Stolen Art

Over 150 years ago in 1860, English and French forces stormed the Chinese capital during the Second Opium War, looting the famed Summer Palace in Beijing and seizing bronze busts of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. In 2013, French art collector Francois Pinault donated two of the twelve busts back to the Chinese government (Jones, 2013); five other busts have been bought by the Chinese government in order to repatriate the artworks, while the last five remain missing and scattered.

This story is not unique to China. Over the past two centuries, many formerly colonized Asian countries have had objects of great cultural and artistic value taken to Western European countries; for the most part, those objects have remained in Western museums or private collections. The attempt to reunite all twelve animal busts in China is one of the more prominent examples of an Asian country trying to repatriating its art. Given that the Opium War reminds many Chinese of painful humiliation at the hands of Western forces (the widespread opium addiction in various regions of China is especially shameful to many Chinese), and the fact that these busts were seized by force, the Chinese government makes a strong case for their repatriation. Yet only two of the twelve busts have been given back to China; the rest are either missing or were bought. As these busts are cultural artifacts, should the Chinese government have to buy them back? Are private collectors obligated to return the busts to China as gifts? And if they do not, are they stealing a country’s art?

One might be tempted to immediately assume that these busts are “stolen”, and demand their swift repatriation to China; after all, these busts were originally looted in an act of wartime aggression—therefore they must be stolen. Yet the original looters of the busts are now long dead; can we hold modern collectors of the un-returned busts responsible for actions that occurred over 150 years ago? Additionally, certain art historians may argue that an artwork’s biography—the story behind where and how a piece of art has travelled throughout the world—is part of the art itself. That is, the fact that the bronze busts of the zodiac animals were looted has become part of the artworks’ history, and repatriation may eliminate this part of their history; artworks should not have to remain in their location of origin simply because they were created in a specific place. Additionally, if all works of art in collections around the world were returned to their locations of origin, cultural diversity in many museums would be lacking.

However, this phenomenon would very likely only apply to museums in the Western world: while many Western museums feature extensive collections of Asian art (some of which may be classified as “stolen”), it cannot be said that many Asian museums showcase large collections of Western art.

The treatment of Asian art within Western museums is also problematic. In many museums in the Western world, art from Asia is presented very differently from Euro- and American-centric art; any stroll through an American or European museum will highlight these differences. More often than not, Asian art is presented as an anthropological display; Asian artworks are linked to the more practical functions in life: how artistic objects were used at festivals, as artisanal objects, or as tools in daily life. Museums tend to frame Asian (and for that matter, most art originating from non-Western cultures) as a single, massive group, undistinguished by the period or region in which they were created. Meanwhile, the study of Western works of art is much more centered on appreciating the artwork in an intellectual context; Western works of art are categorized by specific regions, artists and the various philosophical movements or “—isms” that have advanced Western art forms. Inevitably, this way of displaying Asian art reinforces a Euro-centric worldview, treating Asian works of art as objects to be viewed from Western anthropological discourse (by extension viewing Asian countries as an exotic “other”), while restricting pure intellectualism to Western artworks.

Given all these conflicting viewpoints, what exactly should be done about the bronze animal busts from the Beijing Summer Palace? Interestingly, the rat and rabbit head—which were donated to the Chinese government by Pinault—had been auctioned in 2009 before their 2013 repatriation. The winning bidder, Chinese national Cai Mingchao, refused to pay the 15 million euro sum for the two busts on the premise that objects representing a country’s culture and heritage should not be put for sale (BBC, 2009). I would add to Mr. Cai’s argument: not only have the busts been out of China for longer than necessary (the missing busts have not been in China for over 150 years—not even as a museum loan), but Chinese scholars—who understand the cultural background from which the busts originate, and who no doubt will look at Chinese artwork from a perspective different from those of Western scholars—should be granted the opportunity to study these works of art in their original setting. It is time for Western art institutions to reconsider their ownership of these artworks.

-By Kendra Cui ’18


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