The Looty-Wallahs (Who Owns Antiquities?)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Cixi's portraitHe was one of the most famous art connoisseurs in Chinese history. And he was also known for walking the streets of Hangzhou dressed in the fashions of 500 years earlier. When asked why he did it, he replied, “Because I like the styles from back then.” But, in fact, everyone knew there was more to it than that. Madman Mi, as Mi Fu was also lovingly known to people of his time, served for a brief time at the court of Emperor Huizong, just prior to the fall of the Empire. Believed to be of Sogdian blood, it was through his mother’s connections at Court as a Lady-in-Waiting and Consort of Emperor Shenzong that he was able to enter the official bureaucracy without ever having had to take any of the official examinations.

But –alas– despite his excellent connections, Mi Fu was never particularly “career-oriented” –as he remained till the very end devoted to the creation, study and collection of art. His passion started while he was still quite young, and he has described in his writings how his mother more than once sold her ornamental hair combs in order to fund his collecting while he was still only a child.

To call him an eccentric would only be an understatement.

For not only did he walk the streets dressed in clothes from the Tang dynasty, but he was also known for introducing himself and bowing to especially fine specimens of garden rocks, which were of the type he collected; often addressing them politely as “elder brother.” Greatly admired by Emperor Huizong for his knowledge and style, he was appointed Director of the Calligraphy and Painting Institute at Court, where the Prime Minister was said to have observed, “Mi Fu is the kind of person we must have one of, but cannot afford to have two of!” Even though his knowledge was formidable, his personality was such that he didn’t last long at Court.

Spending his later years roaming the waterways of the country on his houseboat, named, “The Mi Family Calligraphy and Painting Barge,” he managed to acquire an immense collection of important works of calligraphy, painting, ancient bronzes, and other antiquities. His acquisitions were sometimes of a dubious method as he was known to have replaced some originals of borrowed works with replicas, and on more than one occasion threatened suicide to friends who wouldn't agree to sell their masterpieces to him. He was also reported to have stolen the plaques from temple gates because they provided fine samples of a particular style of calligraphy. His foibles were usually forgiven, though, because of course he was considered a genius. All in the line of duty? What Mi Fu was unable to acquire, he managed to at least find the opportunity to view, and therefore his knowledge of Chinese art was encyclopedic.

Chinese art history is full of charismatic and playful collectors, like Mi Fu (most of whom not only had encyclopedic knowledge of art history but were established artists in their own right). See, for example, Michel Beurdeley's delightful book on Chinese art collectors through the centuries…I have been fascinated with art collecting practices for years now and love to read books about quirky collectors–definitely some of my favorite collectors of history have come from China!

Right now, however, I am reading a book about American collectors, called The China Collectors. Specifically about American collectors of Chinese art, it tells the tale of some of the greatest collectors from this country, like infamous silk-roader Langdon Warner (the model for Indiana Jones) and George Kates (of the Years that were Fat); as well as big money names such as Charles Lang Freer, two generations of Rockefellers and Arthur Sackler, “the Grand Acquisitor.” Many were Harvard men and few come off looking very good.

I just kept thinking, “there are no Mi Fus in this book, that's for sure.”

Setting the tone for the entire book, it opens with a graphic description of the looting of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (1860). The looting occurred at a time when foreign Western powers (especially the British and the French) were circling around China like vultures. Declining the British demand to meet face-to-face in Beijing, the Chinese emperor then up and left the capital all together. Offended, the “allied” British and French forces decided to “teach him a lesson,” which resulted in the looting and burning of the Summer Palace in a manner that is difficult to understand.

The loot included tremendous amounts of treasure (in particular huge pearls and other jewels) as well as porcelains and silks and fabulous glass and ivory objects. I have a book, originally published in Italy, with an engraving of the chaos that took place just before the order was given to burn the Palace to the ground. You can see the Western-style Palace to the East (designed by none other than Giuseppe Castiglione) and many Chinese temples and gardens unfolding toward the West. In the center of the engraving are the allied French-British soldiers who are dancing all dressed up in concubines' silks, loaded down with their looted jewels, prancing on the lawn under parasols and fans.

In 1861, Victor Hugo wrote a passionate letter, which has become rather famous, where he described the looting as, “'Two Robbers' broke into this museum, devastating, looting and burning, and left laughing and hand in hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain.” When news reached the Emperor, he was astounded by the barbarity of the barbarians and caved to their demands: Tianjin would be opened to the foreigners and foreign missionaries would be allowed to preach and build churches in the interior of the country.

The China Collectors mentions this interesting story that took place amidst the sacking of the Summer Palace, when British Captain Hart Dune found a pack of small dogs with a “grotesque oriental appearance.” Grabbing them up in the melee, the dog-loving officer requested and was given permission to present one of the “Pekinese” to Queen Victoria. Guess what the queen named the dog? Yep, Lootie. And little lootie yapped in the royal apartments until 1872.

You just can't make this stuff up.

If the title of the book didn't tell you all you need to know then this scene would, I suspect. This was, after all, a time when just a handful of countries controlled most of the rest of the world. Art collecting in the West (especially since the time of Napoleon) is characterized by a kind of appropriation that would be hard to find anywhere else–past or present. Westerners are not the first people to appreciate and collect foreign art, but I cannot think of any case where it went hand-in-hand with cultural appropriation in quite the same way. Japanese collections do, of course, contain foreign treasures but I feel hard-pressed to come up with looting of the kind we see in the West. From Napoleon, to Hitler to the silk roaders, they were not collecting art as much as they seemed to be collecting cultures. Not to mention ancient Roman and Venetian collectors of antiquities from Greece and Byzantium.

