Winner Takes All in the World of Antiquities

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KEEPING THEIR MARBLES: HOW THE TREASURES OF THE PAST ENDED UP IN MUSEUMS AND WHY THEY SHOULD STAY THERE Tiffany Jenkins, Oxford University Press 2016

I reckon it must have been some twenty years ago. A sunny August afternoon (highly unusual for Scotland) found me playing cricket in the grounds of a great Scottish country house. After tea on the lawn, we were invited inside to view the crowded interior and, there, lo and behold, high up on the wall of a reception room, above the dado rail, was a marble panel. Although I was surprised at the time to be told it was a part of the so-called Elgin Marbles, stripped out of the Parthenon in Athens, I did not feel affronted to find it there. After all, the Greeks are a thoroughly charming but, ultimately, unreliable lot and I was confident that the titled owner of the house would do all in his considerable power to preserve the panels. A rather more po-faced member of our team muttered darkly about moral obligations to return such items whence they came, but the general view was that it probably had been  rather better off there than rotting in some Greek glory hole.

In more recent years, the debate has really hotted up on the issue of repatriation of culturally important items to the countries which lost them in troubled times. In this new book, Tiffany Jenkins, a writer and academic, examines individual historic events and the issues, moral and legal, surrounding them. She casts her net pretty much worldwide to engage with specific occasions on which items were removed from the custody of their owners. This was, of course, in a world rather different from our present one. It was a world where winner took all. If you got beat on the battlefield, the victor was perfectly entitled to make off with all your clobber: treasures, art works, military gear and, if they took his fancy, your wives, concubines and, even, your pet dogs.

Such was the case, of course, with one of the Imperial Pekinese dogs which was ‘dognapped’ during the sacking of the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace in December 1860. It was hauled off to Britain by the victors and presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria at her summer home in Scotland, Balmoral. The captive animal was, somewhat insensitively, named ‘Looty’ and came to symbolise British superiority over the Chinese, and is immortalised in paintings held in the Royal Collection.

Rt Hon Lady Loch

The present Lady Loch, descended from Henry, 1st Lord Loch who was aide de camp to Lord Elgin who ordered the destruction of Yuanminguan. In the background are two Imperial roof tiles taken from Yuanminguan.

This was not the real prize, of course. It is estimated that up to one and a half million artefacts were hauled off from the dozens of buildings and pleasure grounds which made up Yuanminguan. This was intended as a signal punishment to the Chinese (who had imprisoned a truce party headed up by Henry Loch, later Lord Loch, and killed some of his group and horribly tortured the others). It turned out to be a wanton orgy of mass destruction and pillage. Tens of thousands of objects were removed from the site by British and French troops. Sadly, far more were simply destroyed which was, of course, unforgivable. The commander who ordered the destruction was Lord Elgin, whose own father had claimed the Elgin Marbles. The whole incident is well dealt with by Tiffany Jenkins at some length and in rather more detail than other currently available accounts (and, hooray, she has footnotes which are something of a dying breed these days).

As far as provenance goes, items removed from Yuanminguan enjoy just about as good a provenance as it is possible to get. That is largely because the incident still deeply rankles with the Chinese and is conspicuously high on their consciousness. They want all their stuff back and have, in the last few years, been buying back Imperial Summer Palace pieces; been in receipt of donations and, indeed, some Yuanminguan pieces held in public and in private have been specifically stolen, quite possibly to order.

s200_tiffany_jenkins Author Tiffany Jenkins

There are, of course, very many issues to be raised. Theft is, rightly, a crime in the context of our private lives. States, however, are not private individuals and are allowed to wreak revenge on behalf of their subjects. Quite apart from legal implications (and China and the UK rarely cooperate in the field of legal obligation hence the widespread intellectual theft which goes on), there may be moral considerations. It is here we get into very deep water indeed. Should items be returned to the country of origin where they arguably constitute an irrevocable part of its culture and history? Or, should museums, where pieces remain more or less permanently on display, be regarded as international centres of knowledge in demonstration of the fact that no object has a single home and no one culture has an inalienable right to its own culture which might be seen as a part of a shared global heritage?

This book is really strong on the examination of the difficult issues posed by culture and the supposed rights of ownership of part of it. The individual case studies make good reading and it is written in an easy style which will serve to make it widely available. Unlike the statues and columns of Palmyra and Nineveh. They would have been rather better off in The British Museum.

Paul Harris

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Highlights of 2015 on Chineseart.co.uk

We look back on the year 2015 as reflected by the pages of Chineseart.co.uk

January 2015

London dealer Anita Gray offered this exquisite Kangxi figure for sale. Hardly surprisingly, it was snapped up in a matter of hours!

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February 2015

Brought the sale of contents at Eden Hall, in the Scottish borders, by the Rt Hon Lady Loch. There were several items brough back tothe UK from Yuanminguan by the 1st Baron Loch (background and below a pair of sancai roof tiles).

Rt Hon Lady Loch

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The month also saw a spectacular, hihgly organised theft from Fontainebleau. Fifteen items were stolen from the Chinese collection, many of which had been looted from Yuanminguan by French soldiers. There has been no sign of them being recovered and the artefacts are reckoned by experts to have been ‘repatriated’ to China.

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March 2015

the Shanghai-based sculptor Chen Dapeng announces his participation in the Olympia Art & Antiques Fair, November 2015 (below).

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April 2015

We visit the porcelain city, Jingdezhen, for a series of articles. Below, The Jingdezhen Porcelain Orchestra.

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May 2015

We ask if Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian (below) has got his money back from producing copies of his US$36m. chicken cup. He drinks from the original below, and also the boxed reproduction which sells at around $60 !

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June 2015

We reported from Taipei on the chronic overcrowding at The National Palace Museum.

National Palace Museum (6)

July 2015

We turned our attention to the Chinese fashion industry in our article The Traditional Etihc in Chinese Fashion goes International. Below is Guo Pei’s stunning twist on Chinese blue and white porcelain. Also fashion label Doudu’s ‘Bodybelt’, a modern piece of lingerie based on traditional underwear.

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August 2015

We published this photogrpah of a painting offered for sale at the June Olympia Art & Antiques Fair: the mystery gil with the penetrating gaze, artist unknown. Nobody volunteeered any information who she might be!

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September 2015

London dealers Marchant, Kensington Church Street, celebrated their 90th anniversary with a collection of magnificient jades they had handled over the years.

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October 2015

A top Chinese official warns on the widespread destruction of the country’s cultural heritiage at the hands of tomb robbers and property developers. Below a photograph of the unique colonial style Arxan Shan Railway Station in northern China, destroyed by property developers.

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November 2015

Chinese sculptor Chen Dapeng celebrates the opening of his first exhibition in London The Winter Olympia Art & Antiques Fair. His 200 sq m stand was organised by his UK agents Paul Harris Asia Arts. His bust of HM Queen Elizabeth II (below) proved controversial and received massive TV, radio and press coverage. It was, however, only one sculpture out of almost fifty works on display.

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December 2015

The Berlin-based online auctioneer Auctionata put up a small Kangxi dragon vase for sale estimated at euro 5-10,000. It started at 5,000 and rose giddily to the heights of euro 875,000 – almost a million dollars.

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