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Many Chinese collectors use their wealth to repatriate once-looted objects

Why bringing it back home is a mark of respect

London. The market for the finest Chinese art is being fuelled by collectors from China who are buying back imperial treasures which were looted a century or more ago by European troops.

The Art Newspaper has tracked down 14 iconic pieces (each worth over $15m) which have been sold at auction to Chinese buyers. Many of these masterpieces originally left China, often in the 19th century, in questionable circumstances. All these sales have been within the past five years, and most very recently.

The Chinese situation is unusual in the world of cultural property. Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America suffered the loss of portable antiquities during the colonial era. Sometimes treasures were seized and on other occasions purchased, often for much less than their true value. Buying this material back (as opposed to lodging restitution claims) could be seen as legitimising these transactions, so in some countries it is frowned upon.

In China, however, repatriating art is regarded as a highly respectable use of wealth. The Chinese have traditionally had a deep interest in their past (and relatively little in other cultures), and this also encourages the buying.

In marketing terms, stressing that a Chinese imperial treasure had been “looted” actually seems to add to its interest and value. For instance, on 12 May Bonhams in London is selling a jadeite seal (est £40,000-£60,000). This was seized in the Second Opium War (1860) and was acquired by a Liverpool missionary.

Bonhams’ news release is candid about its marketing strategy: there is no attempt to disguise the fact that the seal was looted. The release is headlined: “Imperial Chinese seal brought to Britain after 1860 sacking of the Summer Palace—seal may head home as provenance attracts Chinese buyers.”

The phenomenon of the Chinese buying back their heritage first came to the fore in 2000, when the Poly Art Museum in Beijing purchased three bronze animal heads from the Zodiac fountain at the Old Summer Palace (see below). The price was $4m, but they are probably worth over ten times as much now—an indication of how demand has risen in just over a decade, with the growth of the Chinese economy.

The Poly Art Museum, run by the state-owned Poly auction house, has continued to acquire. It now has over 100 bronzes and 40 stone sculptures, most of them “retrieved from abroad”. It remains unclear to what extent the Chinese government is involved in buying back works. The consensus among specialists is that while naturally welcoming this development, the government prefers to distance itself from direct involvement.

What is striking is how many important imperial treasures have been acquired by Chinese buyers within the past two years. Most were bought for private collections, although ultimately some will end up in museums. Until recently buyers tended to come from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, but increasingly they are from the mainland.

The pace of sales, and the prices fetched, is epitomised by the fact that two masterpieces have just been auctioned in Toulouse, where they were sold by separate auction houses on the same day, 26 March. These were a scroll (€22m) at Labarbe (see box) and a jade seal (€12.4m) at Chassaing-Marambat. A decade ago it would have seemed inconceivable that buyers from China would be buying imperial treasures of this value in provincial French auctions. Both pieces were probably looted from the Forbidden City in 1900—and now look set to return to China.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘'Why bringing it back home is a mark of respect'