Monday, March 2, 2009

Are we entering the era of guerilla activism in cultural heritage?

So, Cai Mingchao (left), who claims to be the winning bidder on the Qing Dynasty rat and rabbit heads from the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé collection at Christie's in Paris last week, turns out to be an adviser to the foundation in China that seeks to retrieve looted cultural heritage. Cai is refusing to pay for the bronzes, according to the Reuters news agency (reporting here).

Are we entering an era of guerilla activism, where sabotage of art auctions becomes another weapon in cultural heritage repatriation disputes?

Last October, Cai Mingchao — the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. — was among the buyers at Sotheby's sale of Chinese art in Hong Kong, according to William Verdult. After the sale Cai told reporters, "The purchases are as much about patriotism as a love of art ... Many of us just want these Chinese treasures to come home,'' thereby demonstrating the nationalist fervour driving Chinese cultural heritage claims.

There has been much talk this week, following the Bergé auction, of the possibility of China looking to the law as a means of pressing for return of its treasures. This would be a mistake, successful Italian cultural lawsuits notwithstanding.

But what chance cultural diplomacy, particularly where a still bloated art market is involved?

Evidently the Zodiac rat and rabbit heads in dispute are still in Paris. It is highly unlikely that Christie's would have released them without payment — or at least some form of down payment. The auction house made a number of significant loans to buyers at last week's sale, but it would be surprising if they did so in this case.

It could, of course, turn out to be another grand publicity stunt by the Chinese. Either way it's going to be fascinating to see how this one plays out.

Picture of Cai Mingchao above: REUTERS/Christina Hu


Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

I am from China. I was googling for Mr.Mingchao Cai's news today and stumbled upon your blog post.

I have a little comments here:
the Opium War is the unforgettable history of Chinese people. Those looted cultural heritages always remind us of what we have been through during the war time. When people's mind and body were fooled and weakened by drugs, homes, palaces and cities burnt, treasuries robbed away. And the Qing Government was very weak at that time.

After 1949, we established our new government. We've been through hard times and good times. Like many countries, we also have issues and problems to face when making our country a better home for its people. And indeed we are getting better and stronger, regaining the strengths.

We collected those art pieces, here and there, in different ways.
Law suits, and money.

Why? There were a lot of things we should do to protect our family during the war time, but we failed to, and we felt shameful.

Today, when we collect the things back, the art pieces designed and made by our ancient artists, we feel that we are healing the scars, little by little, and feel that we are helping our family to regain its glory, piece by piece.

If you get to know a Chinese concept of "Wan Bi Gui Zhao":

(a man risked his life to protect his country's treasure)

you'd understand more about Mr.Cai's action.

I hope I've explained my view clearly.

Thank you.



I am afraid there may be more similar actions, not limited to auctions, which may probably be in the making as more governments in Asia and Africa realize that museums, art dealers, and others in the West do not take seriously the claims for the restitution of stolen/looted cultural artefacts. Above all, the arrogance of many Western museum directors and dealers is not likely to pacify those who feel that military might has been employed to deprive them of important elements of their culture. Nevertheless, the present situation as regards restitution of stolen/looted cultural objects needs not lead to disruption of settled methods of transfer of ownership or possession if those concerned and their governments would show some understanding for the position and feelings of non-Western countries. So far as I can tell, there is not much indication that there will soon be a change in the condescending attitude of the West. On the contrary, the recent lecture by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, ( www.modernghana.) and the latest article from James Cuno, Director, Art Institute of Chicago,( clearly demonstrate that Western museums, or leading museum directors, are not trying to reach a position on restitution of stolen/looted cultural objects which will take into account the needs and feelings of others. They are rather desperately seeking argumentation which will bolster their well-known positions that have been generally disputed.

When non-Western governments, their lawyers and their economists turn their attention to these issues, there will be many interesting ways they can affect the unrestricted transfer and possession of cultural objects. If this is what some are aiming at, they are well on the way. The time will surely come when one may wonder whether the rigid and disdainful attitude is a positive contribution to harmonious international relations.

Kwame Opoku.