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China wants to catalogue its artefacts in Museums abroad

China hopes to send experts to foreign museums to build a more complete catalogue of the Chinese artefacts looted from Beijing’s Summer Palace [1] in foreign museums (many of which are not on public display).

From:
Agence France Presse [2]

China experts to search abroad for looted relics
(AFP) – 2 days ago

BEIJING — China will send a team of experts to museums around the world in an effort to record more than a million cultural relics it says were looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, state press reported Monday.

Museums, libraries and private collections in the United States, Britain, France and Japan will be the primary targets, the China Daily reported, citing the director of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan, or Old Summer Palace.

British and French armies burned and pillaged the Yuanmingyuan in 1860, an episode viewed in China as one of the nation’s greatest humiliations.

“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 paper quoted palace director Chen Mingjie as saying.

“But based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.”

The visits, which are expected to include the British Museum and the Fontainebleau Art Museum in France, aim to build a data base, not retrieve the artefacts, Chen said.

According to the Chinese Cultural Relics Association, up to 10 million cultural relics were taken from China between 1840 and the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the paper said.

China has objected strongly in recent years to overseas auctions of relics previously looted from the palace.

In February, a Chinese collector sabotaged a Paris auction of two bronze statues looted from the Yuanmingyuan by submitting a winning bid of 15.7 million euros (20.3 million dollars) for each relic but later refusing to pay.

Chinese museums and collectors have previously sought the return of the relics through diplomatic means or attending international auctions.

From:
Daily Telegraph [3]

China to study British Museum for looted artefacts
By Peter Foster in Beijing
Published: 3:10PM BST 19 Oct 2009

The British Museum is to be asked to open up its archives to allow teams of Chinese investigators to document “lost” Imperial treasures which China claims were taken from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace when it was burned and looted by British troops almost 150 years ago.

The teams will form part of an international mission to demand the inspection of 1.5 million artefacts mostly held by museums in Britain and France.

China has moved to reassure countries that the intention of the scheme is to merely document archives, however it will raise fears that Britain could be asked to return some treasures.

The mission will send researchers to museums, libraries and private collections – including the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – in an attempt to build up a comprehensive catalogue of artefacts China says were stolen in 1860, following the Second Opium War.

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.

The auctioning of the bronzes belonging to the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent – a rabbit and a rat that were among 12 animal heads that adorned an elaborate fountain – had been condemned by the Chinese government who called for the sale to be cancelled.

However Mr Chen said that the primary intention of the cataloguing exercise was not to seek return of the relics, but to establish exactly what had been taken during the chaos.

“We have clarified that this is an attempt to document rather than to seek a return of those relics even though we do hope some previously unknown relics might surface and some might be returned to our country during our tracing effort.” Among the institutions expected to receive a visit are the British Museum and the Fontainebleau Art Museum in France, however such collections represent only a fraction of the lost Summer Palace relics, including richly embroidered robes, sculptures, furniture, paintings, porcelain and carvings.

“I hope they know what they’re letting themselves in for,” said James Hevia, Professor of International History at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading authorities on artefacts looted in 1860 and 1900, “they will need massive resources to undertake this project.” Although some relics are in clearly labelled collections, Prof Hevia added, many thousands more are in private collections having passed through countless pairs hands – either by sale or bequest – obscuring their Summer Palace origin.

“I remember doing research in the regimental museum of the Royal Engineers in Chatham (Kent) in the late 1980s and, as I was about to leave after document other items, being asked if I wanted to see the ‘throne’ in the officer’s mess.

“They called it the ‘Gordon Throne’ since it was bought back by General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, although in fact was a large imperial couch, not a throne, carved with wonderful dragons. It sat behind the main speaker’s podium in the mess.” On the issue of whether the research could lead to renewed calls for the artefacts to be returned, Professor Hevia said the Chinese expectations were realistic.

“I think they are probably under no illusions about getting much of this stuff back, as these kinds of claims touch not just Chinese items, but items in museums taken from many other countries,” he added.

However despite the size of the task, research has already begun with a professor from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Guo Daiheng, being sent to The Washington Library of Congress and the Harvard University Library to study more than 100 old photographs taken after the looting.