Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What future for families hoping to cash in on the treasures looted by their forebears?


The spate of recent incidents in which Chinese bidders have failed to pay for works of art bought at auction is forcing UK auctioneers to initiate new registration rules prior to sale, as I reported here a few days ago with regard to the forthcoming sale of Asian art at Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury.

When it transpires that the works in question were originally looted from China, the need for diligence seems even more acute, as evidenced by the forthcoming auction of important Chinese works of art at Duke's in Dorchester on May 19 (catalogue online here).

Duke's sale contains a number of items consigned by descendants of Captain James Gunter 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 (see my blog entry on that case here). 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 (above left) 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.

Like Woolley and Wallis, Duke's counterparts down the road in Salisbury, Duke's are requesting that prospective bidders lodge a refundable deposit with the auction house before bidding. Genuine, bona fide Chinese collectors will not be put off by this. But if this sale runs into the sort of difficulties experienced by Bainbridges of Ruislip and Christie's in Paris (whose rat and rabbit sold at the Yves Saint Laurent sale were also looted from the Summer Palace), then 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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