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Captain Gunter's "loot": Antiquities from China's Summer Palace continue to sell at auction

Stolen, Plundered, Contraband, Spoils of war, Ransacked, Pillaged, or????

Published on 31 January 2012

Author(s): SafeCorner/

Type:  Feature

The taking of valuable goods from invaded areas during war is as old as war itself.

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The sale of a 8.5 by 5.8 centimeter Qing dynasty (late 18th- early 19th century) gold box for £490,000 ($764,694.00) at London auction house Woolley and Wallis has provoked an international debate. The gold box, embellished with seed pearls, enamel glass panels, and floral motifs, inscribed in 1860 "Loot from Summer Palace, Perkin, October 1860, Captain James Gunter, King's Dragoon Guards." This engraving not only increased the box's value by 50%, but also sparked a passionate dialogue about looting during war, the Chinese art market, and auction house responsibility.

All is Fair in Loot and War?

Whether we regard items such as the Captain Gunter box as "stolen," "plundered," "contraband," "spoils of war," "ransacked," "pillaged," or as Gunter appropriately chose "looted," the taking of valuable goods from invaded areas during war is as old as war itself. Art Law: Cases and Materials perhaps says it best:

  • This historical sketch [referring to Roman activities] emphasizes the problem that can arise when the army of one nation occupies another. Historically, the world community did very little to protect national patrimony from plunder and destruction. Conquering armies believed they possessed the right to despoil a apparently defeated enemy. What about the interest of future generations in their nation's cultural property? Should they be deprived of their national artistic heritage merely because their country was defeated in battle? The protection of national patrimony from plunder has ramifications beyond the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations. (Leonard D. DuBoff, Sherri Burr, Michael D. Murray, Art Law: Cases and Materials, 2004, 32).

The looting of the Summer Palace on October 18th and 19th, 1860 is considered by many as one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history. The Opium War, also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, occurred in two stages between 1839 and 1860 after trade relations broke down between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire. During the war, British forces razed historic Chinese sites and looted of Chinese "souvenirs."

British High Commissioner to China, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin.jpg

Interesting enough, the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace occurred under the orders of the British High Commissioner to China, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, son of Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin responsible for the "preservation" of the metopes, friezes, and pedimental sculptures of the Acropolis, now in the British Museum. The destruction of the Summer Palace, a brash act of pyromania led to the death of hundreds of eunuchs trapped inside the compound and the "pillaging" of some 1.5 million relics. This signaled the end of the Opium War. In October 2010, China lamented the 150 year anniversary of the Opium War and the burning of the Summer Palace.

Captain Gunter's inscribed box is only one of the many items that he "looted" from the Summer Palace. On May 19th, 2011, Duke's Auctioneers of Dorchester Captain Gunter's descendants sold eleven pieces from the Summer Palace, including a 18th Century Qianlong period yellow jade pendant with a carved dragon for £478,000. In the auction catalogue, Duke's identified the pieces as "acquired" from the Summer Palace, rather than the more controversial term "looted." The Gunter family still holds possession of an extensive collection of artifacts-- ivory chopsticks, jade boxes, jade chimes, bowls, and a jadeite belt hook estimated to be worth over £2 million. Guy Schwinge, an expert from Duke's, recounts his visit to the Gunter estate in May 2011. He stated in The Daily Mail:

  • When I arrived at the house and was shown into the sitting room, I was not sure what I was going to see. We discussed the market for Chinese works of art over a cup of coffee and the results we had achieve at our recent Melplash Court sale, which included many Chinese works. The family then began to pull the most stunning pieces of jade from the back of a display cabinet in the corner of the room. I was stunned by the quality and number of pieces of jade that emerged from the cabinet. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. (The Daily Mail, May 4, 2011).

The future of these items is still not known.

The "looting" that took place at the Summer Palace is not an isolated incident. In fact, the Chinese Cultural Relics Foundation predicts that over ten million cultural objects were "plundered" from China between 1840 and 1949. The 150th anniversary of the Summer Palace looting, coupled with China's growing wealth and status has ignited a strong and unified movement to return Chinese antiquities to their homeland.

The Chinese Art Market

However, instead of going to public museums, most Chinese antiquities enter private collections, displayed as a sign of wealth and power, not patriotism. Andrew Jabobs, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote in 2009:

The China Daily, agreed that the motives of China's wealthy class to purchase of antiquities is questionable. They wrote, "Although patriotism is playing a part in this hunting to recapture looted treasures, experts say that majority of buyers are in fact more interested in the investment potential of ancient works--and the glamour" (Cheng Yingqi, The China Daily, December 15, 2010).

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The trade of Chinese antiquities is big business. The sale of Chinese artifacts has now surpassed the purchase of Old Master paintings (Scott Rayburn, "China Antique Sales Raise Record Sums", The China Daily, May 23, 2011). The revenue from the sale of Chinese works now exceeds $10 billion annually. After the October 2011 sale of "looted objects" from the Summer Palace, Tom Flynn, author of the blog ArtKnows, stated:

  • Recent auctions in the UK--even those held in the British Provinces--have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel-- and indeed how high they are prepared to bid--to secure Imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete (Art Knows, October 27, 2011).

