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  • Hamsini Hariharan

How China is reclaiming its artworks

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on December 16, 2019 and can be accessed here.

Last month, Turkey returned a mural from the Tang Dynasty and pottery figure possibly from the Sui Dynasty back to China. At the handover ceremony, the Turkish Minister for Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy remarked, “Just like Turkey, the cultural assets are owned by the state in People's Republic of China, therefore I am more than happy to return these works which were displaced in unlawful ways. Each work is meaningful and beautiful in its own homeland, where it belongs. This is our respect for the essence of cultural assets, our philosophy of approach.

The return of illegal art seems like a relative non-issue on the international sphere. About 140 states have signed and ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property. However, this plays out in interesting ways that go beyond action thrillers about white-collar theft. Increasingly, art and cultural heritage has become easily politicised simply because they are important for national sentiment.

A few years ago, Shashi Tharoor demanded that Britain pays India reparations because Britain owes its colonies a moral debt. The repatriation of Chinese art serves a similar objective. During the 16th and 17thcenturies, “sinomania” and the fascination with all things Chinese peaked in Europe. As they did in India, foreign powers also managed to smuggle many pieces of art from China to Europe where they commanded (as they still do) a high price.

Consider how in 2009, Pierre Berge (the partner of Yves Saint Laurent) had put up two bronze heads for auction at Christie’s. The bronze heads -- part of a set of twelve statues which made up a water fountain-- had been taken from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing which had been burned, ransacked and looted by the British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. China had opposed the auction: 81 lawyers had written to Christie’s, petitions were organized and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage condemned it.

Finally, at the auction, Cai Mingchao, an advisor to the National Treasures Fund won the two figureheads with a bid 31.49 million euros. A week later though, he refused to pay the sum saying that his bid was only a “patriotic” move. Every Chinese would have liked to do like this at that moment, and I'm honored to have the chance to make the bid," he reportedly said at a press conference.The matter finally came to rest in 2013, when the owner of Christie’s auction house returned the artifacts back to China.

Thousands (possibly millions) of objects were taken from the Old Summer Palace and found on auction houses, museums and private collections of people around the world. For China, repatriation of Chinese art has become a low-level foreign policy issue. The Old Summer Palace has become a symbol of China’s century of humiliation: helpless and at the mercy of foreign invaders who stripped the country of its treasures, its culture and its pride. As China is ascending on the world stage, it is using this narrative to strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party for showing it a way out and reclaiming its place on the world stage. It has become an easy issue of Chinese nationalism to show that China rightfully owns these artworks and is now able to care for them. By trying to repatriate the art, China is telling the world that it will no longer take issues of Chinese culture lying down. As China rises, its national consciousness has only become more vocal. Brands that want to work in the mainland need to be cognizant of that.

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