“The China Collectors” by Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

A rt has been central to China’s long history and to her core spiritual and intellectual values. However, much of that heritage has either been destroyed or it is now kept outside the country. Most of the onslaught has long been self-inflicted, deliberately aimed at China’s own cultural legacy, from the Tang dynasty’s iconoclastic reaction against Buddhism around the year 845 that led to widespread destruction of temples and statuary, to the devastating Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), or the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The almost complete obliteration of its most original and distinctive architecture reveals the scale of the destruction: Chinese traditional architecture that flourished between the 8th and the 15th centuries—timber post-and-lintel structures supporting a pitched roof with overhanging eaves— had virtually disappeared by the 1930s, when the great architectural historian Liang Sicheng set upon researching the handful of surviving wooden monuments. Today, still fewer stand. Those wanting to know how those magnificent temples looked will have to go to Japan, where Chinese influence spread and stood.

The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures, Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (St. Martin’s Press, March 2015)
The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures, Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (St. Martin’s Press, March 2015)

Aside from the Palace Museum in Taipei, a staggering number of the finest Chinese artworks—paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, bronzes, etc.—are kept in museums across the United States. The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures reveals how these American collections were made and why. Authors Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac are seasoned journalists with both a knowledge of Asian art and expertise on the protection of ancient relics. They blend the best reportage with insights into China today.

Yet the more substantial and by far the most fascinating part of the book deals with the scramble for Chinese art that took place between the end of the 19th century and the onset of the Mao era, augmented by biographical sketches of the collectors, curators and dealers, protagonists of the story.

Was the result of this scramble a rescue or a loss? The subject is framed by present-day controversies, trying to make sense of the Chinese government’s contradictory attitudes and policies. China’s “cultural offensive”—in the authors’ terms, seeking the return of “illegitimately” taken treasures or prohibiting the export of certain items—aims to redress past grievances dating from the “century of humiliation” (1840-1949), a set of righteous, intractable positions in keeping with much of contemporary Chinese foreign policy.. Two historical events in particular still reverberate: the looting of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by an Anglo-French army in 1860, and the plunder of the Forbidden City by the international force that quelled the Boxer rebellion in 1900. Treasures from those collections continue to resurface at auctions and museum exhibitions sparking conflicts.

This perceived victimization and mistrust of foreigners contrast with a lack of responsibility at home, where the destruction continues unabated. Heritage preservation is neglected, erased by the rapid pace of urbanization and large infrastructure works or by reckless restoration.

This perceived victimization and mistrust of foreigners contrast with a lack of responsibility at home.

In the United States, however, a peaceful and more constructive engagement, had set the foundation for the irresistible attraction that the ancient Chinese civilization would exert over the educated elites of this newly emerging power. According to the authors, by the late 19th century, that sense of openness and curiosity crystallized in one single figure, Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908). Fenollosa—hailing from Salem and Harvard—became the founding father of Oriental studies and was instrumental in the rise of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA, Boston), long the finest of its kind. He influenced the first generation of scholars of Asian art and literature, from Lafcadio Hearn to Ezra Pound.

The authors emphasize the seminal role of Harvard, whose graduates dominated the field of Asian art for decades. Bonds between mentors and disciples soon bore fruit. Harvard archeologist Langdon Warner hovers over a long period where many valuable antiquities were removed from China. He was a pupil of Kakuzo Okakura, the disciple of Fenollosa, second curator of Asian art at the MFA and author of the celebrated The Book of Tea (1906).

Warner cut the figure of a hero in the “Wild East”. In 1924, representing Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Warner went to the remote caves of Dunhuang, an oasis at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, a key entrepôt in the Silk Road and a vibrant center of Buddhist art and culture for centuries. Although Warner had been traveling extensively in China for two decades, this archeological discovery had come to light already in 1907, when Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot and PK Kozlov, took with them a treasure trove of manuscripts, now in the British Museum and the Hermitage, which they bought from a self-appointed caretaker, Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu. Warner removed several frescoes and a magnificent stone Bodhisattva, now preserved at Harvard’s Arthur M Sackler Museum.

