China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums

A delegation scoured the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week for objects looted in 1860 from a palace in Beijing.

Comments: 115

  1. Why so uneasy if you had not looted?

  2. Art is only possible when basic needs of humans are met. America did not have too many & so well stocked fancy museums like Europe had in 18th & 19th Century. It amassed it's collections though private collectors, the likes of JP Morgans etc. & the methods are un-documented.

    With stabilization & strengthening emerging countries like China, India, Brazil, Egypt etc, it's just matter of time these countries ask for their heritage to be repatriated.
    "Loot is loot, even if it's kept behind shiny fancy glass windows".

  3. China has as much right to hunt down looted treasure by the West as the Jews to reclaim their belongings looted by the Nazis. The question we shall be asking is why we don’t return them voluntarily?

  4. One must wonder how many of these art treasures would have survived Mao's Red Guard while they mindlessly destroyed all evidence of the "old ways".

    China has a long memory when they wish to bring to the attention of the western countries that they were exploited.

    China has a convenient memory when it suits them.

    Of course the pillaging was wrong, the spoils of war or whatever you wish to call it is always wrong.

    What has happened to Tibet is also wrong ... but another story that the Chinese certainly not wish to address.

    But thank heavens that these incredible works of art found a home in museums around the world and not in the hands of ignorant, mis-lead teenage Red Guards hell-bent on destroying China's history and heritage.

    Emboldened? These so-called China experts should hide their faces in shame.

  5. It is a tough call. On the one hand, the stolen items should be returned to the owner. On the other, the current owner might have purchased one without knowing its history. After all, the looting took place more than 150 years ago. The solution may lay in common sense and reasonableness. I am unsure how important those items are to the current owners, but they do matter to China. So China may consider paying for the lost items at a reasonable price.

  6. So the bottom line is that this is essentially a charade. I have to wonder what other charades the Communists are up to these days.

  7. Should search the buckingham palace, most of the treasures should be hidden there.

  8. Good idea.
    India should conduct a comb search operation in United Kingdom who has literally looted India for 200 years. Time to have justice.

  9. Sadly, developing countries conveniently forget that without the 'incursion' of foreign anthropologists and collectors, these countries might well have destroyed their own cultural heritage in the throes of political transition and modernization. It would be well for all to recall that cultural looting was not paramount in the minds of all who removed valuable objects in the past. We should not presume to pass judgement.

  10. Maybe it's better to leave them where they are...

    For NOW.

  11. Reading half way through, I wondered what the heck this reporter tries to do. Does he want to ridicule Chinese and watch helpless Chinese with glee? If so, he succeeded. Just be careful what you wish for. What you said might come back to bite you hard if not in a few years but eventually.

  12. Beijing's determination to reclaim its cultural heritage would bear a good deal more credibility if they'd stop ransaking the culture of their own Tibetan and Uighur minorities.

  13. You couldn't pick a worse time for a Chinese delegation to go on a hyper public fishing trip version of "that's mine-I want it back!".

    Well, maybe next year will be worse. And the one after that. I imagine that might be the thinking that helped them choose now as the best time for the scheme...never a bad time for that especially appealing to the nationalistic side of a people coming into their own on a global identity scale.

    Still. Nobody else in the WORLD will appreciate it when you come knocking on the door like that.

    Can they see themselves through any eyes other than their own? Can they see the ugly American image being supplanted by their own? Abroad?

    No one likes a bully who throws their weight around. When they asks nicely? You almost feel like it's a conversation.

  14. And what of others whose treasures China has plundered over the millennia?

  15. Chairman Mao and his red guards destroyed more Chinese art than the British or French ever dreamed of.

    Thank heavens for Western collectors, who saved much of what we know and love in Chinese art.

  16. While looted artifacts should in fact be returned, as numerous sources in this article state the recent media frenzy concerning the 1860 Summer Palace incident is a smokescreen to obscure more recent and more devastating periods of purely domestic self-destruction. The holocaust of art, antiquities, and living cultural experts in the 1960's has left an irreparable and prominent void in the cultural and moral fabric of Mainland Chinese society. The second wave of ill-conceived "modernization"-from about 1991 to the present- has eradicated most of the remnants. Irresponsible bangwagoneering like this investigative tour just helps to underscore how the post-Tiananmen construction of state-sanctioned nationalism is incapable of generating a healthy or fact-based vessel for Chinese identity.

  17. The best quote: “China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids”

    The poor Met has been subjected to too many of these "checks" by China, Greece etc when they take better care of art than any other collection

  18. The looting and burning of the Summer Palaces was done by the English and French for retaliation of the murder of over 100 new European ambassadors and staff in Peking in 1859 after the Chinese government had signed a peace treaty, but the Chinese want to portray themselves as victims of colonial aggression.

  19. The difficulty is that the past isn't what it use to be, especially the western chimeras that haunt this "Search for China%u2019s Past".
    I remember something from a high school history class about how the looting of art and other cultural heritage artifacts from the Summer Palace was connected to the Opium Wars, unequal treaties and forced concessions to the British and French Empires. It's a story has ghostly echoes to the current U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and other economic/geopolitical anxieties that attend an aging empire...
    Didn't they invade China in order to protect it's ability to close a trade deficit to china by selling Opium harvested by imperial subjects in the new Indian Colonies? And then afterward burned down the summer palace and created extraterritorial enclaves from which to disintegrate Qing sovereignty in an attempt to control access to global resources? It seems important that Qing China's estranged histories be mentioned so that at least present day China doesn't "look like a monster%u201D to "The West"!

  20. While in China, several friends explained to me that important art treasures were taken to Taiwan by the retreating Guomintang, and by western nations in 1900. In Beijing's Beihai Park, a large sign marks the spot where 10,000 gold Buddhas were taken during the invasion by the Eight Power Allied Forces. These losses are a sore point and embody China's sense that it has been exploited through the centuries. Recovering these antiquities is important to Chinese people. Museums that have them should give them back.

  21. As the Chinese strolled the galleries of many museums Asian collections, they no doubt encountered maey sacred sculptures and thankas looted from Tibetan monasteries during the cultural revolution and sold on the international art market. Maybe they could begin the repatriation by buying back those treasures and returning them to the temples and monasteries from which they were looted.

