Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cashing in on Looted Heirlooms

Tom Flynn's blog discusses "What future for families hoping to cash in on the treasures looted by their forebears?". He starts of from some recent cases where auctions of objects of Chinese origins have been sabotaged with faux-bidders pushing up prices in protest and then failing to pay for works won. The need for diligence seems even more acute when it transpires that the works in question were originally looted from China. He uses as an example the forthcoming auction of important Chinese works of art at Duke's in Dorchester on May 19. This includes a number of items consigned by descendants of Captain James Gunter (illustration on right) who served with the King's Dragoon Guards in China during the Second Opium War in 1860 when the Summer Palace in Peking (Beijing) was looted by British and French forces on the instructions of Lord Elgin.
Whether the freight of exceptionally important treasures Gunter acquired as a result of his imperial adventures will give rise to the sort of controversy that is now a familiar aspect of the art market remains to be seen. One thinks of the storm of protest that greeted the prospective sale at Sotheby's of Benin works of art that were provenanced to a member of the British military involved in the desecration of the Benin kingdom in 1897 [...]. In the event, Sotheby's was forced to cancel the sale.

Auction houses are caught between a rock and a hard place over these issues. On the one hand, they are understandably reluctant to decline an invitation to sell a lucrative consignment of exceptionally rare objects. On the other hand, such commercial opportunities now have to be weighed against the potentially damaging PR consequences of selling ideologically contested cultural objects.

Interestingly, although Duke's catalogue includes a portrait of Captain Gunter posing imperiously on a French rococo chair, baton in hand, it studiously avoids referring to the precise circumstances by which the exquisite white jade cups and celadon pendants came into his possession. One white jade cup and saucer [...] is expected to fetch a quarter of a million pounds. Given the current bullish state of the Chinese art market, that estimate could be rendered meaningless on sale day.
Flynn notes that, given recent events, auction houses are requesting that prospective bidders lodge a refundable deposit with them before bidding. he suggests this means "we could be witnessing a major upheaval in the market for goods acquired during the age of imperialism".
How will this play out in the auction market? Might it divert goods towards other routes to market? Who knows how many UK family collections contain important works of art looted from China and elsewhere during the nineteenth century? It is problematic enough for museums who are increasingly being challenged over ownership of such objects, but they are not trying to liquidate their assets. Those families, like the owners of the Benin mask, who were hoping to capitalize on the fruits of their ancestors' plundering exploits may have to think again. They thought these objects were part of their family heritage, their birthright. Others would disagree.

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