There was a thought provoking piece in the London Sunday Times a couple of Sundays ago. Columnist Eleanor Mills observed (March 8 2015) that there had been a lot of fuss about whether or not collections looted by former colonialists should be returned to their countries of origin.
“Well,” she comments, “watching the reports in which ISIS is shown desecrating and destroying Assyrian treasures, I am jolly glad that a load of them are sitting safe and beautiful in London. There’s never been a better defence of museums as custodians of the world’s heritage – those beautiful Assyrian lion horses are far safer in Bloomsbury than in the caliphate.”
Indeed. But does the same apply to some rather well known Chinese works of art extant in countries like the UK and France? We recently commented on the BBC radio documentary which deals with the destruction of the old Summer Palace, Yuanminguan. The destruction of this unique site and the appropriation of many great treasures which were exported abroad still raises hackles in China. Many Chinese feel that the matter is still unresolved and that, indeed, there are treasures which are overdue for return to China.
That having been said, many priceless antiques including important furniture and porcelain were destroyed during the 1970s and 80s as the Red Guard rampaged through the country destroying every vestige of bourgeois decadence. As you cast your eyes over the breath-taking Percival David Collection of porcelain in the British Museum, it is difficult not to find oneself in agreement.
Oil painting by Friedrich Keyl of Looty, taken from Yuanminguan. Courtesy The Royal Collection
There were, of course, a few rather more ephemeral items which were appropriated like the Pekinese dog from Yuanminguan, insouciantly named Looty, which was presented to HM Queen Victoria. The painting made of the dog is still in the Royal Collection. The GraniteStudio.org wrote about this in 2009.
Harper’s Weekly via The New York Times Archive, picks up the story:
“He was a very lonely little creature, the other dogs taking exception to his Oriental habits and appearance,** and when the Prince and Princess of Wales returned from the a Continental trip, the latter pleaded with her mother-in-law to be allowed to take Looty to Sandringham. About six months later Looty’s mate arrived from China, and the breeding of this species of dog became a diversion in fashionable society.”
He became quite a celebrity in his day and certainly has to be recorded as quite the most unusual piece of plunder.
Eventually, of course, his bones may well have to be repatriated . . .