Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The China Collectors: America's Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art TreasuresThe China Collectors: America's Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures by Karl E. Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thoroughly fascinating book about Chinese art -- and more about men and women from America and Europe who collected it (sometimes through looting, especially in the early times) and brought it to collections and museums in the United States. We read about the adventurers, diplomats, curators and others who entered China a century ago and discovered Chinese art that was not recognized in the West. Famous collectors, like J.P. Morgan, Charles Lang Freer and the Rockefellers play important roles, as do Chinese counterparts and suppliers of art like C.T. Loo. We learn about how major museums in Boston, New York, Kansas City, Washington, DC, and elsewhere -- developed what now constitute major collections of Chinese and other Asian art. We also learn about how the Freer Gallery, and later its pair the Sackler Gallery, on the National Mall came about (one of the most entertaining chapters focuses on the life of Arthur M. Sackler). All of this placed in an historical context: the two World Wars, the Great Depression, and naturally Mao's revolution in China all greatly influenced the collecting of Chinese art by Westerners and the commercial and cultural exchanges more broadly.

I took a long time reading this book. Partly, it was because I didn't always find the appropriate time to focus on the book (instead, I found myself reading a number of novels in between). Partly it was because I often felt the need to look up particular cultural periods or art works in a reference volume (for this I used Michael Sullivan's gorgeous The Arts of China, Fourth Edition). But partly it was also that some of the book was a bit tedious. In particular, I found the early parts of the book on the Boston Brahmins and Harvard in the late-1800s a tad unnecessarily detailed. Overall, I found that the book was somewhat uneven.

To me the most interesting parts were in the second half and concerned events after WWII. We were there introduced to a number of colorful characters, such as Sackler, Baron Eduard von der Heydt and the former president of the Olympic Committee Avery Brundage. The book ends with current events in China, which has experienced an enormous art boom in recent years and the construction of more than 3,800 museums in the 2010s alone. Chinese art auction houses have also become equal to the Sotheby's and Christie's. In China's new Gilded Age, nouveau riche collectors pay millions of dollars for art, while forgery thrives. The China Poly Group Corporation, owned by the People's Liberation Army, is the largest of the auction houses and aims to become number one in the world. The book ends with a cautiously optimistic note about fruitful exchanges between China and the US, and the development of art in China (including through such mega stars as Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiaogang), while noting that the Communist Party in China still wants to control how history is written and understood.

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