China’s Repatriation Team Visits the Met

File:Yuanmingyuan zuoshi.jpg“That wasn’t so bad after all”

So said James C.Y. Watt, the head of Asian art at the Met after a team of Chinese experts visited the institution looking for objects which had once been at the Chinese Old Summer Palace in Beijing.  China has been looking to buy or repatriate objects from the Old Summer Palace. 

The looting of the palace during the Second Opium War in 1860 holds great historical significance for many in China.  In response to the execution of twenty European and Indian prisoners, Lord Elgin (son of the the Elgin who removed the sculptures from the Parthenon) ordered the destruction of the palace.  As a 27 year-old captain in the Royal Engineers wrote:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

This destruction continues to shape how China views its relationship with the West.  Chinese experts have conducted a campaign to seek the return of many of the objects looted from the palace.  This includes the “guerilla bidding” last year which effectively prevented the auction of two bronzes from the palace last year. 

Andrew Jacobs account of the visit calls into question the motives of the Chinese delegation.  He throws quotations around the phrase “treasure hunting team”, but the tenor in his piece echoes the pejorative of the phrase.  Many in the West still fail to engage with the fundamental issue.  Had the White House been burned and sacked in 1860, wouldn’t a powerful America be doing everything it could to seek the return of these objects? 

Jacobs references the criticism of Chinese destruction of historical sites.  But nearly every nation can be accused of the same.  What about the Native American burial mound which was decimated to create fill-dirt for a Sam’s Club in Alabama this year?  Does that mean America is an unsuitable steward for cultural treasures? 

  1. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009.
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China to Research Foreign Museum Archives for Chinese Artifacts

https://i2.wp.com/rtoddking.com/images/chinasum2004/04092110.jpg?resize=400%2C300

  China seems to be taking a new approach to repatriation, creating research teams which will inspect the holdings of museums to “document” the archives.  This has led to speculation that China may use its growing economic clout to demand the return of objects.  

Peter Foster reports for the Telegraph:

The sacking of the Old Summer Palace – or ‘Yuanmingyuan’ – as punishment for the torture and execution of 18 emissaries sent by western powers to Beijing, remains an emotive subject in China, where it is still viewed as one of the nation’s great humiliations.
The decision to try and document the millions of items now scattered round the world comes as China takes an increasing interest in retrieving artefacts that were removed from China during the colonial period and in the early 20th century.
“We don’t really know how many relics have been plundered since the catalogue of the treasures stored in the garden was burned during the catastrophe,” the palace’s current director Chen Mingjie told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“But based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.” China’s sensitivity towards such ‘looted’ treasures was demonstrated in March when a Chinese collector sabotaged the auctioning of two bronze heads taken from the Old Summer Palace, bidding £13.9m for each, but later refusing to pay.

Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009.

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Not Paying for the Bronzes

I’m catching up on all of the reactions to the decision by Cai Mingchao, the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. and the winning bidder on the two Chinese bronzes which were recently sold at Christie’s Yves St. Laurent auction in France.  Art Observed does a great job collecting many of the reactions which appeared in the press.

Tom Flynn asks the right question I think, “Are we entering an era of guerilla activism, where sabotage of art auctions becomes another weapon in cultural heritage repatriation disputes?”

I think Christie’s is scrambling along with other major auction houses to make sure something similar cannot or will not happen again.  Mingchao is of course subject to civil penalties under French law, perhaps even criminal as well.  If Christie’s pushes that approach, they may risk a difficult public relations battle, as Mingchao has quickly become a sort of national hero in China.  But it is hard to see how they can just do noting.  If one bidder can disrupt the process in this way, all a nation of origin needs to do is enlist a wealthy or sympathetic bidder to disrupt the process of any future object which might be similarly sensitive. 

I think it is another indication of the increasing role that nations of origin are playing in the heritage marketplace.  I’m not sure how many wealthy bidders would be willing to stake their reputation or future ability to bid on such a move in the future, but this was a cunningly simple, very shrewd strategic move by Mingchao and the Chinese.  They wanted to disrupt the market in these objects which had been looted, and did a brilliant job doing so. 

From AlJazeera English:

 

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French judge Denies China’s Claim for Summer Palace Bronzes

A french judge on Monday denied China’s claims for these two bronze objects, looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, to be auctioned at the Yve Saint Laurent auction tonight in Paris.  They had been transferred a number of times during the 20th century, and the alleged wrongdoing took place nearly 150 years ago.  If China wants the objects back they have only two options.

First, as Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s partner, offered earlier “The only thing I ask is for China to give human rights, liberty to Tibet and to welcome the Dalai Lama.”

Or second,  they could purchase the objects at the auction.  As Barbara Demick’s piece in the L.A. Times notes:

An entire museum in Beijing run by the Poly Corp., which is operated by a state-owned military enterprise, is filled with repatriated artworks, including several other bronze animal heads that along with the two held by Saint Laurent were part of the set of 12 representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac.