  22. Actually, I, as a citizen of the socalled People's Republic of China,completely agree that those antiquities are better to be preserved in the great USA museums.With good,scientific,well-intended caring and highly-efficient study,they can be in a greater situation of protection and of greater use and value.
    I fundamentally disagree with the visit of the delegation.First of all,I want to ask that who payed for the fees of the "reclaiming"?Is the money spent legally,openly and usefully? Secondly,why dot't you(the communists of CPC)put the money to render better protection of the remnants of relics at home?Thirdly, are the untold number of antiquities and relice ruined in the notorious Cultural Revolution more vulueable and treasurous than those plundered from Yuanmingyuan?And,what's more,who should be responsible for ruining and destroying so many great antiquities in the damned Cultural Revolution?
    Maybe we should hold a debate at home instead of going abroad in vain!

  23. In the 1860's, the Chinese Rulers and Elite (who had these treasures made by their Chinese slaves and servants) were in a state of war with Western nations. The Chinese Elite were using their Chinese slaves as proxies to kill Western diplomats and ordinary citizens, their wives, and their children.

    These so called 'treasures of China" were the personal property of a small group of ruling cadres (similar to the situation now). They were not the property of the nation (which includes the people).

    If anything was taken from China (do the Chinese have photographs of them being taken, are there eye witness who can be questioned? Where is the proof) by members of the victorious western armies, the items at worst were part of a negotiated reparation and at best saving these treasures from an in-breed dynasty that was showing signs of instability.

    Remember the Chinese Elite gave these items up in return for not being held responsible for the torture and killing of Western diplomats, soldiers, and businessmen.

    By removing these 'treasures' from the personal grasp of a small cadre of rulers, the Western Powers made them available to the people of the world, including ordinary Chinese.

    In closing if these so called Chinese officials can come to our museums, we should have the right to go to their factories and research centers to see what they have recently stolen from the West.

  24. This bemused and farcical account does a great disservice to readers who rely on the New York Times for objective and insightful journalism.

    The Summer Palace was not just a single palace, but rather, an 860-acre estate which served as one of the world's foremost repositories of art and architecture. In terms of its cultural and administrative importance, the Summer Palace stood in contrast to the "Winter Palace," which is a famous structure shown in many postcards today depicting Beijing tourist sites.

    The Summer Palace was plundered, five hundred of its unarmed custodians were massacred or driven out, and its buildings were burned to the ground during the Second Opium War by French and English troops on the orders of the eighth Earl of Elgin (ironically, the son of the seventh Lord Elgin infamous for relieving the Parthenon of its marble friezes).

    Lord Elgin's orders were issued when the Chinese Imperium refused to allow the sale of narcotics in their land. To provide an imperfect fictional modern analogy, imagine if a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (and not the U.S.) were the world's foremost superpower, and then imagine if Afghan forces marched a "world coalition" into Vatican City, stole or destroyed all of the art and relics there, murdered the clergy, and then dropped an atomic bomb on the city because the Holy See refused to allow Taliban drug cartels to traffic heroin in the streets of Vatican City. Just as we would be appalled and outraged by such an occurrence for generations to come, the citizens of China understandably remain appalled and outraged by the destruction of the Summer Palace.

    The tone of the article conveys little sympathy with the Chinese perspective of things. It dismissively characterizes the delegation's work as "a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company," recounts the delegation's activities in a most diminutive way (e.g., "The Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied, smiled for a group photo, and drove away."), and gives great weight to reports of ulterior motives in the delegation's mission.

    As the NYT's own columnist Thomas Friedman admonishes, we live in a globalized economy where an accurate understanding of other cultural perspectives is imperative to professional success and successful economic engagement. By portraying China in such a buffoonish way on a matter of great importance, and by downplaying the very human yearning of the Chinese people for redress of a serious crime committed against their nation and their forefathers, this article performs a great disservice upon its readers and falls far short of the high standards of journalism which the paper professes.

  25. ...And, like every other superpower, the majority of Chinese citizens will be convinced that they, unlike all previous superpowers, are benevolent, just, and rational in their actions. But just like every other, they will in reality be driven by convenient political narratives that absolve them of responsibility for their own errors, and pin blame for all ills on the "other."

  26. Which is more traumatic (or monstrous, courtesy Prof Liu Kang), the “treasure hunting team” firing off questions, or the plundering of one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial residences? Do people ever wonder why Asia has so few UNESCO sites relative to, say, Europe (check UNESCO website)? The burning down of imperial residences and robbing of relics, and actions of the like, wouldn't help, would they? Yes, it took 3,000 troops 3 days to burn down the palace. What a spectacle, isn't it?

  27. Interesting story.

    Of course, for any territory as big as China, and with a history of some 5000 years plus behind it, it's always a question of opening Pandora's box. Tibet comes to mind but that's only a recent example.

    Nevertheless, the sharing of research and historical perspective, if good will and some sensibility is maintained, could be invaluable.

  28. Pretty hypocritical of China (or should I say the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship) to go looking for what they called "looted" artefacts, when they consciously destroyed thousands of Tibetan monasteries full of ancient religious relics, and countless parts of their own cultural heritage in the "Great Leap Forward" when the Red Brigades burned great pyres of cultural artefacts.

  29. When does this sort of thing stop?

    Are we beginning to witness international bullying from China? As they grow more powerful, what forms of pressure will old adversaries endure from an evermore willfull, arrogant, increasingly greedy military autocracy?

    Will People from India, Tibet, Viet Nam, Korea, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Manchuria, Mongolia or Russia be able to scour Chinese museums for things the Chinese have stolen from their cultures in the past?


  30. They certainly have played up the repatriation of relics in recent months, and there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that this tour was as motivated by politics as any genuine hope of reclaiming stolen history. I also realize that the Summer Palace museum is in need of a modern overhaul, and that chances are most of the looted items are in private collections today (though, I'd bet that they are far more successful in the UK and France than the US, being that those countries were the actual perpetrators of the looting). However, despite these problems, I think this is overall a good quest.

