Should the victors return all their loot?

opinion hl

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 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 . . .

Looty in Imperial Palace Looty, 1865, Sandringham


London Sunday Times alleges most V&A Chinese paintings ‘forgeries’

In an extraordinary article published February 2 in the London Sunday Times, apparently written by Arts Editor Richard Brooks, it is alleged that ‘ more than three quarters of Chinese paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are either forgeries or copies and are kept away from public gaze.’ The even more extraordinary headline to the article reports ‘Merciless Ming swamps V&A with forgeries’.

It is not exactly clear from the article who the merciless and cunning Ming might be who has apparently flooded one of Britain’s most highly regarded museums with forgeries, but below the headline appears a picture of Emperor Chu Yuan-chang (sic.). One presumes the newspaper is referring to the first Ming Emperor, known as the Hongwu Emperor, who reigned 1368-98. The Victoria & Albert Museum, arguably the best museum of decorative arts and design in the world, was founded in 1852 so the Emperor in question must certainly have been extremely able and cunning . . .  Quite how he ‘mercilessly’ filled the Museum with fakes and forgeries is not explained!

Sunday Times fakes at V&A567

The article further goes on to cast doubts on the successful exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting:700-1900 which has just closed, saying some of those paintings were also in doubt, quoting the museum’s deputy director Beth McKillop, “We put captions beside them stating that they were either ‘traditionally attributed to’ a certain artist or ‘possibly by’.” The newspaper alleges there were such doubts in regard to ‘about a dozen’ of the paintings in the show (there were around 70 paintings in total on display). By way of explanation, the newspaper states that the V&A did not employ a curator who could read Chinese until the 1970s (‘essential for deciphering inscriptions’) and says ‘Concern about the fakes partly explains why  much of the Chinese art in exhibitions is borrowed from America, Europe and China itself.’ As if there are no doubts about attribution in the case of paintings from these parts of the world . . .

Similar doubts are cast on paintings in the collection of The British Museum. ‘Likewise many of the 500 paintings owned by the British Museum, dating form the 6th to the 20th century, also have question marks about their authenticity.’ The British Museum opens a new exhibition in April, Gems of Chinese Paintings.

The problem is that there is little explanation in the article of the difference between fakes and forgeries, executed with the specific objective of deceiving, and copies made out of period in a bid to emulate the highest standards. The V&A-owned landscape Visiting a Friend in the Mountains, apparently signed by Li Zhaodao, is condemned as a ‘fabrication’ made 800 years later (around 1600).  Of course, the date it was created is neither here nor there in terms of the extreme artistic skill displayed in the picture. The motivation for the so-called ‘fabrication’ cannot be ascribed to greed or financial enrichment but to rather more noble desires unique to the cultural scene in China. There is a hint of such an explanation from an anonymous British Museum spokesman who told the newspaper, “It is true that a considerable number of these works could be seen to have false attributions. The majority of them were ascribed to Old Masters (sic.) in order to reference the past, or to continue a line of tradition. The moral implications to (sic.) ascribe a painting to an Old Master are looked on differently in east Asian cultures.”

The article ends with a most peculiar alleged assertion by Shelagh Vainker, head of the Chinese collection at the highly respected Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Apparently, according to The Sunday Times, the Ashmolean only collects paintings from 1850 onwards because of such difficulties.

“So many were fakes . . . The main focus of our China collection is on ceramics and jades where forgery is not really an issue . . . “. Oh, really? Never seem to have heard of a piece of porcelain bearing a copied or earlier mark?

As a piece of journalism the article does, of course, read well despite its misleading headline and a woeful lack of context. The problem with articles like this in the so-called popular press is that they seek to make a ‘sensational’ point and evidence is selectively garnered. For a large section of the readership, lacking a wider perspective or knowledge, it calls into doubt the intrinsic value of Chinese art.