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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Parthenon Marbles inspire kitsch cladding on Olympic dormitories following "clandestine" nocturnal meeting at British Museum

The Parthenon Marbles, generally referred to as the 'Elgin Marbles' by those proud of Britain's role in the willful desecration of world heritage sites, are to make an appearance during the 2012 Olympic Games in London in the form of kitsch pre-cast concrete cladding on a dormitory block for athletes (left).

The British Museum, which normally devotes its energies to convincing the world of how the Marbles no longer have any architectural significance, has licensed the sculptures to the architectural firm of Niall McLaughlin Associates for use on an athletes' village block for the 2012 London Olympics.

Architect Niall McLaughlin told The Architectural Review, that his decision to 'quote' the Marbles on the athletes' block came after "researching the history and significance of the screen in architecture through the writings of Gottfried Semper and Karl Bötticher."

In the event, the decision to use the Marbles was prompted by "a clandestine conversation with senior curator Ian Jenkins late one night in the British Museum." Why clandestine?

"The last thing I want is for people to think it is to do with representing the origins of the Olympics," said MacLaughlin. Okay. Got it.

God forbid that the Parthenon Marbles in London might be permitted to refer in any way to their Greek origins. After all, they are now what McLaughlin himself aptly describes as "deracinated". (Deracinated, for those without a dictionary to hand, originates from the late 16th century French term 'déraciner' — to tear up by the roots.)

The most interesting and ironic aspect of this news is the British Museum's willingness to make the Marbles available for digital replication for architectural purposes.

As I pointed out in my paper on the Universal Museum, ever since Lord Elgin instructed his goons to tear up the Parthenon frieze by its roots in the early nineteenth century, a central plank of the British Museum's propaganda has been to efface the architectural history of the Marbles:

"As late as 1928, three leading classical archaeologists, John Beazley, Donald Robertson and Bernard Ashmole, had pronounced the Parthenon Marbles as primarily works of art rather than as architectural elements – 'Their former decorative function as architectural ornaments, and their present educational use as illustrations of mythical and historical events in ancient Greece, are by comparison accidental and trivial interests.'”
(Quoted in Jenkins, Ian, Archaeologists and Aesthetes, British Museum Press, 1992, p225.)

In case you hadn't noticed, that's the same Ian Jenkins who approved the translation of the Marbles into MDF replicas and thereafter into pre-cast concrete panels.

Early photographs of the romantically-named 'Athletes Village Block N15' (Byron eat your heart out) suggests that their use in Stratford will harmonise perfectly with the British Museum's philistine display in Bloomsbury, which jumbles the Panathenaic frieze in such a way as to make it utterly meaningless.

The Parthenon Marbles belong in Athens. Send them back.