    For one thing, it's on principle. Blame for the roots of the Opium Wars aside, the looting of the Summer Palace was a barbaric act and led to the theft of great portions of Chinese history. Yes, this issue can distract from the loss of multitudes of other historic sites and relics, but simply because other bad things have happened does not make it any less tragic. Also, if this finds success, it could lead to a greater movement for protection, but that's another story.

    As far as issues of museum adequacy go, lacking facilities (at one location) now does not mean that the search should be scrapped. For one thing, renovating the Summer Palace Museum is not far fetched, and China certainly has the money to do so. For another, there are NUMEROUS nice, modern museums across China, and I'm sure more than a couple would want to host pieces (not to mention that museums here are free to the public).

    As far as lots of filming with little identification thus far is not necessairly a sign that the effort is in vain, as the article seems to suggest. The thing is, the US was not one of the looting nations. It makes sense that there wouldn't be many overtly looted items in our museums, because they did not come directly here, and people who looted them (who would be the most likely to bequeath them to a museum) probably did not live here. Most of any looted pieces would probably be in private collections here. So why bother with our museums in the first place? Because the US is a wealthy country and a strong art trade often accompanies that, and thus there is a chance, and where there's a chance there needs to be a look. With that in mind, do you really expect a team largely made up of non-experts(or experts for that matter) to find much when they have at most 2 days to look through everything in a collection? Only items that had a clear trail back to the looting would be found, and chances are most of those things are in Europe. So, it's not really that much of an indictment to say they took lots of film and left without making any claims. Chances are, they're going to give said film to their experts back in China to pour over and check against inventories/descriptions of the Summer Palace, and then go back to check out items they flag. This probably won't happen for months, and could net some items.

    I think it makes sense to do the US first though. While there is a lower chance of finding anything in our museums, it allows a good practice run for European collections that are much more likely to have the relics. They get a chance to hone exactly how they will catalog different items in a place where a mistake means a lower probability missing something.

    One side note- To clarify the thermos comment by Mr. Liu, Chinese thermoses are different from US ones. In the US, a thermos is generally made of plastic and/or plastic and is not easily broken. In China, thermoses are usually very large (holding, say, a half gallon on average), are made of glass and plastic (there is a glass vaccum tube with chrome on the inside, and plastic on the outside), and are extremely easy to break. Knock it over once, and it's done. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that one would break in their offices-- I work for an American company in a building that was built 3 years ago, and if I left a thermos sitting around it would probably get broken. While he might have been talking about the poor quality of the museum facilities, I think this quote might be taken a bit out of context for the benefit of Western audiences.

  31. Yeah, right. Try going into a building in China with cameras and confronting the staff. You'll be hustled out of the country on the next plane or jailed.

  32. Why doesn't China go loot England and France and see what they say. We'd never hear the end of it. Heck, most western museums are filled with stuff looted from other countries anyway; I wonder what would happen if it were the other way around.

  33. If any items are found to have been looted, they should be returned to the legitimate government of China. That government is located in Teipei.

  34. During the cultural Revolution, Mao and his gang encouraged the Red Guards to destroy the old and to establish a new order. It is part of the continuous power struggle inside the communist party, projected onto the larger Chinese landscape. As a result many ancient relics, art objects, buildings and treasured collections were destroyed or scattered at the hands of ignorant young rascals.

    When one visits famous museums in the West and admires the plundered treasures from China one cannot help but think that perhaps it was a stroke of good luck that these items were stolen but now protected and preserved for future generations to see, so that they can appreciate the artistic wonders produced by the ancient eyes and hands.

    The display of the fruits of grand thefts is a lesson on how human will forever fight and pilfer. Although such plunders are morally contemptible, sentimental attachment to time past is not a very healthy or desirable emotion. Life is full of paradoxes and surprises.

  35. Well, I've been collecting Ming Dynasty porcelain for thirty years. Maybe when China takes over the world I'll have trade goods.

  36. The last quote in the article says it all.

  37. The Chinese interviewed in this article were justing being polite. It doesn't surprise me though nyt would steal it and turn it around against the Chinese.

  38. I wonder why the writer referred to the efforts of China to reclaim what is rightfully theirs as "nosy?"

  39. As rightly proud descendants of a long history, I suspect most Chinese would want their artifacts, if found in public or private collections, to stay put until the actual Chinese museum was capable of honouring them properly (not in unheated barracks).

    This is nothing more than a small diversionary tactic by the Chinese government to push back in one of the few unassailable tools in its arsenal.

    Push the Chinese on Melanonin, slave prisons, copyrights, and then, the plume of smoke they produce. It is a devils game, producing sub-standard goods for $1 stores and for Walmart, while polluting their own wells, rivers, and fields.

    Chinese were sent into the waters to clear the algae bloom so that rowers could row before the last summer games. They shut down factories so that Beijings air cleared a little, and engage in cloud-seeding so rain falls...........

    This search for 'cultural artifacts' is merely a distraction from the problems they create today.

  40. This is more like fishing expedition motivated by political intent to arouse patriotism inside China;perhaps it also is a best way to divert domestic tension as the result of increasing social unrest and ethnic tension in Tibet and Xinjiang.Very little they can recover from lost treasure held in the private hands but they will try.

  41. "Like an adolescent who took too many steroids", indeed. So we're like an aged hooker struggling beneath that Chinese teenager who will come away from the encounter second best. It's not so much what they did or would find, for the Chinese it's counting coup to enter our institutions and commandeer the spoils of imperialism.

  42. Any objects that were "looted" from the Chinese palace are available and protected today because they were NOT in China during the horrid Cultural Revolution. I hope the Chinese leadership stresses that point with the public. Mao sought to destroy all cultural and artistic works.

  43. Major museums around the world--not just in the West--can expect to see more such "tours" and highly-publicized demands for repatriation. Korean governments making demands to the Japanese; Indonesians to the Dutch; and so on and so forth.

    The tours make for great nationalistic media content for the homeland audiences. This will not decline.

  44. I'm of two minds. On the one hand there is certainly legitimate claim to objects of national treasure that were pillfered.

