The China Collectors: America's Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures
Karl E. Meyer, Shareen Blair Brysac
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**One of The Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2015**
Thanks to Salem sea captains, Gilded Age millionaires, curators on horseback and missionaries gone native, North American museums now possess the greatest collections of Chinese art outside of East Asia itself. How did it happen? The China Collectors is the first full account of a century-long treasure hunt in China from the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion to Mao Zedong's 1949 ascent.
The principal gatherers are mostly little known and defy invention. They included "foreign devils" who braved desert sandstorms, bandits and local warlords in acquiring significant works. Adventurous curators like Langdon Warner, a forebear of Indiana Jones, argued that the caves of Dunhuang were already threatened by vandals, thereby justifying the removal of frescoes and sculptures. Other Americans include George Kates, an alumnus of Harvard, Oxford and Hollywood, who fell in love with Ming furniture. The Chinese were divided between dealers who profited from the artworks' removal, and scholars who sought to protect their country's patrimony. Duanfang, the greatest Chinese collector of his era, was beheaded in a coup and his splendid bronzes now adorn major museums. Others in this rich tapestry include Charles Lang Freer, an enlightened Detroit entrepreneur, two generations of Rockefellers, and Avery Brundage, the imperious Olympian, and Arthur Sackler, the grand acquisitor. No less important are two museum directors, Cleveland's Sherman Lee and Kansas City's Laurence Sickman, who challenged the East Coast's hegemony.
Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E. Meyer even-handedly consider whether ancient treasures were looted or salvaged, and whether it was morally acceptable to spirit hitherto inaccessible objects westward, where they could be studied and preserved by trained museum personnel. And how should the US and Canada and their museums respond now that China has the means and will to reclaim its missing patrimony?
million, Sotheby’s this time brokers a private sale between the consigner and Stanley Ho, who reportedly pays $8.9 million. Once again, the Macao gambling magnate is hailed as a national hero and the horse is added to the Poly Art Museum’s expanding menagerie. All of which leads to a resonant finale centering on yet two more missing heads: a rabbit and a rat. It is February 2009 in Paris. The subject du jour in the art market is Christie’s forthcoming sale of the Yves St. Laurent Collection, as
many of the things we already had, and I went to Brundage and asked him for part of it. But he wanted a separate series of galleries. We kept the idea in mind, but meanwhile, San Francisco came along, and I advised Brundage to put his collection on the West Coast—to the great annoyance, I may say, of Charles Keeley, one of our curators, who had been advising Brundage on acquisitions.” These initial soundings were owed in part to an initiative taken by the University of California (Berkeley) art
no doubt deplorable: Peter Fleming, The Siege at Peking (New York: Harper, 1959), 242. So reported The New York Times: in no byline, “Gift from Peking for Museum of Art,” NYT, September 3, 1901. 29 In a further token of changing mores: these successive auctions were widely reported; regarding 2009 Yves St. Laurent sale, of particular interest are “Chinese Bidder of Looted Sculptures Refuses to Pay,” People’s Daily, March 2, 2009; and Jane Macartney, “Chinese Bidder Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, for YSL
resting place. Competition grows, prices rise, and the inducements to further ravage become continually stronger. C. T. Loo’s Parisian pagoda-style gallery on rue de Courcelles. Warner visited that same month but found there was no possibility of spending even one night. He had been warned by the city magistrate that there were a thousand robbers just beyond Longmen. “[T]roops rode out each night to have a brush with them and to keep things moving. . . . Two days before they had come to a
quasi-official Beijing monthly. Indeed, the journal noted in March 2011 that of the ten highest bids ever recorded at auctions for Chinese art, only one was placed abroad (in London in 2005, for a Yuan dynasty sculpture)—an “epochal change” from leaner days past. The boom has since fluctuated, unpaid bids inflated totals, and in 2012 China slowed to a second-place finish behind the United States. Nonetheless, in ways Chairman Mao (who died in 1976) might not have imagined, his maxim that the past