Gentile_Bellini_003One of the great defenders (not surprisingly) of encyclopedic museums, Philippe de Montebello, seeking to underplay the connection these museums have with looted artifacts, suggests that the first encylopedic museums didn't even exist in European capitals at all. However, I am not convinced the Topkapi and Hermitage museums are comparable on this count. I could be wrong, but I don't believe either collection came about as a by-product of an imperialistic enterprise. The Topkapi is well known for its Ming porcelain–but I was always under the impression that these items were purchased fair and square.

The essay by Philippe de Montebello appears in James Cuno's book the debate over antiquities, called Whose Culture. It is a fabulous book. Perhaps my favorite essay was by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I am a huge fan of his work, and I do find his arguments on the need for encyclopedic museums to stand as places of cosmopolitanism. It is world-enhancing and eye opening to experience art from other cultures. So, museums like the Met are meeting places that serve to resist provincialism, he argues. Appiah is also compelling in connecting the debate to ideas of nationalism by asking,

What does it mean, exactly’, he writes, ‘for something to belong to a people? Most of Nigeria’s cultural patrimony was produced before the modern Nigerian state existed. We don’t know whether the terra-cotta Nok sculptures, made sometime between 800 BC and AD 200, were commissioned by kings of commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, or to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is they didn’t make them for Nigeria.

That said, still, with some notable exceptions (like Sherman Lee of Cleveland Museum fame, for example), the men in China Collectors just don't end up looking very good. They appear greedy and predatory to say the least, too often swooping in like vultures when countries are in chaos… These are guys we find literally peeling off wall paintings from the caves in Dunhuang. Thinking of the silk-roaders, for example, they knew the chaos of the country would allow for massive bargains and carted great treasures out for a song–some even went as far as to excuse what they are doing, declaring that the art would not survive the chaos or upheavals that the countries were experiencing. But,in fact, more was lost than saved (for example, some of the finest frescos that were peeled off walls and put “safely in museums of Dresden, were utterly lost during wartime bombing. This is just one example).

Finders keepers?

A glance at Hobson-Jobson will tell you that the word loot comes into English from Hindi-ultimately deriving from Sanskrit. It entered the English language between the Opium Wars and the Crimean War and means It means plunder and pillage. In 1858, the younger Lord Elgin–who interestingly the grandson of the Lord Elgin of Elgin Marbles fame was a main player in the sacking of the summer palace in China– had this to say about loot:

There is a word called loot, which gives unfortunately a venial character to what would in common English be styled robbery.

Loot or robbery, can you come up with this kind of massive transfer of art capital in a foreign museum today that was not a byproduct of European and American colonialism? The Harvard men in the China Collectors also loved the culture of China. That is clear–and yet in the book they come across as grand appropriators more than anything else…. On amazon, one reviewer suggested that this book is a great companion to Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. I agree! And just like in that book, as you marvel at how outrageous these men were, it's hard not to be impressed by their pure gall!

As children of the Enlightenment, public museums embody not just some of the best of Enlightenment philosophy but some of the worst as well (with ideas concerning custodianship serving as harbingers for later concepts of social Darwinism, for example). In the end, I have never really been a huge fan of encyclopedic museums–especially, I dislike seeing what are national treasures removed from their countries of origin. Whether its Winged Victory in the Louvre or Elgin Marbles can anyone really not say these things are ill-gotten gains and really belong in their countries of origin? It's not that I am saying that no art should leave it's country of origin. I am only talking about 1) the greatest treasures–something that people can more or less agree on that are crucially significant to a particular culture–somehow representing cultural patrimony of the place…like the Elgin marbles or certain Chinese imperial treasures that were taking during looting; those items that are not only deeply significant to a given country (I say this acknowledging that the artists themselves in all probability did not intend their art to be forever linked with a specific culture or location). And 2) items that were also taken in a manner not on the up-and-up. And even then, I think repatriation should come with a demonstrated ability for the country to preserve the art work–for humanity's sake.

While the spirit behind the great museums is enlightened, filing its rooms with beautiful but stolen treasures is not. While each case is unique, isn't it time for our temples of our highest ideals to do the enlightened thing? The Chinese, as described in the last chapter of China Collectors, are taking matters into their own hands, however. Buying Chinese art voraciously to bring it home, they are also trying to buy the contents of the Chinese collection (and other art works) from the Detroit Institute of Art.

How the mighty have fallen…?

Both books (China Collectors and Whose Culture) are highly recommended. Also loved Rogues Gallery and Chasing Aphrodite. And Loot (my favorite of all).

More posts on art: How Should We Think About Bamiyan? and Falling in Love with a Beautiful Bronze

Great review of Whose Culture

The National Palace Collection's The calligraphic World of Mi Fu's Art

Painting at top: Empress Dowager Cixi portrait painted by Katharine Augusta Carl (1865–1938)

Painting in center: Sultan Mehmet II by Bellini

Digital Reconstruction of Bezeklik by Ryokoku (Japanese researchers)–if you can find a copy see my Digital Bezeklik in Kyoto Journal's Silk Road Special Issue!