    On the other hand, I spent time in Cairo, Egypt and visited the Egyptian Museum a number of times. Its cases are overcrowded with objects. Many of them are not labeled. The cases are also full of dust and generally poorly kept. Objects from other countries might just be preserved better where there is better funding (such reasoning, of course, perhaps keeps First World countries from helping fund proper homes for objects in their native lands, i.e., if they have no money for upkeep, we get to keep the neat stuff).

    I wonder, also, how much value there is in citizens of other countries being able to see and enjoy a country's ancient objects? Does that breed interest in China or Egyt or Greece? Does it in turn create tourism to those places? better understanding across cultures? wider study of its art and culture?

  45. Good for them. The U.S needs to chill. What would the U.S do if they knew there were items from the White House that were stolen and displayed by other countries for revenue?

  46. It was a well constructed piece of journalism did a good job of stoking the requisite sense of indignation towards the Chinese that's remarkably fashionable and consistent at the NY Times. It's a little less ham-fisted than the Chinese propaganda machine, but take away the sophistry and subtlety of our better bred brothers and sisters at the NY times and you've got the same alarmist narrative.

  47. China has every right to reclaim anything it finds in art museums that the Chinese can prove was looted. I'm American and, for this at least, I don't think the Chinese owe anyone an apology. Poisoned toothpaste and toxic sheet rock, however, are entirely different matters.

  48. They want these objects back now but if they'd been in China during the Cultural Revolution they would probably have been destroyed. The Chinese ought to be thanking the museums around the world for taking care of them. As for the old saw about 'looting', there was a war on and, as they say, to the victors go the spoils.

  49. China has proven itself to be an expert at bootlegging all manner of American products, I suggest that they remake their antiquities.
    Perhaps they can enter a new creative phase and rebuild as opposed to destroy.

  50. Great! Glad to restore looted articles. So when are the Chinese planning to restore all the things they have stolen over the last couple of thousand years? When will they restore freedom to Tibet? Etc.? Dizzy with anticipation to learn when the Middle Kingdom will act in the same way it says others should.

  51. Statute of limitations anyone? China, which has made a jihad against art expression, canonly be looking for the money involved. That isn't the point of art. It should stay where it is, where it is honored and protected. Did anyone see "The Red Violin?" Good lesson there.

  52. A remarkably condescending slant, which concludes by quoting someone as saying, Oh, well our hall at the Yuanmingyuan is so shabby, I guess it's best that the West keep these relics after all.

    If a story in a Chinese paper took a similar slant concerning America, everyone in the USA would laugh at it as obvious propaganda.

  53. The problem with looting a Chinese palace is that you feel like looting another one just an hour or two later...

  54. The argument that Chinese don't have "good enough" museum sounds a lot like the argument/rational the British used when they refused to return artifacts from the Acropolis to Greece. Now the Greek built the world class Acropolis Museum the artifacts are still in Britain.

  55. Did they check out the M.M.A.'s "secret" storage sites under the West Side Highway? The Chinese quest may be burlesqued in this article but museum acquisitions whether directly or indirectly benefited from rampaging Western Imperialism. Whether Napoleanic or Duveenesque it matter little. Tom P.F.Hoving's Euphronios kratering is but a footnote on the amassing of Art Capital. Now if only someone could devise a system of Art Tranches, the itchy yens of the "Connoisseurs" might be assuaged

  56. Will the Chinese pay western museums for keeping items safe during the period when China itself might well have destroyed them? One suspects not. And how many of the items in museums were less looted than they were purchased? Will China be returning artifacts and treasures it 'liberated' over the centuries, or will wars China won be considered acceptable methods of acquisition while those it lost are not? The Chinese love to moan and bleat about their 'humiliation' and dive for what they feel the West owes them. They never admit their own attrocities, provide reparations to those they wronged, or let go of the concept of 'greater China' which the Han believe gives them the right to do pretty much anything they want to anyone they want throughout east Asia.

    Turning to some of the barely literate commentary on this article, those who wish to plead the case of the Indians so poorly treated by Britain would be wise to reflect on the writings of Gandhi and Nehru. Without the British Raj there wouldn't be an India; there never was one before. Now there is a great country with a degree of democracy and a judicial system the envy of Asia. Yes, it's a horribly corrupt place - as it was before the British, though less so under their aegis - but it is a dynamic place which will hopefully lead Asia one day. Britain did not plunder India; "plunder" suggests nothing was given in return, and it also suggests there were not a massive percentage of Indians either willing or uncaring to be 'subject'. Without Indian assent, no one could have controlled India, and when it was lost, Britain no longer did. But it left a positive legacy (sullied often by India). India exists within the framework created by Britain, without which it would collapse. India loves to forget it owes a debt to Britain, seeing only a debt owed it by others. Humiliation has long been, and remans, Asia's main currency.

  57. Kick them out of here, china would never allow a foreign nation to film whatever relics they have stolen throughout the ages. Who gave them permission to do this anyway?

  58. Britian and France et al are nothing less than liars, cheats, and theives - petty criminals looting and plundering then scurrying away with swag. A Nation of Cowards is a word that perfectly describes the French and English. Stealing is immoral and those that steal vulgar, despicable, and pathetic excuses for human beings. Britian and France's enslavement of others throughout history to steal natural resources and labor is the black plague of humanitarianism. And anyone else in possession of things stolen should simply give them back - now.

  59. Chairman Mao and his red guards destroyed more chinese art than the British or French ever dreamed of.

    Thank heavens for Western collectors, who saved much of what we know and love in Chinese art

    Jay Fahey, Manhattan

    If my family member destroyed the property of my family, that's my family's problem, but if you break into my house and take my family's belongings, you are a criminal and it is justice to demand it back.

  60. Why not cooperte with the chinese government and jointly devise a plan to uncover and resolve any issue with the "looted" chinese treasuries if there is one. There is a lot of history and cultural significance in these objects. And China probably is the best to find out the historical significance and value in the chinese and the world history.

  61. I was a student in Beijing in the early 1980s. We would go out to the Old Summer Palace ruins and picnic. There was no particular interest by the authorities at that time in restoration of anything. All sorts of ruins were scattered about. If the Chinese recover anything from the US, I hope it is accompanied by a thank you for saving treasures the Chinese would themselves have destroyed. It is a bit ironic that a people who whole heartedly supported the destruction of their past are so desperate to find bits and pieces of it now.

