Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have written a rollicking account of the acquisition of Chinese art and antiquities by Americans who came to China in the 19th and 20th centuries and took back vast collections from caves, palaces and the back rooms of dealers in Beijing. In “The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures,” the authors describe how lovers of Chinese art roamed the country hunting for sculptures, wall panels, furniture, porcelain and paintings that are now housed in important museums in the United States. Some of the artworks they tried to send back were ruined in the process.
Whether their forays represented a rapacious plundering of China’s past or the fortuitous preservation of antiquities that might otherwise have been destroyed by war or greed in China is a theme of constant debate. Mr. Meyer, a former editorial writer for The New York Times, and Ms. Brysac, a documentary producer with a degree in art history, straddle the fence on that question. They have plumbed personal papers, historical records and memoirs of the main characters to piece together a startling tale of Americans who went to great lengths to obtain the artifacts that became part of a booming trade in the United States and Europe. In an interview, they described their findings:
What was the inspiration for “The China Collectors?”
Ms. Brysac: We had been invited to be members of St. Antony’s, a graduate college at Oxford. However, we needed a project. In 1997, while we researching our first joint book, “Tournament of Shadows” on the Great Game in Asia, we had uncovered files in the Harvard archives relating to the acquisition of the great “Empress” frieze from Longmen in China, now in Kansas City. The correspondence between Laurence Sickman, then a scout for the newly founded Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, and his Harvard mentor Langdon Warner was exceptionally frank — to summarize: “Go for it!” This was off our topic then. But in 2012, we looked into it and discovered that provenance research on Chinese art was in its infancy, and there were many archives that had not been mined. We were sure we had a book.
One of the most remarkable episodes is about Langdon Warner and the Dunhuang caves. The use of cloths soaked in thick glue applied to the walls to remove murals sounds so crude. How did that work? Where are the murals now? Where is the Tang Dynasty bodhisattva that he pried from its base?
Ms. Brysac: The method the Harvard art historian Langdon Warner used for removing the paintings in 1924 was based on that developed for detaching frescoes in Europe. But the Dunhuang paintings were not true frescoes. The techniques the Chinese artists used on the cave surfaces were quite different. Although Warner followed the best practices of the time, the caves were icy, the hot glue froze and became unworkable, so pigment remained on the walls when the strips were removed. Then he had to transport the 12 painting fragments and the Tang bodhisattva for 18 weeks in a springless cart, wrapped in his underwear.
By the time they reached Cambridge, where they are now in the Harvard Art Museums, they were in a very bad state of preservation, and the conservator had a difficult time removing the glue-soaked pigment. Only five of the fragments and the bodhisattva sculpture are in good enough condition to be exhibited. However, the Getty Conservation Institute is now involved in the preservation of the Dunhuang material, including the remaining cave paintings.
Laurence Sickman, who later became the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, was involved with some of Warner’s exploits. Could you explain?
Ms. Brysac: Warner had had his eye on the Longmen caves in Henan Province since 1909, but he had been unable to obtain funding from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he was then working, to explore them. The grottoes contain thousands of Buddhist statues. Both the French scholar Édouard Chavannes and the American collector Charles Lang Freer had them photographed between 1907 and 1911, and soon, dealers using Chavannes’s images in China and Europe were sending local peasants out to hack away at the unguarded sculptures.
Three Harvard-trained scholars, Warner, Sickman and Alan Priest, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, had fixed upon what Priest described as the “Elgin Marbles of China,” two friezes from the Binyang cave showing the donors, Empress Wenzhao and the Emperor Xiaowen, with their courtiers. Sickman made notes and rubbings of the Empress frieze while it was still intact in 1931. But by late 1932, fragments — bits of hands, heads — began to appear in Beijing antique shops. When Sickman revisited the caves in 1933, he wrote Warner that “whole figures had been chipped from walls and niches.” What should he do?
The Fogg and the Nelson agreed together to provide funds to acquire all the pieces and reassemble them in Kansas City. Priest and the Met acquired the other pieces from a Beijing dealer who was then commissioned to acquire the remaining heads directly from the site. Sickman continued to express regret over the looting at the site. “I would give almost anything if it [the Empress frieze] had never left the Pin-Yang cave.”