In recent years, major auctions houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's have opened locations in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong-- each enjoying enormous success. For example, a 2010 auction at Sotheby's Hong Kong specializing in Asian art totaled a record $447 million (Giles Turner, "Buying Frenzy for Chinese Art," Financial News, May 12, 2011).

Government Regulation

The sale of artifacts "looted" from the Summer Palace is complicated by China's export laws and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States. China's Ministry of Culture issued "Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Import and Export of Art" on July 17, 2009. Article 5 of the provision states: "Art works are prohibited from being imported or exported if they contain content which:

  1. violates the basic principles of the Constitution of China;
  2. endangers the unification of the country, national sovereignty or territorial integrity; 
  3. divulges state secrets, endangers state security, honor or interests; 
  4. incites ethnic hatred, discrimination, or harms ethnic unity or habits and customs; 
  5. propagates or publicizes cults or superstitions; 
  6. disrupts social order or stability; 
  7. advocates or publicizes obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, horror, or instigates crime; 
  8. libels, slanders or harms the legal interests of others; 
  9. deliberately tampers with history or severely distorts history; 
  10. harms public morals or ethnic cultural traditions; or 
  11. other content prohibited by laws, regulations and rules." (Nancy M. Murphy, "Provisions on the Managements of the Import and Export of Art," July 17, 2009).

These provisions, in summary, give the government complete control over any and all works of art which enter or exit the country. These rules can be broadly interpreted and make it almost impossible to export Chinese antiquities from the country. The provisions also have created an underground trade, or black market, for Chinese antiquities.

Furthermore, the United States entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with China on January 14th, 2009, "acting pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property, to which both countries are party; and desiring to reduce the incentives for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological material representing the rich cultural heritage of China." (United States, Department of State). For this reason, the trade in Chinese antiquities, particularly items that are newly discovered or have no established provenance, has shifted from the United States to the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. For more information on the China MOU visit SAFE's web site here and SAFECORNER's coverage at "Bilateral Agreements at Work," "Trying to put 'Humpty Dumpty back together again," and "Cultural Heritage in Danger: Reacting to the New York Times."

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Yuanmingyuan Park, which houses the remaining Summer Palace relics, recently called upon foreign museums to return the "looted" relics. According to the United Kingdom's The Daily Telegraph, the main target of this action was the British Museum (Peter Foster, "China to Study British Museum for Looted Artefacts," The Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2009). Experts, however, are doubtful that items will ever be returned from international museums. Instead, some argue that the government's public campaign is an attempt to encourage private collectors in China to return or donate the antiquities to the Yuanmingyuan Park. In November 2011, the Yuanmingyuan Park called for a boycott of auctions selling "looted" relics. This, along with the founding of several non-governmental organizations such as the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, has led to aggressive action to retrieve the 1.5 million relics "stolen" from the Summer Palace ("China Experts to Search Abroad for Looted Relics," France 24, October 19, 2009).

Questionable Auction House Sales

The art world was stunned on March 7, 2009 by what is now being called the "Yves Saint Laurent Fiasco." The Times' Richard Morris reported: "The fury of the reactions to an act of sabotage by an incensed Chinese bidder has rocked the art world" (The Times, March 7, 2009). At an Asian sale at Christie's Paris a pair of bronze animal heads, once of a set of twelve that made up a water clock at the Summer Palace, achieved a hammer price of £28 million. The bidder, Cai Mingchao, a once trusted Christie's client, promptly refused to pay. In a statement he said his intentions were to "draw attention to this sale of looted treasure.... There is an indignation in China that Chinese bidders have to spend millions simply to retrieve artifacts that were looted from the country" (The Times, March 7, 2009).

Christie's options included: (1) sue for the payment, drawing attention to the fact that they are selling known "looted" goods; or (2) attempt to re-auction the heads to buyers now aware of the questionable provenance and potential for a title claim. Both options would damage Christie's image, respectability, reliability, and result in extreme legal fees. The bronze animal heads were returned to the consignor. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that Christie's may receive some form of payment. Cai Mingchao was, therefore, successful in his statement about "looted" goods. This episode served as a wake-up call.

As a result, auction houses in the United Kingdom now require pre-registration applications, financial references, guarantees, and deposits at least three days before Asian art sales. Such measures limit the possible economic losses for auction houses. Yet, these pre-registration requirements they do not prevent the loss of reliability and reputation that are key to the auction business.

This brings us back to Captain Gunter's gold box. Was the risk of auctioning an obviously "looted" item worth Woolley and Willis' premium return on $764,694? Granted, the Gunter family currently has possession, but who truly owns such "looted" items? Where should they go, what should happen to them? These are questions not only relevant to the Captain Gunter case, but to the all the artifacts "stolen" or "looted" from the Summer Palace.

Photos Courtesy of Woolley and Wallis, The Daily Mail, and The Times.

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