    In fairness, it is not only China. I was shocked early in the year when Ghandi's glasses were auctioned to Indian businessman for nearly 2 million dollars. One can only imagine what the Mahatma would have thought of this with so many pressing needs at home.

  62. Politics aside - we are all fortunate that the artifacts in question remain safe in private collections or museums. Mao would have had them smashed to pieces in a heartbeat. What happens in the end is still unknown. I doubt private collectors will return anything. All recognized and reputable museums will most likely return items if there is a truely safe and secure place to store or display them.

  63. China's history and art treasures amount to a world heritage as well. China has countless art treasures at home, though most people will certainly never be able to visit those in person. Might China's national interests be better served to leave these pieces on display in reputable museums across the world? That is some of the best apolitical P.R. they have going for them. Storming through these same museums with video cameras (and evidently finding no "loot") seems to create nothing but ill-will locally and perhaps stoke nationalist fire back home.

  64. Are they buying? We as a nation are quite broke and China is overflowing with cash. Perhaps the U.S. could have a "yard sale", sell off our valuable art treasures, and pay down the national debt?

  65. China should consider other topics as priority: pollution, famine etc etc.

  66. Love the comments (all very strange.) Una problema. Well, if there are care and custody issues in China then it is best that the stuff remains where it for now. Napoleon ransacked Italygathering masterpieces for the Louvre -- and much was lost on both trips over the Alps to and from Paris.

    Which National Treasure should be given back? (Which country should have the paster casts of the Elgin marbles?)

    Where was the Times when the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold off their plaster casts of all sorts of medieval and Renaissance objects, which in some cases would have been the best records of various portals given the devastation caused by war and pollution over the 100 years or so since the casts were made!! Furthermore, the casts could have been painted so as to give a "truer" impression of how sculpture was originally meant to be seen including Greek and Roman sculpture-- now white, once polychromed.)

    Lots of things about care and custody need to be discussed, including the use of "charitable" (to whom) art donations often used to limit income tax.

  67. After Chinas two cultural holocausts, that of Tibet and that of its own culture under Mao, they are looking like hypocrites. But that is the innate nature of totalitarian regimes. Where it nor for the massive evacuation of Chinas art to Taiwan and pieces in western collections there would be even less left for the world to marvel at after Mao thugs burnt most of its cultural heritage.
    I wish Germanys riches had not been destroyed in the firestorms that followed allied bombing campaigns which the Nazis brought upon. In Europe most learned their lesson after fascism and communism. I look forward to the day when mainland China sees the painful truth of its recent history. It will be all the richer for it, but that is not something you can video and feed to the masses. That is a process in each enlightened citizens mind.

  68. As a New Yorker, I would prefer that the Chinese items remain where they are, in the Met. Let them send us a nasty Fortune Cookie!

  69. How many Tibetan monasteries were razed? Hundreds if not thousands. With some accommodating 30.000 ( thirty thousand ) monks .
    How many Tibetan libraries were burnt?
    How many millions of hand written holy books and manuscripts were burnt?
    How many exquisite holy Buddah statues made by some of Asia's greatest artisans were destroyed?
    How many religious artifacts burnt?
    Unbelievable treasures 'lost'. How many monks were murdered?
    How many nuns were raped and murdered?
    How about letting in a Tibetan fact finding mission with a camera team?
    How about refusing these Chinese "cultural investigators" visas.
    I feel nauseous after reading this article.

  70. When these people rule the world people will be PINING for the days of Pax Americana...

  71. There is something faintly uncomfortable, if not downright patronising (adolescent on steroids?), about the tone of this article. Makes amusing reading of course, but hardly a sensitive treatment of an issue which aroused similar passions in other modern representatives of ancient civilisations (eg. Greece, Egypt and Italy).

  72. As a Taiwanese-American I rarely find myself in a position to defend China, but I'm completely taken aback by these comments that suggest that if these imperialist powers hadn't taken these artifacts they would have been destroyed in the cultural revolution. Haven't we evolved past the idea of 'the white man's burden' where we need Westerners to step in and save developing countries from themselves? And just as commenters have pointed out the hypocrisy of Tibet-occupying China's mission, their self-serving arguments seem to forget that these Western nations didn't just pilfer a few items and then leave things as they were - they did their share of destruction too.

  73. Give me a break. Long memories for art that would have been lost and forgotten. Chinese need to recognize this art was taken at a different time. Let it go and share it with the world that finds value in it.

  74. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s destroyed far more artifacts than any Western looters in the colonial era, by many orders of magnitude.

    If any Chinese are angry at the theft and destruction of their cultural heritage, they should take their anger out on the Gang of four

  75. This is a pretty typical and shaming tactic from China - which strikes me as unoriginal, predictive, and tasteless of the "People's Republic." Just like any other prepubescent child, China can't stand to bear their shame and humiliation they received in the past - over 100 years ago, I might add - and is simply trying to get back some retribution from those "Westerners."

    If a U.S. delegate were sent to China to "collect items," the government would be so quick to cry humiliation, the U.S.'s arm would be twisted into a public apology as soon as that art delegation were to arrive.

    The Chinese, despite some people who call them as polite and respectful, are quite opposite. This "delegation," which is more like a government-propagated spying mission should reveal the type of secretive and misleading character of the Chinese government (and what they're teaching their people).

  76. Calling that the western powers protected the Chinese arts from Mao's vandalization is incorrect. Mao is just one of the Chinese emperors who destroyed a great deal of cultural heritages from previous sovereignties. However, those emperors, Mao included, have always preserved a large, carefully selected collection of masterpieces as national treasures. Before Mao, the best portion of that collection had been stored in the Forbidden City and the two largest imperial gardens, one of which was looted and burned down by the western invaders.

    Citing China's record on Tibet and Uygher is irrelevant. How about the cultural heritages destroyed in the genocide of native Americans, enslavement of Africans, colonization of the poor countries, and 'just war' on other nations, which also quite often got conveniently forgotten by the westerners?

