More of China’s Art Treasures Belong At Home

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Hangzhou’s main art museum, known as the Zhejiang Provincial Museum,  sits on a nicer plot of land than any museum I’ve ever been to, including the Louvre in Paris and National Gallery in London. It’s on a small bend in the road that circles the city’s famous Xi Hu, or West Lake. From the museum entrance, you look out across the lake at a particularly lovely spot, with a small steep island ahead and the steeper mountains beyond. The museum itself is modern, in a classically-Chinese format, with pavilions reached by gabled walkways, set among small streams teeming with koi. 

The setting is perfect, but sadly, the museum’s contents are anything but. One pavilion offers a bunch of world “art treasures” that looked like they were bought for ten bucks each at airport souvenir stores . A low point: a set of mounted bull horns from Indiana. Another beautiful pavilion had the paintings and personal effects of a Hangzhou-born 20th century artist who had studied painting in France in the early part of the century, and then did some so-so pastiches of Chinese subject matter, incorporating elements of Cezanne, Picasso, Monet among others. 

A pavilion said to hold “historical relics” was locked and empty. Finally, you get to the two buildings with Chinese porcelains. My hopes remained high, since, after all, Hangzhou is the greatest of all China’s cultural cities, capital of the Southern Song dynasty, which produced (for my money) the finest porcelains the world has ever seen, including Jun, Ding, Guan, Yaozhou, Longguan, Qingbai, Cizhou, Ge styles. (The bowl above is an example of Song Dynasty Guan porcelain.) I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of Song porcelains over the years, in museums in the West, and have handled a fair number at auctions in London and New York.  Many were produced close to Hangzhou. 

My not-unrealistic expectation, therefore,  was that the Hangzhou museum would have both more and better Song porcelains than I’d ever seen. So sure was I of this that I invited four CFC colleagues to come along with me, after we finished a client meeting. 

Bad choice. The museum, though in a gorgeous setting on a lake fabled for its beauty and historical meaning, is mainly a sad reminder that many of China’s most important art treasures are held outside the country, in museums and private collections. The porcelains in the Hangzhou museum look like (and most probably are) the leftovers after all the best pieces had been spirited away. The celadons have little sparkle or translucence, and have a gimpy shape.  There are no examples of the Jun and Guan styles most prized by connoisseurs. The one Yaozhou bowl is clumsily carved. Song burial urns are among the least ornate and less precisely-molded I’ve ever seen. 

The two pavilions with Song porcelains are a colossal disappointment, not just because the art works are generally of middling quality. Instead, a museum that should be a encapsulation of the greatness of Song culture is, instead, a subtle reminder of how much has been lost or pillaged.  Thousands of Song wares are in collections, public and private, around the world. At least six times a year, Sothebys and Christies hold auctions in London, New York and Hong Kong that include dozens of  works of Song porcelain far better than any on display in the Hangzhou museum. Museums from Tokyo to Paris to Washington D.C. are loaded with great works from the Song. 

But, here in Hangzhou, there are only cast-offs. Among the millions of Chinese who come to Hangzhou each year as tourists,  most will likely leave with no concrete appreciation of the paramount artistic achievements of the Song culture that sprang from here.  Instead, many must end up wondering, after visiting the museum, if there’s really anything much to be proud of from that period. One of the two pavilions for Song porcelain is almost entirely made up of shards of the most common sort of household pottery from the Song era, not the exquisite pieces crafted for emperors and scholars. 

The effect is a little like visiting Tiffany, expecting to ogle the diamonds, and finding it filled instead with broomsticks and knitting needles. 

The Chinese government, quite publicly, has been seeking to block the sale at auction of art objects looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing. It’s a small step toward the goal of one day recovering more of China’s lost artistic patrimony. I’d personally like to see the Chinese government more active, not just blocking the sale of items stolen long ago, but also buying some of the more important Chinese antiques that come on the market.

It’s easy to understand why the Chinese government has so far refused to do so, since they don’t want to let others profit from what it sees as wrongful expropriation. But, as a lesser of evils, I’d prefer them to bring back some of the more beautiful objects, and add them to the collections of important national museums like the one in Hangzhou. That way, at least, more Chinese would have opportunities to admire up close the crowning achievements of Chinese culture. 

It’s a good side project for CIC, China’s sovereign wealth fund, and China’s State Pension Fund. Along with trying to secure the country’s financial future, these two organizations could also invest, on a comparably small scale, to secure more of the country’s incomparable artistic heritage. 

The museum visit left me feeling sad, but also resolved to do my own small part. I’m fortunate to own a few Chinese porcelains and jade pieces from the Qing and Ming dynasties. The jade was left to me by my grandfather, who started collecting in the 1950s. I’d like to donate the art works to a Chinese museum when I die, if not sooner.  While nowhere near as important as the items regularly at auction at Sothebys and Christies, they are decent examples of the output of some of China’s finest artists and artisans. 

Art is a shared inheritance. But, more of China’s treasures should be seen where they were crafted. 

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