Wrongful Auction of Stolen Chinese Cannon

The cannon pictured was stolen from the Chinese by Webb Hayes, son of president Rutherford B. Hayes, after the notorious Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 fomented by foreign armies. Other Chinese property Hayes stole is displayed at the Hayes presidential museum in Cleveland and at West Point’s museum. The cannon will soon go on sale at auction in New York, says the New York Times, at the Cowan Auction house.

All those involved in sustaining the original theft should be ashamed, including the current “owner” and the auction house.  The property should be returned to China. The current “owner” of the cannon paid $150,000 for it last year, fixed it up, and now proposes to fetch three to four times that. 

It seems offensive, yet also common, for Westerners to deny that they hold stolen goods that rightfully should be returned to China.  On the rare occasions when Westerners have returned such property, Chinese respond with an outpouring of gratitude.

The first such example appears to have occurred about two decades ago, thanks to senior executives of American International Group (AIG).  In 1991, a senior executive of AIG’s Asian life insurance business heard that a Paris gallery came into possession of ten imposing bronze window panels. Initial research suggested these exquisite objects—each towering ten feet and emblazoned with iconic serpents and dragons—may have been part of the Baoyun Pavilion at the Summer Palace in Beijing, looted by foreign armies during the Boxer Rebellion.

The executive reported this to AIG’s chief executive, Hank Greenberg, who was also chairman of the Starr Foundation, created by his predecessor, the legendary insurance pioneer, Corneilus Vander Starr, who had opened American insurance operations in China in 1919.  Greenberg, who had been running AIG’s insurance operations in China since 1975, and had many friends in the country,  instantly appreciated the significance of this discovery. He knew that the Pavilion had been closed ever since, as the loss of those windows amounted to a loss of face for the Chinese people.

Experts confirmed that the window panels were indeed those missing from the Pavilion. The treasured national assets had been stolen by a French army officer amid the period’s pillaging. The Starr Foundation bought the iconic window frames from the French gallery for $510,000 and arranged for repatriation into China.

A national rededication service followed in December 1993, broadcast throughout the country on television. Millions of grateful Chinese watched tearfully during the ceremony. It was the first time that any foreign organization had returned missing national Chinese artifacts to the homeland. It was the right thing to do.

It would be the right thing to do with this cannon as well, along with the items in the Hayes presidential museum that the president’s son stole, the items at West Point, and anything else Westerners stole from the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.

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10 Responses

  1. Ken Arromdee says:

    China isn’t a democracy. In other words, the current government has stolen the entire country. They certainly got into power by more directly stealing and killing.

    Is there some point in transferring stolen property from one thief to another, just because the second thief calls itself the government of China?

  2. Agreed. And there’s some precedent here: art being returned to Jews that was confiscated by the Nazis before and during WWII, etc. The following from Smithsonian magazine (November 2011) is a nice summary of recent history on this score:

    “For decades, U.S. museums, and private collectors who donated objects to them, had been purchasing antiquities at auction or from dealers. With objects of unclear provenance, or ownership history, an attitude of don’t tell, don’t ask prevailed: sellers offered scant, dubious or even false information. Museums and other buyers commonly accepted that information at face value, more concerned that the objects were authentic than how they came to market. Foreign cultural officials occasionally pressed claims that various vases, sculptures and frescoes in U.S. museum showcases had been looted—stripped from ancient ruins and taken out of archaeological context—and smuggled out of their countries, in violation of both foreign patrimony laws and an international accord that sought to end illicit trafficking in cultural property. Museums resisted those claims, demanding evidence that the contested artifacts had indeed been spirited away.

    The evidence, when it was produced, brought about an unprecedented wave of repatriations—not only by the Getty, but also by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum, as well as from antiquities dealers and collectors.

    Within the past five years, museums have returned to the Italian and Greek governments more than 100 artifacts worth nearly $1 billion. The Met gave back 21 pieces, including its celebrated Euphronios krater, a Greek vessel dating to about 515 B.C., which the museum had acquired in 1972 for a then-record $1 million. The Boston MFA returned 13 objects, including a statue of Sabina, wife of the second-century A.D. Roman emperor Hadrian. In no case did a museum acknowledge wrongdoing on its part, and, in a historic shift, the Italian government agreed to make long-term loans of other antiquities to take the place of those that had been repatriated.”

    Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Goddess-Goes-Home.html#ixzz1nLqFIuod

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    I agree, the cannon should be returned the once China vacates Tibet… or perhaps not even then. The government of China has as little claim to being the owner of anything that was ever in China as any other despotic regime. It’s like claiming that somebody who’s holding me hostage in my own home is entitled to the return of property stolen from m great grandfather.

    Once China has a democratic government, we might consider it.

  4. AYY says:

    To follow up on Patrick’s comments about looted antiques, see Chasing Aphrodite by Felch and Frammolino, which is sharply critical of the Getty’s practices.

  5. az says:

    Better to write about the Elgin Marbles or, since it is a cannon and the “victim” is a dictatorship, perhaps it would be more apt to focus on all of the souvenirs our troops stole from the Germans and Japanese.

  6. Ken Rhodes says:

    I am puzzled by the self-righteous pronouncements regarding the Chinese government. Why is that relevant? China is a *country* irrespective of whether we approve of the government, and it seems to me that property stolen from a country ought to be returned to the country. Conflating our opinions of their government with that issue is, IMO, merely a semantic sleight-of-hand to avoid the issue of stolen property.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Greetings from Shanghai. When I was in Singapore a few weeks ago, I attended a performance of a dance work-in-progress inspired by some related cultural property issues. Around the same time as the bronze doors in the AIG story were stolen from the Summer Palace [颐和园 Yíhéyuán], some animal heads representing signs of the Chinese Zodiac were stolen from the Old Summer Palace [圆明园 Yuánmíngyuán]. Two of the heads showed up in the estate of Yves Saint Laurent. (Five are still missing, BTW.) As I understood it from a talk preceding the performance, YSL’s surviving partner Pierre Bergé offered to return them to China in exchange for freedom for Tibet, the return of the Dalai Lama and one or two other huge human rights improvements; the offer was turned down. The heads appeared to have been sold to an anonymous bidder in 2009; but soon thereafter, the bidder revealed himself to be a Chinese national and adviser to the PRC agency recovering national treasures. He refused to make good on the auction price.

    Singapore has a majority Chinese ethnicity, and pursues close ties with the PRC. In their talks after the performance, both the choreographer and composer characterized China as “the victim” in the YSL affair. No one in the audience of about 40 people took issue with that. So that may suggest how the matter is perceived in Greater China, at least.

    In my view, a complicating factor is that the Chinese Communist Party-led government itself contributed to the destruction of the Summer Palace — and many other national treasures — during the Cultural Revolution. One could argue that even if the nation is a victim, the current government isn’t necessarily the best custodian of the objects. Nonetheless, rather than debating the legalities endlessly, I do agree that it would be a nice gesture for the seller or buyer to repatriate such objects, including the cannon. Since we could wind up with another layer of complexity and stalemate if the cannon auction were to be won by the same type of bidder as won the heads, it would be a lot simpler if the seller just forgot the auction and found a way to get some face-enhancing publicity for returning the thing.

    And now that I think of it, how about returning it to Taiwan? — after all, the PRC asserts that to be part of China, and the National Museum in Taipei already has lots of national treasures in safekeeping.

  8. Brett Bellmore says:

    Yeah, and my hypothetical hostage taker controls my household, regardless of whether we approve of it. Doesn’t mean he’s entitled to my grandfather’s lawn mower.

  9. dylan ciappa says:

    do u carry any novelty energy powder?

  10. joe shanghai says:

    Brett Bellmore , I like your thinking…

    In this time of economic hardship… we should target and loot the country are deem “not democratic” .. 🙂 and of course you alone, should complied the list..
    of which countries are right for the picking…

    let me start, Congo.. lets go in and take all diamond..
    Iraq… ( oh wait,, we are doing that, as we speak)