  77. When the current Chinese government offers to pay the defaulted bonds of the empire and governments prior to the Communist takeover of 1949 and return or pay for all the seized foreign real estate in Shanghai, then the museums can consider their laughable claims to repatriate all the art.
    When the current Chinese government offers to rebuild the Christian churches and Tibetan monasteries it has wrecked and torn down in search of its utopian classless atheistic nirvana, then the museums can consider their laughable claims.

  78. The British Museum doesn't want to give up Rosetta Stone, either.The problem is there is no possible ethical reason these treasures shouldn't be returned.

  79. A few things here:

    1) Imagine if a few Americans showed up in the Forbidden City with video cameras demanding answers to "difficult" questions. How would that go?

    2) Yes, donate the art back to China, but when they have created a culture to appreciate it. The average Chinese person doesn't give a flying fox about art, and neither does the government unless it brings unity and people coming together to fight about getting it back. All of the state run museums here are poorly organized and maintained and do nothing to convince you that they have the slightest interest in art.

    3) Chinese citizens should be asking THEIR government to return their art from the cultural revolution, return stolen money, return personal property, and to not lock this period out of history.

    It's really sad when you see how many bright and eager young people there are here and how they've been forced to study, memorize and by all means, not create, not think critically (about anything, not just political issues). So, before the citizens jump on the nationalistic propaganda bandwangon, think a bit about art, what it means in China, and how one is inspired to create it.

  80. Returning Chinese,Greek,Indian,Mesopotamian treasures to the respective countries is undoubtedly the right thing to do as these things were looted. They should be returned just as Jewish possessions were restored after Nazis loot.Only condition that can possibly be imposed that the returned things should be guaranteed a safe place and modern museums which have adequate climate controlled facilities.

    But there is also no doubt that current Chinese expedition has more to do ultranationalist Chinese policies than real love of history. They should be asked to sign a treaty that Mao's cultural revolution like thing will never occur again.

  81. This just follows the trend we've seen of Chinese buyers scouring the globe for everything from antiquities to contemporary Chinese art, looking to build up private collections and in some cases museums. It's a natural extension of the growing number of wealthy individuals -- the emerging New Chinese Collector -- in China looking to go beyond luxury cars and houses to objects with both cultural and investment value.

  82. This is a pretty typical and shaming tactic from China - which strikes me as unoriginal, predictive, and tasteless of the "People's Republic." Just like any other prepubescent child, China can't stand to bear their shame and humiliation they received in the past - over 100 years ago, I might add - and is simply trying to get back some retribution from those "Westerners."

    If a U.S. delegate were sent to China to "collect items," the government would be so quick to cry humiliation, the U.S.'s arm would be twisted into a public apology as soon as that art delegation were to arrive.

    The Chinese, despite some people who call them as polite and respectful, are quite opposite. This "delegation," which is more like a government-propagated spying mission should reveal the type of secretive and misleading character of the Chinese government (and what they're teaching their people).

  83. Chinese art belongs in China. What's the problem, folks?

  84. If any ancient art is worth seeing, they ought to be free. I suggest all countries should open their museums free of charge to everyone. These are treasures of human civilizations belong to all human beings. Taking care of them should be considered an honor and a previlege.

  85. TO #4,
    What's your point? Are you trying to justify war crime. Culture revolutionary should not be used as an argument to justify looting treasuring from China. It can be argued either way. I would argue if there is no such event in 1800s, history will be changed, China might be the only superpower in the world now. But what is the point. War crime is war crime. This also applies to indians massacre.

  86. you china-haters and -lovers don't see the forest for the trees. many Asian (and western) countries' governments will sponsor trips for "officials" and accompanying media who will write glowing stories. if they can find a "purpose" for this trip, so much the better. the average low-paid official of Chinese "journalist" can 1. rarely, if ever, afford an extensive trip to NY and the East Coast and, 2. cannot qualify for a tourist visa (the US does not give individual tourist visas to mainland chinese). Asian tourists by and large are ONLY interested in visiting NY (and to some degree Washington, etc. on the east coast) and California.

    The obvious evidence that this was a "subsidized vacation" was (aside from the fact that the folks on the trip were unqualified to make serious judgments about art) this line in the story "One stop, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., was scrapped after the group realized the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast."

    Yes, they found out the museum wasn't in NY (and near the Disney Store) so they didn't want to go. Asian tourists have no interest in Kansas City. Also, what kind of serious academic mission wouldn't know where Kansas City is?

  87. This is a good start work for China to search for its rightful artifacts long lost from 19th century Imperialists hands. This delegation’s work may sound somewhat awkward by NYT reporter’s account, but still it’s a good start. If the majority of these artifacts were not originally looted by the European/Japanese hands, one wonders how many Chinese ordinary people in 19th century would be able to strike a legally bind sale with foreigners during those Imperialist incursion days? Let’s also hope China’s work will somewhat help other countries such as Egypt and Peru to reclaim their rightful artifacts still been stubbornly held in Germany and New Haven, CT.

  88. Now that China seems to be emerging from more than 60 years of a totalitarian regime that intentionally destroyed its own cultural heritage, it seeks to "re-stock the shelves" with goods stolen away and fortunately preserved against destruction. Sort of like a shop owner who burns his goods in a fit of rage, then goes after shoplifters to return a few items.

    Or maybe there is a longer, deeper agenda to have the remnants of two thousand years of history returned so that the next set of purges can eliminate it, too. Giving back China's stolen cultural heritage may be a step toward a greater global community or it could be the completion of the Red Guard's efforts.

    This international foray would be more convincing if the Chinese government was working to repatriate stolen cultural heritage kept inside China and to preserve and re-acquire the artifacts now in private Chinese hands. But that effort would be too costly in money and influence. Easier to characterize the marauding barbarians as the culprits, a cheap entertainment for the masses back home.

    I don't begrudge the Chinese people their wish to preserve and re-capture their heritage. I just think the Chinese people don't have much to do with this reclamation effort. I think it is more likely a government-sponsored, media-facilitated circus designed to fool the Chinese people into believing their government cares about this issue so they will quiet down. The motive for this expedition seems to me to be no more about cultural heritage than was the original looting of the Summer Palace.