The museum bought the tiger, monkey and ox through auction houses in Hong Kong in 2000, while the pig’s head was recovered in New York by Hong Kong casino magnate Stanley Ho, who in turn donated it to the museum.

But the Chinese are increasingly resentful at the high prices they’ve had to fork out. Ho reportedly paid $9 million in a deal brokered by Sotheby’s to get the horse head back from Taiwan. Christie’s was reported to be asking $10 million each for the rabbit and rat in behind-the-scenes negotiations in the last few years with prospective Chinese buyers.

“It is really shameful. They are like kidnappers demanding ransom to give back your own child,” said Li Xingfeng, one of a group of 81 Chinese lawyers who filed the lawsuit last week in Paris trying to block the sale. They have vowed to pursue the case to recover the heads from whomever might buy them.

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"it’s got great historical significance and ought to be returned.”

So says Patty Gerstenblith, quoted in today’s New York Times article detailing the efforts of China to prevent the sale of two bronzes taken during the burning of the imperial Summer Palace in 1860:

Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer who is helping to organize the lawsuit threatened in France, said he had located a descendant of China’s royal family to serve as plaintiff in the case.


“The Old Summer Palace, which was plundered and burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, is our nation’s unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching,” Mr. Lui said. “That Christie’s and Pierre Bergé would put them up for auction and refuse to return them to China deeply hurts our nation’s feelings.”


Mr. Liu also asserted that the sale would violate a 1995 United Nations convention governing the repatriation of stolen or illegally exported cultural relics.


But Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who specializes in cultural-property issues, said that France never ratified the convention and that even if it had, the agreement does not apply retroactively to objects looted decades or centuries ago.


“My view is this was looted, but it would be difficult to get that legally back,” she said in a telephone interview on Monday. “But it’s got great historical significance and ought to be returned.”


Professor Gerstenblith suggested that one solution might be for the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Foundation to negotiate with China and offer it at a reasonable price. “It would probably be in the best interest of everybody if they made a deal privately with China,” she said.

Previous posts on this dispute here and here.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China’s CPAC Request Granted

 China’s request for import restrictions of certain classes of China’s antiquities has finally been granted.  The Memorandum of Understanding is here, while the State Department Press Release is here.   Now prohibited, unless accompanied by a Chinese export license will be “archaeological material originating in China and representing China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic Period through the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907), and of monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old; including categories of metal, ceramic, stone, textiles, other organic material, glass, and painting”.

Randy Kennedy has an overview for the New York Times.  Professor Patty Gerstenblith thinks the decision “is a very appropriate way for the State Department to have applied the statute and the statutory requirements to China’s request”. 

James Lally, a New York dealer in Asian art was not quite as impressed, “It’s going to have a terrible effect on efforts to encourage new students to study Asian art and on collectors and patrons to become involved in the field …  They’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll just go to contemporary art or I’ll support the symphony.’ It sends the wrong signal.”
 
Peter Tompa has a thoughtful criticism on his blog as well,

I would, however, echo [other’s] concerns about fair enforcement, particularly when it comes to coins. Indeed, many Chinese coins of the types covered under the agreement have so little monetary value that it makes little sense for importers to go through the time and effort to secure the necessary certifications for licit import. For example, at the CPAC hearing in February 2005, I passed around a Han Dynasty cash coin from the 1st c. BC (bought for $2.25) and a Tang Dynasty cash coin c. 618-907 AD (bought for $8.00).

Such a problem presents some very difficult regulatory challenges, and goes I think to the heart of how we define cultural heritage or property.  I don’t envy the task of ICE agents, who are now charged with making sure these very small objects are not imported into the US. 

China has created a large heritage bureaucracy which does allow the purchase and sale of antiquities, but the government has  right of first refusal for all of these objects.  There is also a complicated ratings system, overseen by a government official in relics shops, which determines what is too important to sell, and what is not.  The system has been criticized for its potential for abuse, though what heritage policy in any nation isn’t. 

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China Will Sue over Looted Bronzes

AFP is reporting that China will bring a repatriation suit in France over bronze statues taken from the Old Summer Palace before it was burned in 1860.

Chinese lawyers will sue auction giant Christie’s over the sale of relics owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent which they say were stolen from a looted Beijing palace, according to state press.  The lawyers are hoping that French courts will stop the auction house from selling two bronze animal heads at a February sale in Paris and order the return of the relics to China, the Beijing Times reported.  “The lawsuit will be placed before a French court in accordance with international law,” Liu Yang, one of 67 Chinese lawyers working on the case, told the paper.  “We are demanding that the auction house stop the sale and order the owner of the stolen items to return them.”  The relics currently belong to the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and were being put up for auction by the late fashion magnate’s partner Pierre Berge, the paper said.

This should shape up to be a fascinating dispute.  There’s little question I think the bronzes were taken under lass-than-noble circumstances by the British.  More background on the dispute here.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com