C.T. Loo was the leading dealer of Longmen sculptures. What happened to his collection? And what about the Longmen grottoes? What condition are they in?
Ms. Brysac: C.T. Loo is viewed by the Chinese as the archvillain who abetted the destruction of their cultural heritage, because, unlike the American and Canadian curators, he was native-born. Loo conducted a mail-order business providing photos to dealers who then hired local peasants to steal sculptures now in many collections in the United States and Europe. He was an early supporter of the Kuomintang, so was well connected with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese and was able to get artwork out of the country, thus skirting China’s export laws. His Chinese inventory was confiscated by the Chinese Communists when they took over, but his galleries in New York and Paris continued to sell his stock. Upon his retirement, his New York gallery was taken over by Frank Caro. As to Longmen caves, they are now protected as a Unesco World Heritage site.
Some American diplomats at the turn of the 20th century seem to have felt no qualms about taking out huge caches of Chinese art treasures. Herbert Squiers, the first secretary at the United States Legation, loaded up rail cars with artworks and then sold them to buy a 700-ton state-of-the-art yacht. Was there no shame at that time?
Mr. Meyer: There was a developing sense of shame. As we write, by 1901, “looting had become bad form; at least a pretense of virtue was expected.” Thus, when The New York Times questioned the Metropolitan Museum about accepting donations from Squiers in 1901, an unnamed spokesman responded, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art does not accept looted art,” and since Squiers was “a gentleman without question,” it would be presumed his works “had been honestly got.”
As the years passed and disorders gripped China, even the pretense of virtue lessened. When Squiers auctioned his prizes a decade or so later, the sale catalogs underscored the imperial provenance of key works.
You write that the Chinese government has basically depended on the art market to restore treasures to China. Chinese collectors pay large sums to bring back porcelain, sculpture, paintings. But might this approach change, and China demand that American museums return artworks?
Mr. Meyer: To date, Beijing has yet to formally demand the restitution of objects now in American museums. It has relied instead on market tools to secure recovery of disputed works at auctions, or through private sales, using as proxies either private collectors or the state-owned Poly Group. But yes, museum curators and directors are on the alert for changing signals.
As best as we could determine, the likely response to any formal demand would be, one, that the museum has a valid sale receipt and export license for objects acquired before 1970, the cutoff date for importing antiquities; two, that the work has been better protected and preserved than if it remained in situ; three, that yielding on legal grounds would fix a precedent for a swarm of other demands. Finally, four, if the original sale transaction now looks bad, it accorded with common practices over the era. For example, curators argue, though the reputed purchase of Manhattan from Native Americans for $24 now looks bad, should we now give them the island?
But we at least owe an honest account of the original sale, as our book tries to offer regarding Chinese collections.
Is there unease at some American museums with substantial Asian collections that one day they may have to return some of their favorite things to China?
Mr. Meyer: Museum officials worry that they may have to return some prizes to China, but opportunities also beckon for extended loans, swaps and other collaborative ventures. Chinese visitors now constitute the fastest-growing segment of cultural tourism, and flocks of mainland students are now enrolled in major U.S. universities. Against this, insiders credibly complain about a hard-driving mercantilism on the part of Chinese cultural officials seeking to maximize profits in loan programs. But, taken as a whole, the horizons are bright.
Your book comes out as the Robert H. Ellsworthcollection, considered to be one of the finest private collections of Asian art, has been auctioned in New York for more than $131 million. What does that sale say about the desirability of Chinese antiquities in the United States, and in China?
Mr. Meyer: The Ellsworth sale, in our estimate, is the last of its kind in America, and probably the West in general. It is no longer possible for a private person to assemble a collection of such magnitude. Times are long past when Chinese art was an underpriced bargain, when foreigners could shop in the mainland, and when collectors were still at the kindergarten level in their knowledge of Asian art. Robert Ellsworth was at once an innovative, pioneering dealer and a serious scholar. The sale totals may tell us a lot about the present and future of China collecting.