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Cultural-Property Watch: Chinese Kerfuffle at the Met and Other International Gambits

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Repatriation Bait: Bronzes previously part of the Zodiac Fountain of Beijing’s Summer Palace, offered last February at Christie’s in Paris, from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé

In his Nov. 13 testimony to the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), Michael Conforti, president of the Association of the Art Museum Directors (AAMD), suggested that we are now in a “post-repatriation environment.”

He was primarily referring to American museums’ recently improved cultural relations with Italy—the subject of CPAC’s hearing. But repatriations to other countries are still occurring in this “post-repatriation environment.” And Egypt’s Zahi Hawass keeps getting news coverage for his campaign to reclaim the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone and the Neues Museum’s bust of Nefertiti.

To such recent developments we must now add Andrew Jacobs‘ perplexing front-page article in last Thursday’s NY Times about a Chinese delegation that recently “descended on” the Metropolitan Museum, “seeking to reclaim items once ensconced at the Old Summer Palace in
Beijing, which was one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial
residences until British and French troops plundered it in 1860.”

With his one-sided account, Jacobs joined what appears to be a growing NY Times campaign to disparage source-country claimants. Recent observations on cultural-property controversies by art critic Michael Kimmelman (which I analyzed here) and science writer John Tierney (analyzed here) could be excused for one-sidedness on the grounds that they were clearly opinion pieces.

But Jacobs’ report, which repeatedly held the purported Chinese repatriators up to ridicule, was presented on Page One as a news report, not commentary.

In his second paragraph, Jacobs (whose reportorial beat is China, not culture) described the Met’s visitors as a “delegation of Chinese cultural experts.” Later on, he said that most of the group’s eight members “were either employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.”

Whoever they were, they and their nation were treated dismissively throughout Jacobs’ piece, which relentlessly relied on derisory details. Here, for example, are some quotes that Jacobs assembled from various sources:

—China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids.

—Even building a toilet at Yuanmingyuan [the Old Summer Palace] would be front-page news in the People’s Daily.

—This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The [Chinese] media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.

—To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken. Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.

It is a bit shocking, if true, that the delegation had no idea that the Nelson-Atkins Museum, home to one of this country’s premier Chinese art collections, is not located in the Northeast. The Kansas City museum’s director, Marc Wilson, a distinguished expert in Chinese art, has had extensive dealings with that country’s cultural officials.

More shocking is Jacobs’ own failure to acknowledge another side to his story. For that, we must turn to the Chinese press. In a report last October on China’s plan “to trace and document relics taken from the Old Summer Palace” (a campaign that may have gotten its momentum from the sabotaged auction of two bronze animal heads, above, that had come from the palace’s fountain), Lin Shujuan of China Daily quoted Chen Mingjie, director of the Old Summer Palace’s management office:

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…before it was looted and burned
down in 1860 by invading British and French armies. We have clarified that this is an attempt to document rather than to
seek a return of those relics
[emphasis added], even though we do hope some
previously unknown relics might surface and some might be returned to
our country during our tracing effort.

If true, that sounds like a reasonable, non-confrontational approach. A Dec. 1 article by An Baijie of China’s Global Times indicates that the recent visit to the Met was part of a “20-day mission [to the U.S.] to find missing cultural relics” from the Old Summer Palace. “The team will visit nine sites including the Library of Congress and
the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and some U.S. private antique
collectors,” according to the Global Times’ report.

The closest we get in Jacobs’ piece to an alternate view of what happened at the Met is a quote from James Watt, the museum’s chairman of Asian art, who seemed to take the visit in stride: “That wasn’t so bad after all,” he said when the sides parted amicably. [I have a query in to the Met about how it regarded the visit and whether it expects any follow-up. If and when I know more, you’ll know more.]

But back to Michael Conforti’s “post-repatriation environment,” with which we began this post: The director of the Clark Art Institute—along with Maxwell Anderson, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Kaywin Feldman, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and Gary Vikan, Walters Art Museum—testified on cultural-property issues last month as part of CPAC’s interim review of our country’s amended Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Italy, which restricts imports of cultural property from that country. The U.S. directors are seeking longer-term loans from Italy in greater numbers. They also argue for the development of a limited, legal market in antiquities, allowing American museums to enlarge their collections with Italy’s acquiesence.

You can now read the four museum directors’ statements about the MOU with Italy on AAMD’s website, here. After much debate over proposed provisions, the U.S. also recently signed an MOU restricting imports of cultural property from China.

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