  89. Stupid Chinese. You don't understand how this world works. You only get things back the way they were taken - with blood or money. Since war is out of the question, you just have to pay us to buy them back.

  90. From whom, and how, did the Qing despots acquire their treasures? The long chain of ownership is doubtless drenched with the blood of many.

  91. Chinese art belongs in China. What's the problem, folks?

  92. After WWII, Jews were rather successful to find and claim art stolen, and allegedly stolen by National Socialists in Germany and Austria.
    The Chinese should have the same opportunity to claim art allegedly stolen by Americans. So should Germany who lost much of their art and treasures to Russia and America - a combined seizure probably amounting to the largest heist in modern history.

  93. Will Beijing be opening their doors for Tibetans to re-claim looted items Chinese took from their country?

  94. I say that China's century of humiliation is still extant.
    Its record of gross human rights abuses is shameful and they do not deserve a single thing. Rather than quaking as they tour our museums...we should grandly refuse them entrance , or better yet, gladly show them the door. These charlatans, during their so called "cultural revolution" destroyed they own patrimony,they burned their books and scrolls, they smashed their sculptures and works of art into smithereens. What a joke...

  95. With respect to the quality of Chinese museums, several cities now have fabulous new or upgraded art museums: Shanghai, Beijing and Xian are three that I know of. And while it's true that much of China's folk art heritage was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution tragedy, many heritage sites and antiquities did survive. China is now learning to respect and revere its vast cultural legacy. Paternalistic "protection" is not a reasonable excuse for keeping stolen art.

  96. Americans should be alarmed by this episode. Not because a few Chinese came here looking for stolen artifacts, but HOW and WHY the Chinese did this. What is their REAL motivation?

    China has morphed from a communist country into a fascist dictatorship -- all on our dime. Red flags (no pun intended) should be popping up all over the place when people with agendas and camera crews are allowed, 1) to come to the US without scrutiny of their intentions (Hello? Homeland Security?) 2) and are allowed to barge into public institutions and "interrogate" officials on camera.

    Will these people now go back to China with footage that they will massage, through editing, that will convey the message that America is hoarding China's great treasures in an effort to fuel anti-American sentiments in that country?

    Anti-American sentiment by the Chinese is hardly something Americans, who are in deep debt to China, should pooh-pooh as "native rumblings" by some third-world country and dismiss. China owns us and, if they wanted to, they can call our debt at any time. Literally, China, "owns us." We cannot AFFORD anti-American sentiment by the Chinese.

    Also, one has to ask how these people were able to get visas to come to the US in the first place? Did the State Department know they were coming on this fishing expedition? Can anyone see China allowing an American film crew to go willy-nilly around China, asking the most inane of questions -- without a government escort? No way. Yet, a Chinese film crew can wander anywhere they wish in the US, harassing museum officials?

    Americans should stop treating China as some kind of poor, slightly backward cousin. They aren't poor -- and they sure as hell ain't backward. They are moving far more forward than we are these days. We should NEVER forget that this behemoth is a fascist dictatorship with delusions of racial superiority and superiority. History has shown us that behemoths don't stay "tame" for long. Americans need to end their blasé attitude toward China, and start looking at them as a real threat to our security and be very worried about episodes like this in the future.

  97. It's not surprising that the Chinese have tried to emulate the Greeks, Italians and Egyptians. The problem for the Chinese is that the press has finally started to ask hard questions about the merits of such confrontational repatriation efforts, particularly where the party making the demand hardly has "clean hands."

    The press should also focus on the part our own State Department and archaeological community have played in egging on such efforts. Though import restrictions on cultural goods are pitched to the public as a way to curb looting, more attention needs to be given to the State Department's use of such restrictions as a "quid pro quo" for other diplomatic aims as well as the conflict of interest the archaeological community has in arguing the case for import restrictions on behalf of the foreign governments that host their digs.


    Peter Tompa

  98. A story in today's New York Times:
    "China’s government censors have taken fresh aim at the Internet, rolling out new measures that limit ordinary citizens’ ability to set up personal Web sites and to view hundreds of other Web sites offering films, video games and other forms of entertainment."

    When the Chinese get their own house in order...maybe then they can think about raiding ours.

    When they replace the vast amount of Tibetan and Uighur...etc.etc.etc. art that they have pillaged and destroyed...then maybe they'll have a leg to stand on. Until then...we should laugh at them
    and do everything we can to shame them and never consider their need to "save face". Shame on China.

  99. Without silver, gold looted from indigeneous americans, europe did not have the money to expand business to africa and asia that ended up with colonial rule and many subsequent loots. China is now trying to turn the clock backward. But how will it justify the destruction caused by its own leaders, policies in the name of 'cultural revolution'?

    Who knows, how many of these 'loots' would have been destroyed by Mao's army had they not been looted in the first place ! So, China should thanks West for these 'loots'.

    Its all politics by Chinese Govt who once destroyed its own culture, treasures. Now trying to hoodwink people in the name of getting them back from the west. Another ultra nationalist polemic.

  100. This looks like a power push for free goods, and no repay for what they have done in the past or present to persons or counties. We have many from China here and they have the right to have these things to see here, and it would be wrong to just give China all and then kiss there feet.

  101. Poster #57
    While you accuse others of being "barely literate" it looks like you are barely able to hide your neo-colonial mindset. "Without the British Raj there wouldn't be an India; there never was one before" : Please take a history book and lookup map of Indian under Ashoka/Akbar/Aurangzeb, it covered almost all of what is now India. India has been a single cultural entity since Indus Valley times and has been a single political entity when there was a strong center.

    "Britain did not plunder India; "plunder" suggests nothing was given in return". Are you serious? If you take $100 from someone and give back 2 cents is not a plunder? India was from Indus Valley times either No 1 or No 2 economy in the world till British Raj having 20-25% share of world GDP. By the time they left India was severely impoverished with less than 1% of world's GDP due to 'benign' British rule. What was the point of British rule over its colonies if not plunder.

    This is not to deny that constitutional framework of India had great British influence, but it was due to enthusiastic embrace of democratic principles that India is only major developing country to never face a military rule.