These are stories of remorse and justification. China was notoriously weak at the time, and the sense of decomposition was overwhelming, the result of poverty, the breakdown of authority and, also, “modernization”. In the midst of impending risk, wanton destruction, open and clandestine commerce, those men took momentous decisions. The prolific scholar Berthold Laufer, who had amassed a vast ethnographic collection for the New York’s Museum of Natural History wrote presciently in 1912:


The chances are now upset, the romance of China has died away with the end of the chivalrous Manchu dynasty. The products of home industries will give way to the clatter of machinery and foreign imports. In this rapid period of transition and radicalism, most of the things displayed in our collections now belong to the past and have become, so to speak, antiquities all of a sudden overnight.


The chapter “Lament for Longmen” chronicles another sad episode. Longmen, in today’s Henan province, was a major repository of Buddhist art. Discovered by Okakura in 1893, it was soon a magnet for archeological expeditions, Charles Lang Freer’s among others, whose vast collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. But as the authors point out in a sentence that encapsulates much of China’s predicament, it was the photographs published by French Sinologist Édouard Chavannes in 1909 in his monumental work, Mission archéologique dans la Chine septentrionale, that “provided the impetus for the wholesale looting of the site between 1911 and 1949.”

Used as a catalogue, collectors pointed out the pieces they wanted, and dealers would commission stonecutters to perform the job. The most notorious dealer in Longmen sculpture was CT Loo, “the most important dealer of Chinese art in the twentieth century”, definitely the one who dealt with works of art with the greatest heritage value. Longmen’s broken sculptures and stone reliefs are now scattered in museums around the world.

It was in the 1930s, a golden age of collecting, that saw Harvard graduates Laurence Sickman, working for the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, and Alan Priest, for the Metropolitan. Sickman’s friends George Kates, and Harold Acton, the aesthete, embody a fascinating, free-wheeling era. George Kates gets a deservingly moving portrait. Beyond the collecting, his work for the museums, and his pioneering book on Ming furniture, Kates, who loved the Chinese people deeply and lived as one of them, wrote one of the most poignant memoirs of Beijing in the 1930s, The Years That Were Fat (1952), a paean to a world forever vanished.

Titans of collecting, JP Morgan—who in hindsight stands out more for what he missed than what he got—and the Rockefeller family—several generations of which displayed an attachment to Asia and judicious collecting—stand in a class of their own. None of them collected art as investment but were drawn to it by a genuine love of art and learning, and to share it with others. The Rockefellers’ choice collection can be enjoyed partially at the New York City’s Asia Society, one of many philanthropic enterprises they brought to life.

Some will be familiar with Sherman Lee, the author of the most popular book on Asian art. A longtime director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which houses one of the finest Chinese collections, Lee is remarked as the first Asian art curator who did not attend Harvard. He became a beacon of scholarship, instrumental to others, from John Rockefeller III to dealer Robert H Ellsworth, the “King of Ming”, a tastemaker in so many fields of Chinese art. Finally, the Metropolitan gets deserved coverage: it was the latest in the run for Chinese art, but now boasts one of the most outstanding collections of Asian art in the world.


Filled with anecdote and written with brio, The China Collectors points to serious underlying concerns. This is the story of a cultural tragedy; but as records prove, and for the most part, the artworks were purchased legally and invoiced. The impression is that they otherwise would have been destroyed or lost. Furthermore, this legacy to the world has not only been preserved but nurtured. Those adventurous pathfinders, scholar-pioneers and affluent donors, paved the way for the growing appreciation of Chinese art, and for the art departments at American universities, which continue to give fruits of scholarship shared with an international audience.

Juan José Morales is a long-term resident in Hong Kong. He has a Master of International and Public Affairs from the University of Hong Kong and has also studied international relations at Peking University. His writing has appeared in Caixin, China Daily, The Diplomat and The Jakarta Globe.