November 3, 2009

China’s worldwide hunt for artefacts looted from Beijing’s Summer Palace

Posted at 11:23 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Further coverage of the decision by China to try & catalogue the artefacts in museum around the world that were looted from the Summer Palace. The British Museum says that they don’t see this as a threat – but then they said in the past that the New Acropolis Museum adds nothing to the argument for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.

The Times

October 20, 2009
China in worldwide treasure hunt for artefacts looted from Yuan Ming Yuan palace

China is to send a team of artefact hunters to nearly 50 countries to track down thousands of treasures looted by foreign armies 150 years ago.

The experts will scour museums, libraries and private collections in Britain, the US, France, Japan and elsewhere to photograph and catalogue what was taken from the Yuan Ming Yuan, popularly known as the Old Summer Palace, after British and French armies sacked it in 1860 then picked through what remained in 1900.

Chen Mingjie, the director of Yuan Ming Yuan, said: “We hope to build a complete database of the Old Summer Palace’s lost relics so we can have a clearer view of the historical royal garden, then known as the Garden of Gardens, before it was looted and burnt.”

He was not sure how many treasures had been pillaged from the palace, which was a summer pleasure ground for Chinese emperors in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries,” Mr Chen said.

Countries that are signatories to a 1970 Unesco convention can request items taken from them only after that date, but Mr Chen said that China was not trying to reclaim the artefacts.

He said: “We have clarified that this is an attempt to document rather than to seek the return of those relics. We do hope some previously unknown relics might surface and some might be returned to our country during our investigation.”

In the British Museum, the China hall is full of porcelain that almost certainly came from the collections of emperors who lived in Yuan Ming Yuan.

Also in the collection is a series of paintings known as The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies, a line drawing on silk believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world. The 8th-century copy of a parody by the artist Gu Kaizhi (about 345-406) was known to have been in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-96) and is believed to have been looted in 1900.

Under the command of Lord Elgin — the son of the man who acquired the Elgin Marbles — British and French troops looted the garden, also known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness. Lord Elgin wanted to punish the Emperor for the kidnap, torture and murder of 18 members of a 39-man diplomatic mission — including The Times correspondent Thomas Bowlby.

Two treasures that China wants to recover are in France. The bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat from a fountain featuring the 12 Chinese zodiac animals were auctioned as part of the estate of Yves Saint Laurent in February. A Chinese collector bid for them but refused to pay. Five others are back in China. The rest are missing.

Agence France Presse

British Museum relaxed about Chinese relics’ search
(AFP) – 23 hours ago

LONDON — One of Britain’s most prestigious museums said Tuesday it had nothing to hide, after China announced it would dispatch experts to record relics abroad it says were looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace.

Museums, libraries and private collections in the United States, Britain, France and Japan will be targeted by the initiative, according to the director of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan, or Old Summer Palace, quoted in the China Daily.

China views the burning and pillaging of the Yuanmingyuan in 1860 by British and French armies as one of its greatest humiliations.

The British Museum in London, which has a substantial collection of Chinese artefacts, said it did not believe the Chinese initiative was aimed at seeking the return of any items, but simply to catalogue them.

“We understand it is about archiving and documentation. We would be happy to have any discussion with anyone who comes forward,” said museum spokeswoman Esme Wilson.

“But we have not been contacted by anyone at this point.”

China protested strongly this year when auctioneers Christie’s sold two bronze animal heads looted from the Old Summer Palace, which belonged to late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge.

The Chinese government called for the sale to be cancelled and demanded that the relics be returned to China.

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