    Also Mr. Hyper Literate would do well to read a bit more on judiciary of India which he calls "envy of Asia". It takes 17 years on an average to decide a case. By the time a decision is reached most of the petitioners are long dead. In fact judicial performance is one of the biggest bottlenecks in India's progress.

    Colonialism and Slavery were the biggest crimes against humanity period.

  102. #98 Nowak- Correct, its political than cultural.

  103. Jay Fahey of Manhattan wrote "Chairman Mao and his red guards destroyed more Chinese art than the British or French ever dreamed of. Thank heavens for Western collectors, who saved much of what we know and love in Chinese art."
    I am sorry, but that's the same as saying "It's better off that some one had robbed IndyMac before went bankrupt and lost all that money anyway."

  104. I am all in favor of China's rights for their looted art works.

    China has produced some of the most incredible arts works in he world. At this time some of the very best works are at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The improving relations between China and Taiwan now mean that many Chinese tourists can see the extent of the brilliance of Chinese civilization.

    It is fortunate, in hind sight that this museum protected this priceless collection from the Cultural Revolution's war on the "olds".

    The British and other colonial powers are responsible for one of the world's greatest Cultural genocides. On October 18, 1860, the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin, in retaliation for the torture and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners (including two British envoys and a journalist for The Times), ordered the destruction of the Summer Palace that housed the most important art collection in all of Asia. It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, taking three days to burn. The Palace was plundered and burned twice.

    Are the Chinese a little upset. They are still fuming and rightly so.

  105. #14 G Lim: 'And what of others whose treasures China has plundered over the millennia?'
    What treasures?

  106. all countries loot, but not all countries rescue, restore, and freely display art.

  107. The price of liberation from Japan. They should pay us back for that little war we fought for them! A few art objects! small price to pay...

  108. "so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945" It's past time for another "century of humiliation" (at least) for the Chinese. We've let them eat our lunch for too long without complaint (and with the actual collaboration of our government).

    While they are doing their "search" the Chinese should also look at where these artifacts were looted from by the Chinese Emporers, themselves. Looting did not start in 1860.

  109. It would appear the delegation is on a very nice little 'junket' tour at Beijing's expense. I think Native-American casinos should be strongly encouraged to consider financing a similar operation.

  110. "Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are"

    You think robbing was an easy job? want them back? How dare you!

  111. An article like this is only making everything worse.

    As a Chinese American who has no sympathy for the current Chinese (supposedly) Communist Party regime, I just want to point out that this article is probably doing everything the CCP is hoping the American journalists would do. To the few millions of educated Chinese who can read this article, it would mostly likely confirm the suspicion that the CCP have tried to implant in them: Westerners really don't give a damn about them. All that they say about human rights and humanitarianism and all those various kinds of freedoms they promise are just schemes to undermine the precious social stability that China has finally secured, so that China cannot ever be a threat to the US. This is the narrative you've just confirmed.

    Or do you care about the poor oppressed Chinese really? Sometimes I can't help but feel a bit paranoid myself, seeing all these unanimous voices of all these brilliant NYT writers who're supposed to have the critical thinking skills. Yes Chinese textbooks fanning nationalist flames with the imperialistic past are extremely disturbing, and I personally consider it to be very very wrong. But that does not mean that this imperialistic past is not real, that it does not have its historical consequences. If you read books by American historians such as James L. Hevia at University of Chicago, you will see that the atrocities committed by Western powers in China (Yes it was atrocious by anybody's standard, if you just read any honest history books) were DELIBERATELY performed so that the Qing government and the Chinese people would recognize how powerless they were, and all they could do was to subdue to the gunboats and cannons of the invaders. In other words, humiliation WAS the objective of these actions, WAS what your former American politicians tried to achieve. And these actions sure delivered, and the Chinese WERE, as your ancestors hoped, humiliated. Why do you think this humiliation would go away by itself now?

    So what good does this article serves? I think the Americans don't need anymore convincing about how wicked the Chinese government is. The CCP government is not going to change their well thought out political tactics because your criticism. And then there are the educated Chinese, who might have some sympathy for the ideologies you campaign and who might feel some skepticism about what's been blasted to their ears everyday since they were 3, who would read your article. What do you suppose they'd see in this? They see an arrogant American who brush aside the injuries committed by his own government with a light wave of hand, and who tramples all over the little sense of justice they still dare to harbor.

    Imagine this: If your neighbor's kids have grown up with their grandparents telling them how your family had once robbed their home and raped their grandmother and stabbed their parents, and they've showed them the holes on the walls and the knife wounds on the bodies, do you think it would help if you come in one day and say "your grandparents are exaggerating, and stop acting like adolescent who took too many steroids" and "by the way, you will have a so much more dignified life now, if you just trust what I say now, and I'm telling you all this with no ulterior motives whatsoever. Why do you not trust me?!!"

    I'm sorry for the language used here. I'd really like to convey how frustrated I am, seeing the widening cultural misunderstanding -- and even hatred -- created by articles like this over the years, and I presume this is not what you intended? I'm trying my best to believe that you journalists are among the last idealists that are left, and if you are, I think you have to be first capable of standing in the shoes of the people you are trying to help. Yes the Chinese have a government that tries to brainwash them, but that does not mean their feelings are in anyway less real than yours, and you can just get them out of the matrix with one pill, or one slap on the face really. It also does not mean you don't have your own share of cultural and historical prejudice to blind you. Please think about the consequence of your own words.

  112. Museums and private collectors have a moral obligation to return objects taken illegally or immorally from their country of origin, be they items from China or the Elgin marbles.

  113. I wouldn't give them back a used chopstick until they quit stealing intellectual property on a massive scale. It is possible to download and watch the latest full length movies, TV shows,etc from the Chinese internet, all given away without royalites by state internet sites.

  114. Theft is theft. How the original rightful owner of the item would and have treated their own property have no bearing on considering legality of ownership. Otherwise anyone could make arguements about how everything you own could be better treated or be put to better use by someone else.

  115. Why are the Chinese so eager to get their hands on these relics so quickly? They already own most of our country with our debt, just wait another few decades and they'll be able to take them back legally when our money becomes worthless.