sym­pa­thetic to my feel­ings.”

The Nor­we­gian mu­seum got 2,500 Chi­nese ar­ti­facts from Nor­we­gian cal­vary of­fi­cer Jo­han W. N. Mun­the in the early 20th Century — who had ob­tained them from sources un­spec­i­fied, among the cache were 21 of the col­umns, which were crafted in a Greco-Ro­man style to dec­o­rate a Western sec­tion of the gar­den.

“The mu­seum is in pos­ses­sion of 21 col­umns and has for decades only showed seven,” said for­mer mu­seum di­rec­tor Er­land G. Hoy­er­sten. “So trans­fer­ring seven of the 21 col­umns to China will not be a loss to the mu­seum.” An­other re­turn

An­other high-pro­file re­turn oc­curred in June 2013 when Qing Dy­nasty bronze heads of a rab­bit and a rat — part of an elab­o­rate foun­tain-clock that spewed wa­ter through the mouths of 12 Chi­nese zo­diac an­i­mal heads ev­ery two hours — were re­turned to China. French bil­lion­aire Fran­coise-Henri Pin­ault, chair­man and CEO of Ker­ing, the lux­ury fash­ion con­glom­er­ate that owns Christie’s auc­tion house, bought them and do­nated them to the Na­tional Mu­seum of China.

Five other of the 12 heads have been re­cov­ered by China — the horse, pig, mon­key, tiger and cow are on dis­play. Where the re­main­ing five are re­mains a mys­tery.

“Right now the Chi­nese govern­ment and all of the for­eign mu­se­ums have a very good record and in­ven­tory of those arts be­ing sold to the mu­se­ums by for­eign­ers start­ing from the late 19th and early 20th century,” Lee said. “Those items could be eas­ily iden­ti­fied by the gov­ern­ments on both sides.”

Lee said that one of the most con­tro­ver­sial col­lec­tions was Bud­dhist art from Dun­huang in western China, which again was re­moved from China at the turn of the 20th Century. “I think the Bri­tish can ar­gue that at the time, there were no clear le­gal chan­nels re­gard­ing the re­turn or own­er­ship of those ma­te­ri­als”, Lee said.

“When you think about China’s grow­ing sense of con­fi­dence about the coun­try’s trans­for­ma­tion,” Lee said, “the new Chi­nese lead­ers be­gin­ning to re­po­si­tion them­selves as the guardians of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion and cul­ture, I think that is ac­tu­ally a good sign if they rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of cul­tural her­itage, they rec­og­nize the need to pro­tect it and also to pre­serve it. Not just for the Chi­nese but also for the global au­di­ence as well.

“Chi­nese lead­ers now talk more about the re­vival of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion, re­vival of the Chi­nese cul­ture, re­vival of the Chi­nese na­tion. Her­itage man­age­ment is also re­lated to the is­sue of China’s soft power as well. If you talk about Chi­nese art, it is prob­a­bly the only tra­di­tional her­itage that is ex­tremely well known out­side China.

“So I think if the govern­ment can ac­tu­ally do some­thing to pro­tect and pre­serve it — and even re­claim some of the stolen ones — that would ac­tu­ally pro­mote the Chi­nese voice on the global cul­tural front. It would also re­cast China as a sta­bi­liz­ing force in the in­ter­na­tional cul­tural land­scape,” Lee said.

“Also in the short term I think that kind of ap­proach will also help Bei­jing’s pol­icy of re­uni­fi­ca­tion by us­ing these arts to project a com­mon iden­tity among all Chi­nese in Tai­wan, Hong Kong, Ma­cau and else­where.” Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­


Af­ter spend­ing 150 years abroad, Qing Dy­nasty bronze heads of a rat and rab­bit — two of 12 zo­diac fix­tures that were part of a foun­tain­clock raided in the de­struc­tion of the Old Sum­mer Palace dur­ing the Boxer Re­bel­lion — are on ex­hi­bi­tion at China Na­tional Mu­seum in Bei­jing af­ter they were re­cently re­turned to China. The pig, horse, mon­key, tiger and cow have also been re­cov­ered. The snake, dragon, lamb, dog and chicken are still miss­ing.

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