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UPDATED: January 11, 2010 NO. 2 JANUARY 14, 2010
Treasures Abroad

Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, handscroll, Northern Song Dynasty, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON)

Nowadays, more and more Chinese people are able to afford travel overseas. During their journeys, museums are a must-see, where they not only appreciate foreign art, but also find numerous Chinese cultural relics that they have never seen in China. What has astonished them very often is that so many Chinese cultural relics are well collected in these foreign museums.

Beijing Review reporters Chen Wen and Zan Jifang recently interviewed staff at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Harvard Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, to get a general picture what has happened to China's cultural relics overseas. Here are excerpts from the interviews:

When did your museum start to collect Chinese art and relics? What are the major sources of this collection?

Elinor Pearlstein, Art Institute of Chicago:

The department itself was founded in 1922. The earliest pieces acquired, some of them, were collected by one woman, Ms. Calhoun, whose husband used to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. They lived right outside the Forbidden City between 1909 and 1913. We have some of her letters here, which show she seemed to have purchased textiles from people who came to the U.S. Embassy to sell them. We also have a painting that was given to her by Empress Dowager Longyu (1868-1913) of the Qing Dynasty. Many Chicagoans had direct relationships with China, and she was the earliest.

Robert D. Mowry, Harvard Art Museum:

The first Chinese works of art were acquired in 1919 at the behest of Hervey Wetzel, a Harvard graduate who, by terms of his will, left portions of his collection to Harvard and also to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The works of art in the Wetzel collection were culturally and chronologically diverse, ranging from Italian Renaissance paintings, Chinese bronze ritual vessels to Korean ceramics and many others.

Kelly Gifford, Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston:

The MFA received its first gift of Chinese art in 1878 and organized its first exhibition of Chinese art in 1894. Over the course of the 20th century, the collection grew with gifts from major benefactors in this area including Ernest Fenollosa, Denman Waldo Ross and Okakura Kakuzo. Recent gifts include the Jewell Collection, with 118 works of Qing Dynasty Court art from the 19th century donated to the department in 1991 by Mrs T. Edson Jewell, granddaughter of the first U.S. ambassador to China. The collection was bestowed upon her grandparents, Mr and Mrs Edwin Hurd Conger, by the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). The collection includes paintings, prints, ceramics, textiles, calligraphy, photographs and metalwork.

How many pieces of Chinese relics does your museum have right now? How many of them are permanent and how many are for one-time exhibition only?

Elinor Pearlstein:

There are approximately 3,500 Chinese art pieces in our museum. Most of them are ceramics, around 2,000 pieces, maybe more. We have around 900 pieces of jade, most of which were collected by one American person, who died in 1935. We have 70 ancient bronzes, most of which were here in Chicago before World War II. Many of the pieces were given to the museum after the owners died. We have around 150 paintings. Of decorative art, together we have about 100 pieces, including furniture, lacquer and silver objects.

Most of the pieces were donated. We also have bought objects, which donors paid for. All the pieces are in the permanent collection of the museum.

Robert D. Mowry:

We have 6,466 Chinese art pieces. That includes 1,715 ceramics (including 1,275 vessels, 259 collected shards and 222 ceramic sculptures/tomb figurines), 856 jades of the Neolithic Age and Shang (1600-1046 B.C.), Zhou (11th century-771 B.C.), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, 1,127 paintings and calligraphy pieces (both traditional and modern/contemporary), 920 printed materials (including printed books and scrolls and numerous so-called New Year's prints) and 1,848 ancient ritual bronzes, Buddhist sculptures, rhinoceros horn carvings, lacquers, textiles and others.

Virtually all of the pieces listed above are part of the permanent collection. They are not loans for temporary exhibition or study.

Kelly Gifford:

The MFA has approximately 8,000 objects in the Chinese collection, including paintings, sculptures, textiles, ceramics, metalwork and decorative arts.

The majority of works are part of the museum's collection.

What genres are the major collections of Chinese art and relics in your museum? What is the most precious part of your collection of Chinese relics?

Elinor Pearlstein:

The largest collection is ceramics. We have a very strong collection of Tang (618-907) ceramics, including burial materials. And we also have a large collection of Song ceramics. Most of the ceramic pieces in later periods are in storage. We have a very good collection of the Qing Dynasty, most are from the Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735) period. As we have very limited space to show them, we rotate them from period to period.

The jade pieces are ancient. We have pieces from Neolithic and prehistoric periods and Shang, Zhou and Han (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) dynasties.

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