A jade carving made in the Qing Dynasty (left) and a rare bronze water vessel known as Tiger Ying are believed to have been looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860. (Photo/CHINA DAILY)
Ownership, legality questions swirl around treasures looted from Old Summer Palace
More than 150 years after French and British troops sacked Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860, relics that may have been taken from the site are showing up at foreign auction houses, prompting an outcry from China.
Many other items thought to have been taken from the palace, which is also known as Yuanmingyuan, are housed in museums and private collections around the world.
In recent years, Beijing has called for the return of such items and for them to be withdrawn from sale when listed by auction houses.
Questions of ownership and the legality of selling items that may have been looted arose again recently when a rare bronze vessel was put up for sale at an auction house in the English city of Canterbury, Kent, in April.
The provenance of the item can be traced to a Royal Marines captain, and, through documents found, it has been suggested the relic was taken during the looting of the palace.
The auction had Chinese authorities crying foul and Chinese social media users venting their anger, with the nation's State Administration of Cultural Heritage issuing a statement in which it said it opposed the sale of illegally held cultural relics.
It said in the statement it "strongly opposes and condemns Canterbury Auction Galleries' insistence on auctioning the suspected illegally obtained cultural artifact despite solemn protest from China and conducting commercial hype in the name of the wartime looting of cultural relics".
The administration added that it would not support participation in the auction by Chinese individuals or institutions, and it called on potential bidders to boycott the sale. The destruction of the Old Summer Palace took place during the Second Opium War (1856-60). The buildings were first looted and then set ablaze under the direct orders of Lord Elgin, Britain's high commissioner to China.
The looting and destruction were carried out in response to what the British claimed was the torture and, in some cases, deaths of several dozen British prisoners.
French author Victor Hugo wrote about the destruction: "We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism. Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England."
While it is not known how many items survived the looting of the Yuanmingyuan, in 2009, the palace's then-director, Chen Mingjie, claimed that some 1.5 million objects were looted and that many are now scattered around the world.
By 2016, the China Cultural Relics Academy estimated that 10 million Chinese items were overseas, including those in private collections.
In the UK, items thought to have been looted are on display in several military museums, according to Louise Tythacott's paper Trophies of War: Representing Summer Palace, Loot in Military Museums in the UK.
Tythacott, a lecturer at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and an anthropologist and museum curator, said, "Yuanmingyuan objects on display in military museums may be conceptualized as trophies of war, a mode of collection fundamentally characterized by power."
She added, "Yuanmingyuan loot, reconfigured as trophies, thus represents a regiment's pride in a victorious campaign."
Among the collections that include items from the palace are the Royal Engineers Museum's in Chatham, which Tythacott said holds the largest collection of material from the Old Summer Palace.