Tomb raiders pilfer Chinese history; Art gallery hosts controversial exhibit of archeological artifacts from China, most of which have been stolen

Grania Litwin
Times Colonist

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It’s called Treasures Unearthed: Chinese Archeological Artifacts, but the exhibition now on display at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria could also have been called Tomb Raiders because it features almost 500 objects stolen from Chinese tombs.

Finely tooled, sometimes gilded or inlaid with turquoise, the works are fascinating to look at and read about, especially as many were created long before the birth of Christ. The whole exhibition dates from the 16th century BC to the 10th century AD and most pieces are bronze.

Objects range from elaborate ceremonial daggers and saddle regalia to cooking braziers and food steamers, to bronze mat weights used by nomadic tribesmen and carved in the shape of wild cats attacking bovines.

The show fills two rooms and about two-thirds of the pieces are on loan from Toronto industrialist, philanthropist, ardent art collector and museum benefactor Joey Tannenbaum. (He was on holiday and couldn’t be reached for comment.) The exhibition is augmented by many pieces from the gallery’s permanent collection, mostly gifts from the Menzies family, who were missionaries in China in the 1920s and 1930s.

These pieces, too, were all pilfered years ago from ancient tombs.

“The show is very controversial,” admitted Asian curator Barry Till. “The best art in China comes from the tombs and all these objects were stolen by thieves. Of course this kind of thing happened all over the world …

“There are more than 400,000 historical sites in China, most are tombs, and there is no way to guard them all. In recent years the market for such objects has become very lucrative and there are dealers, scholars, museums and collectors around the world vying for treasures which often belonged to old Russian collectors who roamed over central Asia.

“The tombs are still being looted at a tremendous rate, and the fact that these discoveries are very sought-after, and much appreciated by the living, is why so many want to go to China now and see these treasures.”

He said the Chinese almost have more artifacts than they know what to do with — more than anywhere in the world. “Every time they excavate a foundation, build a railway or dig a well, they come upon more treasures.” While building a road to the airport in Xi’an recently, contractors uncovered hundreds of earthenware warriors, dogs, oxen, chickens and other carved supplies for a dead person’s journey to the next world.

“The objects are fascinating because they show how the ancients lived, how they prepared for the afterlife, and their mystical ideas of the universe,” said Till as he pointed out mirrors decorated with animals of the zodiac, spears and axle caps from chariots inlaid with silver, crossbow mechanisms, belt buckles decorated with gazelles, belt hooks covered in gold or inlaid with turquoise, and jade plugs to put in corpses’ orifices — as well as little pigs to hold in their hands.

The Tannenbaums intend to give this entire collection to the gallery, and Till said it is likely valued at between $4 million and $7 million. “Maybe more. Chinese art has increased since 2000 by about 40 per cent thanks to the Chinese middle class, which is buying these things back now.”

The Tannenbaums are extraordinary philanthropists, Till added.

“They have given a huge amount to the National Gallery, a huge Asian and Byzantine collection to the Royal Ontario Museum, a huge collection to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and another to the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

“They also gave us the horse carriage in our Asian Lounge — and now this intended gift. It’s extraordinary.”

The Tannenbaums are dedicated collectors who “really know their stuff” and have bought many large collections. “They have a tremendous love of art and patronage.”

Also opening in January is another show made possible by the Tannenbaums, that comes from the Hamilton gallery and features a group of 18 outstanding European paintings.